22 Jan Representing Indigenous Self-determination

Discussions of indigenous self-determination have traditionally shown little enthusiasm for the idea of indigenous engagement in electoral politics – and for good reasons. Self-determination is usually understood as a means of gaining distance from, rather than inclusion in, state institutions. Legislative bodies are regarded with particular suspicion, even hostility, evoking memories of historic disenfranchisement or strategies of electoral inclusion linked to assimilation and the loss of  indigenous rights. As a means of advancing indigenous objectives, moreover, electoral representation seems at best to offer only a token presence in institutions dominated by non-indigenous majorities, and at worst looks like a strategy for pacifying indigenous representatives while energy and resources are diverted away from the goal of indigenous self-government. In spite of these reservations, this article defends the view that electoral politics can be viewed as part of a broader strategy for advancing indigenous self-determination by targeting a variety of complementary access points to political power. The argument is grounded in a relational model of self-determination that emphasizes the importance of self government and the need for modes of shared decision making capable of governing the complex interdependence characteristic of state–indigenous relationships today. While it is important to acknowledge its many shortcomings, much of the opposition to the electoral route to indigenous self-determination is based on unrealistic expectations regarding what this form of political voice is capable of delivering. Hence, one of the objectives of this article is to clarify the various functions that indigenous electoral representation can and cannot be expected to perform.

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(2008) “Representing Indigenous Self-determination.” University of Toronto Law Journal  LVIII(2): 185-216.