The case for an Indigenous Party in Canada

Hill Times September 7, 2020

What about a new political structure to bring about change—the Indigenous Party?

The federal Māori Party in New Zealand started in 2004 on the spectrum close to the Greens, plus Indigenous rights. It hit a recent peak of influence in 2011-2015 when it partnered with the National Party (centre-right) to complete over 50 treaty settlements, and protection of shore and seabed environments. It started Whānua Ora, in which health and social funding was carved out of federal budgets to go directly to Māori providers—similar to B.C.’s First Nations Health Authority. All great steps.

But Māori wellbeing did not improve as expected (based on the myth that things change within one political term), and people started to grumble. Both Māori and Pākehā (white New Zealanders) were not satisfied, although for very different reasons. The Māori Party was wiped out in the last election. Some say internal party discipline contributed, or perhaps the partnership with the National Party was strained. The Māori Party has always played in the opposition aisles, so the internal debate was whether to partner with the Nationals or the Labour Party (centre-left), with tones similar to some discussions here in Canada: which party will do the work to support Indigenous peoples’ wellbeing?

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to sit with the party’s co-founder Tariana Turia to receive a post-graduate lecture on politics, identity and influence. Ms. Turia advocated for involvement in national politics to make the systems changes through practical partnerships. We discussed how to maintain Indigenous identity in a system that historically criminalized Indigeneity, the opportunity and limits of influence in opposition, and the pride of a party which is based in culture.

Can a party exist in Canada based in identity? Obviously yes, the precedent is set in Quebec. So why don’t we have an Indigenous Party to strengthen voice, to organize influence in the House, and to support Indigenous candidates to succeed?

Except there are some serious questions. Do Indigenous people want to engage in the white government in order to influence change, and what would we have to give up to achieve it? Why should Indigenous peoples be expected to negotiate for their rights which are already enshrined in international law, sometimes even Canadian law? Why do we need to carve out our space, sometimes through conflict? How would the tent be built when Indigenous peoples vote across the current political spectrum?

The cynic says that’s exactly what politics is: conflict about resources and rights. The theorist says politics in a democracy is terrible but it’s the best we have right now. Because we have a first-past-the-post Westminster type system which is very different from First Nations traditional modes of consensus-based governance, the Hill seems foreign and just a bit ineffective. But here we are.

In politics there is the ideal and then there’s the practical. We shouldn’t have to negotiate or fight for the basics that other Canadians receive. But if we don’t do it, who will?

Would Indigenous peoples have a stronger voice with a federal Indigenous Party? There are too many moving parts to predict. Perhaps we should try it. Change it up. Take our space and use it.

An Indigenous Party would need to build a tent that doesn’t give up Indigeneity but also is inclusive for all Canadians. Imagine a party that is about community cohesion instead of individual fame, protecting the land along with an economy that rebalances roles of women and men? The platform matters. In current politics, my bet is that party structure is just as important. An Indigenous party has an opportunity to ditch the “party leader is god” structure and institute a circle of leaders who share responsibility, and that alone might be the game-changer in Canada.