Why an indigenous parliament works in Norway but isn’t working here.
Silje Karine Muotka is a Norwegian Sámi, part of an indigenous group with roots in northern Scandinavia that stretch back 11,000 years.
Like Canada’s Aboriginal people, Mutoka’s ancestors lived off their native land well before Europeans began to settle there. But unlike any Aboriginal person, Muotka spends her days fighting for indigenous rights as a member of a special indigenous peoples’ parliament in Norway, a mechanism for indigenous representation that does not exist in Canada.
In the Norwegian Sámi Parliament, Muotka represents the Norwegian Sami Association party, which is currently in opposition against the ruling Labor Party. She leads the childhood, care and education committee and her 39-member parliament functions in a similar way to the Norwegian parliament in Oslo, albeit with one major difference. Instead of working toward laws, members of the Sámi Parliament devise recommendations for the Norwegian parliament.
Muotka describes the parliament as an “advisory organ” which the Norwegian parliament has a legal duty to consult, but she says it is also much more than that.
“We have symbolic power,” Muotka says. “There is a great power that lies in that.”
In Canada, there are those who wonder whether this kind of power in the hands of indigenous people could be the approach to aboriginal self-governance that would solve persistent problems in aboriginal communities.
In 2008, former senator Aurélien Gill introduced a bill to create an Aboriginal parliament called the “Assembly of Aboriginal Peoples.” In an article published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, Gill sided with others who before him who had argued that a parliament would “break the vicious cycle of dependence and guardianship” for Aboriginal people.
Ultimately, the bill died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued in 2009 and has never been revived, but Gill envisioned a parliamentary body that would have been very similar to the Sami Parliament that exists today in Norway. The Assembly of Aboriginal Peoples would have authority over expenses related to Aboriginal people, treaty rights and land issues, as well as anything related to Aboriginal identity, including language, traditions, education and social life.
Gill acknowledged the limited powers of indigenous parliaments in other countries, including Norway.
In fact, the Sámi Parliament is completely dependent on the Norwegian parliament for its funding. Despite this, Gill argued a parliament would be an important first step to greater Aboriginal self-determination.
Muotka says although the Sámi Parliament is financial dependent on the Norwegian state, it still manages to wield influence in consultations during the stages leading up to the creation of a law.
“You can do a lot before they put out a law,” Muotka says. “Our government has won a lot of important milestones.”
She points to the Finnmark Act, which transferred ownership of 46,000 square kilometers of land in northern Norway from the state to the area’s inhabitants – many of whom are Sámi. The Sámi Parliament advocated for the Finnmark Act to protect Sámi rights to resources on their traditional land in northern Norway.
In short, Muotka says the Sámi Parliament is important because it ensures Sámi issues are addressed and do not fall by the wayside in the Norwegian parliament.
Muotka believes a parliament has potential to be more effective than an advocacy group, such as Canada’s Assembly of First Nations, because the policy making process is more formal.
Not everyone agrees. Tonio Sadik, a senior advisor with the Assembly of First Nations, says establishing a new way of working with the Government of Canada in the form of a parliament could actually make things more difficult for Aboriginal people.
“This is hardly the point where we want to get into another relationship,” Sadik says, pointing to unfulfilled treaty obligations.
Sadik says he worries the treaties that make up the existing ties between Canada and First Nations groups will be forgotten if a new parliament-to-parliament relationship is created.
“There are legally binding treaties that must not be ignored,” he says.
Even the name ‘parliament’ recalls a colonial past marked by unfairness toward Aboriginal people, says Jeff Corntassel, a professor of indigenous governance at the University of Victoria.
But regardless of the name, Corntassel is open to new ways of Aboriginal political representation. He is critical of the AFN, calling it a “neat and tidy colonial arrangement” and “really just a conglomeration of chiefs” that does not represent First Nations people.
“Rather than try to fit in within the Canadian structure I’d like to see the Canadian structure try to fit in with an indigenous mode of governance,” Corntassel says.
In Corntassel’s view, a new representative body could be a good thing, provided it remains true to the culture of Aboriginal people.
“It really depends on how [the parliament] is structured,” Corntassel says. “It would have to respect the diversity of traditional forms of governance … almost like a confederacy or council.”
He is proposing a representative group that would be completely separate from the Canadian government, rather than an advocacy or advisory body from within it.
Without a model for funding, this kind of a body is likely far off in the distant future, but a re-evaluating existing means of Aboriginal representation could be a step in the right direction. Corntassel echoes Silje Karine Muotka’s views on the benefits of an indigenous parliament.
“Symbolic power is always an important first step,” Corntassel says. “Especially if it gives you a chance to break out of normal governance structures.”
But he acknowledges that it can’t stop there.
“They can provide all the advice they want but to what degree is that real power?” he asks.
To Muotka and her fellow Sámi parliamentarians, it is.
This article came about through the research conducted and time spent in northern Norway as part of the Carleton-Norway Journalism Travel Award. I met many Sámi people and visited their parliament. Upon my return home, I spoke with Aboriginal people to understand the complexities associated with an indigenous parliament in this country. This fascinating work allowed me conversations with very knowledgeable, passionate people and I am thankful for their willingness to speak with me.