In the near future, Canada will be celebrating its 150th birthday. Many would say the nation is still in its infancy, but within this relative short historical period our population has grown 30 fold, and the size of our economy allows us to be a member of the select G8, which demonstrates that we have become an important player on the world’s stage.
Certainly, Canada has evolved. Since confederation, our borders have expanded so that we are now the second largest country in the world. Within these borders, the demographic portrait has shifted from a population predominately of British and French origin, widely dispersed throughout our rural regions, to a population that is multi-ethnic and concentrated in our urban centers. Politically, a franchise that was limited to male, Protestant landowners gave way to universal suffrage, and with the adoption of the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we became the masters of our own political destiny. However, despite these changes, Canada remains a vestige of European empires that have long since receded. Although we have developed some of the political institutions that are normally associated with free and democratic societies, we have yet to fully embrace democracy, and we cling to our heritage as an ethnocratic settler state.
Essentially, what keeps us from becoming a full-fledged democracy is that we maintain the privileged position of the initial settler communities. Similar in kind to other former British colonies, most notably Australia and New Zealand, Canada embodies a system of governance that is, however, slightly different: it is “for” and “by” two charter groups rather than a single specific ethnic community: French-Canadian Catholics within Quebec and Anglo-Canadian Protestants throughout the rest of Canada.
Regrettably unfamiliar to most Canadians, the term “ethnocracy” was coined by political geographer Oren Yiftachel in his investigations concerning the role of law in creating and enabling ethnocratic land regimes. The use of the term as it applies to Canada sheds light on our historical past and helps to make sense of recent political developments.
As explained by Yiftachel, ethnocracy is a distinct regime type that facilitates the expansion of a dominant ethnic nation in a multi-ethnic territory. Within these regimes exists a constant tension between two opposing principles of political organization: the ‘ethnos’ (community of origin), and the ‘demos’ (residential community of a given territory). In the heydays of ethnocracies, the ‘ethnos’ enjoys clear legal and institutional prominence. Ethnicity, rather than citizenship, constitutes the main criterion for distributing power and resources.
The regime sub-type ‘settling ethnocracy’ stresses the ethnic settlement project as a constitutive element of the regime. In the formative periods of settler societies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, the state is usually deeply involved in a strategy of ethnic migration and settlement, which aims to alter the country’s geographic and ethnic structure. As the charter group of settlers usually refrains from mixing with indigenous populations and ‘inferior’ groups, such societies are based on deeply ingrained patterns of segregation frequently resulting in three major ethno-classes: founders, immigrants, and indigenous.
(a) The ‘Founders’ (also termed the ‘charter group’) – this group achieves the dominant status due to the high military, cultural, political, and economic standing established during the state’s formative years. Furthermore, intergenerational mechanisms, such as the land regime, together with rules of inheritance and transfer of property rights reproduce over time the ‘founders’ privileged position in different societal realms.
(b) The ‘Immigrants’ – this group comes from a different ethnic background from the founders (and is often split into a number of sub-groups based on ethnic background and race). Formally, the immigrants are part of the new nation built into the settler society. However, while they undergo a prolonged process of ‘upward’ assimilation into the ‘founding group’ they often remain in lower economic, geographical, and political positions.
(c) The Indigenous or ‘Foreign’ People – these groups, also termed ‘aliens’ or ‘natives’ or ‘others’, are characterized by long-term marginalization through the process of nation-and-state building; they are generally isolated in the geographical, economic, and social periphery of the settler society. Such groups include, for example, indigenous peoples such as Native Americans in nineteenth-century USA, the Inuit in Canada, the Aborigine in Australia, and the Maoris in New Zealand. They also include other ‘alien’ groups not fully included in the settling nation, such as the Chicanos in nineteenth-century southwestern USA, the Tamils in Sri-Lanka, or the Palestinians in Israel.
As explained by Yiftachel’s associate Alexandre Kedar, the establishment of ethnocratic settler states usually entails the construction of new property regimes. The acquisition of land is crucial component in this phase and often occasions a vast and violent dispossession of indigenous peoples from land they possessed for generations. While in most cases land is originally acquired by direct force, this violent acquisition is subsequently translated into institutional arrangements that represent and legitimize power relationships in the ethnocratic state.
As we have seen, ethnocratic settler societies usually contain three major groups: founders, immigrants, and natives. Ethnocratic land regimes reproduce and reinforce this social stratification. In the land regime they create, the founders control most land resources. Immigrants usually receive only a small part; while indigenous and alien groups, who often serve as the main contributors of the land, are generally denied a fair share of its allocation. By freezing this ‘initial’ spatial arrangement, the new property system facilitates the perpetuation over generations of the ethnocratic power structure.
The property regime also constitutes a legal-cultural order that reduces the necessity of direct force to maintain the ethnocratic system. Elites of the dominant ethnocratic group strive to institutionalize a hegemony that deflects open debate about the system and justifies their control of the territory. Under this hegemonic system, the ethnocratic spatial order is constructed as something ‘taken for granted’. Law and courts occupy a special place in the institutionalization and legitimization of these socio-spatial power structures.
With regard to the Canada’s indigenous peoples, the conflict caused by the imposition of the European property regime by the charter groups is intractable. In the famous words of former US Chief Justice, John Marshall, “conquest gives title that the courts of the conquerers cannot deny.” Consequently, aboriginal title to the lands obtained by conquest cannot be recognized in a meaningful way since to do so would require a complete transformation of the existing property regime.
As Canada continues its process of decolonization, however, further appropriation of indigenous lands will be curtailed, and we can expect that there will be some minor victories for indigenous groups in the Courts, but nothing of the sort that would threaten the existing order. Canadian Historian, Peter Russell, notes that “these juridical wins come with a downside – a reminder of the subordinate place of native societies within the larger settler societies in which they are embedded, and of their dependence on the courts that pronounce upon their rights in that larger society.”
Conversely, with regard to the relation between Canada’s charter groups and its immigrant population, there exists the potential for a significant realignment of the power relations between the two groups. According to Statistics Canada, by 2031 one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority. One in four will be foreign born. Their ranks will grow from 5.3 million today to between 11.4 and 14.4 million. Between 29% and 32% of the population could belong to a visible minority group, nearly double the proportion reported by the 2006 Census. More than 71% of all minority people would live in Canada’s three largest metropolitan areas: Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The increasing tension between the ‘ethnos’ and the ‘demos’ brought about by the demographic change could cause a bifurcation of the nation: the ethnocratic settler state gives way to the creation of a modern democracy.
Historically, the charter groups in settler states have been able to maintain their position of dominance within their respective political systems by the use of malapportionment of seats between urban and rural districts, thereby ensuring the domination of the legislature by the rural regions where the members of founder groups form large majorities. However, reapportionment along the democratic principle of ‘one person, one vote’ disrupts the hegemony of the ethnocratic elite since the votes of the other ethnic groups cannot be controlled by traditional identity politics and cultural cognition.
Indeed, the election of President Barak Obama and the subsequent reform of the American health care system, which will extend health insurance to approximately 34 million previously uninsured Americans, for the most part members of visible minority communities, signal the end of the Anglo-American Protestant hegemony in the USA. In short, landmark decisions from the US Supreme Court, most notably Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Simms (1964) paved the way to equal representation for equal numbers of people, without regard to race, sex, economic status, or place of residence within a state. A complete redistricting of state and federal electoral maps ensued, and, as a result, a series of progressive programs such as Social Security and Medicare were enacted that empowered what previously had been an underclass to rise up and eventually elect one of their own as President of the United States.
Here in Canada, malapportionment has recently become a concern, but the context in which it is addressed is less fraught with inter-racial tensions because of the manner that the right to effective representation is protected constitutionally.
For example, a number of recent studies have demonstrated that urban ridings where immigrants comprise a significant percentage of the electorate have less voting power than those rural ridings where the electorate is comprised largely of members of the charter groups. For the most part, theses discrepancies (an urban riding in Alberta has three times as many electors as one in Prince Edward Island) are due to the constitutional guarantees afforded to the smaller provinces for the number of seats they are accorded in Parliament, in other words, an unintended consequence of Confederation. Moreover, section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867 guarantees that, notwithstanding the measures taken to protect the representation of the smaller provinces, each province will be represented in Parliament with a number of seats that is proportional to its share of the population. Consequently, in April 2010, legislation was introduced to award 30 additional seats in Parliament to the provinces (most likely to be enacted after the 2011 Census has been completed) which have experienced marked population growth as a result of the growth of their immigrant communities in their urban and suburban regions. Furthermore, the substantive equality guarantees of section 3 of the Charter limits population variations between ridings within a province to 25% from the provincial average for the number of electors per riding. This is a far cry from the 400 to 1 and greater population ratios between urban and rural electoral districts to be found in the United States before Baker v. Carr. Finally, it should be noted that the decision to change Canada’s ethnic composition was taken, and is being taken by the legislative assembly, the Parliament of Canada, that is dominated by the two charter groups, and they are fully aware of the demographic consequences of their decisions.
More serious concerns with regard to malapportionment in Canada arise from the continued use of a Single Member Plurality (SMP) electoral system that dates back to medieval Britain. Essentially, the SMP system manufactures majority governments that require far less than a majority of votes from the electorate. Generally speaking, 40% of the popular vote translates into 60% of the available seats in the legislature and 100% control of the political process. Most often, a candidate requires only a simple plurality of votes to be elected, which means that the majority of votes cast are discarded and have no bearing on the electoral results.
Since representation is given strictly on the basis of winning territorial electoral districts, and the population of the charter groups is widely distributed throughout the major portion of the territory in sufficient number to form pluralities in most of the rural ridings, the SMP system gives charter groups considerable political leverage. Essentially, the property regime is the source of political power, where the territorial control of electoral districts, winning seats, translates into the effective control of the political process.
The degree of leverage arising from territorial control is considerable, especially when we consider the dwindling percentage of eligible voters that choose to exercise their right to vote. For instance, as a result of the 2008 federal election, the Conservative Party formed a minority government, which exercises the power of a majority government subject to the willingness of the opposition parties to plunge the country into another general election, having won 143 of the 308 available seats. What is remarkable from a democratic perspective is that the government was formed with the support of only 22.16% of the eligible voters or 16.5% of the general population. Moreover, this was done with only two seats from the metropolitan centres, of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, which indicates that the present government was elected for and by the charter groups, primarily by Anglo-Canadian Protestants.
As we could expect, this type of electoral result exacerbates the tension between the organizing principles of ‘ethnos’ and ‘demos’ within the country. Recently, the trigger events were the usually innocuous parliamentary practice of proroguing Parliament. However, in both instances, the act of proroguing Parliament – an anachronistic royal prerogative transferred from the British Monarchy to the Prime Minister – was widely perceived to allow the Prime Minister to escape the democratic will of Parliament: in the first instance, as a way to escape a non-confidence vote that would have surely brought down the government; in the second, as a way to delay the provision of potentially damming evidence to the opposition parties concerning the transfer of Afghan detainees. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of thousands of Canadians took to the streets in order to protest a practice, although legal and in keeping with a constitutional monarchy, because it was believed to arise from a flagrant disregard of democratic principles.
It is unlikely that the structural tension between ‘ethnos’ and ‘demos’ will subside. As a result of the Liberal Party losing its capacity to offer the electorate a government option, the historical alternation between the Liberals and the Conservatives forming governments since Confederation has been broken. In fact, the two charter groups now find representation in political parties that are diametrically opposed, Anglo-Canadian Protestants with the Conservatives and French-Canadian Catholics with the Bloc Québécois. Consequently, Canada’s system of governance inherited from the British is mired in successive minority governments with no immediate prospect of exiting from what is supposed to be only an irregular inconvenience.
Throughout the last decade, a number of citizens groups have contested the continued use of the SMP voting system in Canada because of its systemic distortion of the popular will in translating votes into seats in the legislature. No less than four provincial referendums were held without success to replace SMP with voting systems that gave more proportional results. Yet, the problem remains, especially for the supporters of the emerging Green Party that amassed approximately one million votes in the last federal election but gained no representation whatsoever. Of note, the Greens in their support of the environment reject the property regime advanced by the charter groups. Their core beliefs are much closer ideologically to those of the indigenous peoples.
Presently, the Greens are pushing forward with a Charter challenge of the constitutionality of the SMP system, having already won the equivalent of Baker v. Carr in that the question was ruled judiciable in the lower Courts and are pressing forward to have the Supreme Court rule that the continued use of SMP is in fact unconstitutional. Essentially, the Supreme Court will be asked, as much if not more as it did in the Saskatchewan Reference, to determine the nature of Canada’s electoral system and, as a result, its system of governance. In brief, by upholding the continued use of SMP, the Court will validate Canada’s continued existence as a ethnocratic settler state; by striking it down, the Court will put into place a process that will eventually bring to an end the hegemony of the charter groups in Canada as the territorial bias within the electoral system that is responsible for ethnic domination will be severely curtailed.
A second eventuality will also come into play that could cause Canada to deviate from its path as a dominant settler society. Indeed, the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign as Canada’s Head of State will create a window of opportunity for Canada to step away from its colonial past. When that day arrives in the not so distant future, Canadians will be faced with the decision of whether to allow for Prince Charles’s succession as Canada’s sovereign. Without question, royal succession will bring to mind the position of the dominant ethnic group and it will be debated in a far different cultural context than when Elizabeth II took the throne. For instance, when Elizabeth became Queen, Canada relied almost exclusively on Europe and in particular Great Britain for its immigrants. Today, Canada’s immigrants are primarily non-European and account for a far greater percentage of the population. Consequently, there will be far less identification with the new British Monarch, most probably the weakest identification with the Royals in Canada’s short history.
Given the scale of demographic change that will occur in Canada during the 21st century, a re-alignment of the power relations between the charter groups and Canada’s immigrant groups will most likely occur along the ethnocratic/democratic fault lines previously discussed. How and when these changes will impact on Canada’s democratic institutions is uncertain, but the trend is clear: Canada’s charter groups will enter into a new power sharing relationship with its immigrant communities.