(Since 1992 there has been a dedicated seat in the Nova Scotia Legislature for a Mi’kmaq representative.)
APTN National News
When Trevor Sanipass ran for the NDP in the recent Nova Scotia election, he had hoped to make history and be the first Mi’kmaw member of the legislature.
He didn’t win – but he was surprised to learn that there’s been a dedicated seat waiting for a Mi’kmaq representative since 1992.
“I was quite shocked actually, I was surprised,” said Sanipass. “How come we didn’t fill that? It’s been 25 years and here I am trying to get into the legislature the old-fashioned way.”
Sanipass laughs, but he’s serious about the importance of having a Mi’kmaw person in province house.
“I find its empowering, actually,” he said. “Right now the people in Nova Scotia, the Mi’kmaq, along with the chiefs, we don’t know really what goes on inside the legislature so we do need that representation in there.”
Mi’kmaw Senator Dan Christmas said the idea came about in the late 1980s. He was Director of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians at the time.
“They were looking at creating seats for the Francophone and African populations and, of course, somebody asked, well what about the Mi’kmaq?” recalled Christmas.
He described some tense political dynamics back then. The Mi’kmaq were fighting for treaty rights and getting charged for hunting moose. The Donald Marshall Jr., Inquiry was delving into racism in the justice system.
“There was no relationship between Mi’kmaq leadership and the province,” said Christmas. “None whatsoever. And in fact, the relationship, I would say, was hostile.”
So Christmas said a few well-intentioned members of the legislature came up with the idea of creating a seat for a Mi’kmaq representative as a way to repair the relationship.
By 1992, it was added to the House of Assembly Act and said in part: “Intention to include as an additional member a person who represents the Mi’kmaq people, such member to be chosen and to sit in a manner and upon terms agreed to and approved by representatives of the Mi’kmaq people.”
“But the Mi’kmaq at the time were not very interested,” said Christmas. “There were a lot of questions about it and a lot of people couldn’t understand how this would improve things. So after some discussion, the idea was bypassed.”
A quarter of a century later, and the relationship between Mi’kmaq leadership and the province is “like night and day,” said Christmas.
The Mi’kmaq, provincial and federal governments are at the table in a tripartite forum. Negotiation and consultation processes are in place. The Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi’kmaq Chiefs meet with the premier annually.
“Today, I think a Mi’kmaq chief can call the premier directly and ask questions or address issues that are outstanding and 25 years ago that would have been impossible,” said Christmas. “Now the relationship is there.”
But Christmas said there’s still benefits to having Mi’kmaq represented in the house. And he can say that based on his own experience in the Senate.
“Mind you I’ve only been in the Senate for six months,” said Christmas. “But at least being a part of the Senate, I can see every piece of legislation that’s going through the House of Commons. I can see where there’s a lot of important value in questioning or commenting on some of this legislation and reminding parliamentarians, don’t forget the Mi’kmaq.”
Sanipass was hoping to become an MLA for the NDP. Across the country, there are examples of Indigenous people in provincial governments, like Wab Kinew and Bernadette Smith in the Manitoba Legislature.
“I would have been focusing on my riding,” said Sanipass. “But I wouldn’t shy away from any Aboriginal issues that affected the people here in Mi’kma’ki.”
Christmas said that’s an inherent challenge for Indigenous MLAs, however. Their priority is their constituency and party platform.
“The difference with a dedicated Mi’kmaq seat,” said Christmas, “it would be independent, it would be non-partisan and we even pondered the idea of whether it should be non-voting.
“But it would be a voice. In fact, there was one proposal that said maybe it should be a treaty delegate. Where someone is there to make sure the interests of the Mi’kmaq treaty are properly represented.”
Christmas points out that it’s not a new concept. In New Zealand, the Maori are represented in the electoral process.
Just south of the border, the legislature in Maine has had representatives from the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes for decades, and more recently the Maliseet. Though there have been tensions within that political relationship over sovereignty.
Sanipass said he has more questions than answers on the logistics. How would the Mi’kmaq decide who the representative should be? Would Mi’kmaq voters get to decide at each election? Would the Mi’kmaq seat vote on bills before the house?
But he said it’s an important step in the right direction. One he would like to take himself.
“It would just affect that decision-making,” said Sanipass. “I would actually love to represent the people, my people. Our people. The Mi’kmaq.”
In late April, the Nova Scotia Government announced a commission to look at how to best represent Acadian and African Nova Scotian communities in the electoral process.
Christmas said it may be a good opportunity to tackle the idea for the Mi’kmaq again.