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Why an indigenous parliament works in Norway but isn’t working here.

April 23, 2012

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.

The Sámi Parliament, called Sámediggi, is located in the Sámi capital of Karasjok. (Photo: Ora Morison)

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.


The Scrum

November 21, 2011

While I was in Norway I sometimes found myself lamenting the lack of things that are uniquely Canadian. Well, now back at school, I have found something that begins to fill the perceived or real void of interesting Canadian stuff.

It is … the Parliamentary scrum.

Here's a scrum outside Ignatieff's Liberal Express bus from a couple summers ago. There were no photos of a parliamentary scrum on creative commons, but you get the idea. Photo: Adele McAlear

Face-to-face access for journalists to politicians directly outside the House of Commons is unique to Canada.

I like that!

For a story last month as part of Capital News Online (our online publication workshop class at Carleton) I had the chance to partake in this unique experience!

It wasn’t all that successful – I was looking to speak to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney about a change to immigration policy and he managed to avoid my five attempts to speak with him. BUT this was nonetheless a great experience for my producer Carolyn (also a Carleton MJ student) and me.

You can read the story we ended up writing here – without comment from the minister. Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently eliminated the Source Country class for potential refugees to Canada. Another uniquely Canadian idea, it allowed people to apply as refugees while living in their home country. Under usual circumstances, a person must be displaced to another country to be considered a refugee. Even without the minister’s comments, we had some great anecdotes from people who used the class to escape Colombia and are now living safely in Canada.

Maybe I am soft, but I started to feel kind of bad for Minister Kenney after a few instances of me yelling his name and my question while he tried to scurry into the House or up the stairs away to his office. At my first attempt to ask him about the Source Country class, he quietly mumbled that he had a meeting and no time to talk. After four or five of my persistent attempts, he was ducking behind other MPs to avoid me. (At the bottom of the Capital New story, you can see a photo Carolyn took of Kenney walking up the stairs away from us. Carolyn cropped me out but the original photo shows me calling after him in vain.)

I don’t know if HE felt bad blowing me off like that, but I certainly regretted the awkwardness of the situation. He looked uncomfortable. But it’s not like I was going to give up. Why wouldn’t he just talk to me? He barely gave me a chance to explain my article. To the credit of his ministry, the media relations people at Citizenship and Immigration Canada were very helpful and quick in their response to my many questions.

Anyway, even though I didn’t get an answer, I liked being on the Hill. It was fun and exciting! Sort of an adrenaline rush when you are waiting and waiting and finally the person you are trying to talk to emerges from a hallway or entrance and you have to try to grab their attention with a quick few words!

My Perfect Norway

July 28, 2011

Source: International Business Times

When I left Norway at the end of May I was saying goodbye to what seemed a perfect place in my mind.

I spent five weeks in Kirkenes, a small town tucked into Norway’s north-eastern curl, where I experienced some of the best things in life.

I was surrounded by natural beauty: the rugged tundra, the black-blue Arctic Ocean, the Finnish forests that seemed to stretch to infinity.

But I was most in awe of the sort of man-made beauty I saw in Norwegian communities and society at large.

In their daily lives, the people I met exemplified some of the best of human qualities.

These beautiful people laughed often, smiled always, worked hard and cared about tomorrow. I saw them be open-minded and optimistic about the future. They were kind and concerned about others, and I can’t imagine them showing anything but respect for another human being. Everyone I met seemed to have a deep passion for life – they loved life, and so they loved you because you were alive too.

In Kirkenes, a mélange of cultures co-exist and have adapted to each other: Russian, Sámi, and Norwegian …

In this sense, Kirkenes is perfect, at least to me. And so, in my mind, Norway is a perfect place by extension.

I feel very attached to Norway. When I heard the terrible news from last week I was angry. How could someone do something so horrible to such a perfect place? Why did he have to go and ruin what’s good?

I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this sad anger. One of my Norwegian friends refused to even write Breivik’s name in an email, instead referring to him as “this man/object.”

Kirkenes is far from Oslo, where Breivik set of his bomb, and the Utøya island where he shot innocent, promising, politically active youth. (How dare he? I can’t imagine all of the amazing things these people would have achieved in their lives. And we need as many engaged youth as we can get in this world.) But Kirkenes was still tragically affected. Thankfully, three youth from Kirkenes on Utøya survived the shooting, but six or seven young people from Finnmark County (the province that includes Kirkenes) lost their lives.

I can’t (and I hope I never have to) imagine what it is like to have such a violent massacre of young people occur in your home country, but I know my attachment to Norway gave me just a tiny sliver of the experience would be like. And it was horrible.

I’ll admit for a second it toppled my idea of Norway as perfect, or in any way different from the rest of the world. I was seized with cynicism, thinking “here we go again, more violence, more hate. Just the latest in a long list of horrible atrocities we inflict upon each other as human beings.”

But, impressively, I was pulled from this weak and unproductive state of mind with help from my Norwegian friends:

“such terror can’t win”

“we will protect our society by coming back to normal life again”

“turning our back on violence”

“look forward for tomorrow with more openness, more democracy, a common goal for freedom of speech and of course to embrace multiculturalism”

These were the words contained in the email responses I received after sending support and condolences to those I know in Norway.

What amazing people. What a country. My cynicism melted into hope and pride.

These people are digging deep into what the madman Breivik could not destroy: the sense that we all have a stake in one another, that we are all fundamentally the same, and that we are each worth something.

Thank you, thank you, thank you again Norway – You have shown the world that evil is small and human goodness is real.

My heart goes out to my friends in Norway. An evil man has done a lot of damage –  and for that he should be justly punished and any others like him stopped –  but whether he acted alone or with others still out there, the evil people will never win. Norway’s response shows us exactly why.

People are generally and fundamentally good. I have to believe that – not only because the world seems hopeless without it – but because I see goodness every day:  in these brave emails from Norway, in a person’s small, simple act to help a stranger, and in the way we continue to come together and build communities, intent on relying on each other despite a history marked by sporadic but repeated acts of violence against one another.

May 7, 2011

n-ORA-way, get it?

Right now I’m in Norway as part of the Carleton Norway Journalism Travel Award. I’m here with Samia Madwar and we’re living in Kirkenes, in the very north-eastern part of the country.

It’s a beautiful, sometimes cold, sometimes not place and we are doing a lot of travelling around the area. For instance, right now I’m in Finland and next week I’ll be in Russia.

The Sami 

While here, I am researching for a story to compare the struggle for self-government by Norwegian and Canadian indigenous people. In Norway (and other Nordic countries, the native people are Sami).

Follow my research and other adventures on my website or on Twitter with the hashtag #NorwayCU

Three weeks at a national newspaper

May 7, 2011


Right now I am in Norway, but last week I was wrapping up three weeks spent at the National Post in the Financial Post section.

I really enjoyed every minute of it. I did a lot of writing for technology and some for the investing section. It was interesting and rewarding to use my business education to ask (what I thought were) meaningful questions and really understand the issues I was writing about. Of course, I still felt way over my head sometimes, but I kind of liked that. I was truly challenged and I think I came out ok. I got a front page article, pitched a story that was picked up by five papers across the country, and ended up with a lot of great additions to my portfolio. Of course, I made lots of mistakes too. But I know I learned a lot and my next job or internship will be better for it.

Here’s a link to the stories I wrote while there (online and in print). When I get home I’ll scan them for my portfolio and post a few of them on the portfolio page.

Libyans in St. Catharines

March 29, 2011

Click image to zoom

Last month I did a two-week internship at the St. Catharines Standard newspaper. My favourite story was this one on a local Libyan family that was spearheading a campaign to raise awareness for the violence happening in their home country. This story ran in late February, before the UN resolution that authorized a no fly zone over the country. The people I was speaking to were advocating for no fly zone at that point, but then it seemed like a lofty dream. I can imagine they are happy to know their friends and family are at least safe from bombs dropping from the sky. But undoubtedly they have other worries to replace those as the violence drones on there, with no early end in sight.

Young people and money

February 1, 2011

For my program, I am completing a research project – it’s supposed to be a single large piece of journalism and students choose their own topic.

My idea is still in beta stage, but I want to explore financial literacy among young people. I’m hoping to find out more about how people in their twenties make decisions about money, and how prepared we are to fund  our lifestyles. Most of us, I think, are pushing the not living exactly within our means. If we’re not blatantly disregarding how much money we earn relative to how much we spend, we are at least pushing the boundary – overspending on our credit cards, putting off bills/loan payments until we absolutely have to pay, and reaching in to overdraft. We’ve always been immersed in a world of consumerism.

There has been a lot written about how our generation will fare in the job market as boomers choose to prolong their careers and put off retirement. There has also been a lot written about the historically high debt levels we will inherit. These ideas are also playing in to the formulation of my idea.

Update The Ontario Ministry of Education is launching new curriculum in fall 2011 to teach students as young as Grade 4 financial literacy. Units will be added to existing courses, all the way up to Grade 12. How many twenty-somethings could have benefitted from something like this I wonder.