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Canada could learn from New Zealand's Maori

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The Assembly of First Nations was in town this week for their annual assembly. Although the big star of the event was Mike Holmes, National Chief Shawn Atleo's speech about getting rid of the Indian Act caused a stir.

It's not the first time this idea has seen the light; several former AFN chiefs have called for the end of the Indian Act. And we can't forget the Manitoba Framework Agreement Initiative that promised to dismantle Indian Affairs. That started in 1994 and ended in failure in 2007.

Even Senator Patrick Brazeau promoted the idea a few years back when he was leader of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples -- much to the joy of the Conservatives. His idea was to streamline the current system and have fewer chiefs and First Nations, consolidating them into larger groups.

Of course, his idea didn't go over too well.

Now Atleo wants to get rid of the Indian Act in five years, but not the treaty rights First Nations people have. He sees a new relationship of shared responsibility and resources instead of the feds overseeing the lives of First Nations people.

His words got me thinking about a conversation I had with a Maori journalist a few months ago. Her name is Carmen Parahi and she was doing a work exchange with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. We went out for dinner and conversation one night.

I was fascinated when she explained how the New Zealand government runs with an integrated Maori perspective. In fact, it always has.

Back in 1867, when New Zealand established its parliamentary government, four seats were reserved for Maori representation. Maori people can also run outside of those seats -- similar to aboriginal candidate Kevin Chief, who's running federally for the NDP Winnipeg North seat -- but those four seats always remain designated for Maori people.

So what do four seats mean?

It means indigenous perspectives are always included and considered in any kind of lawmaking or important decisions. Those four seats also mean they can veto any decision when it affects Maori people.

It's pretty groundbreaking stuff, considering Canada was just being established around 1867 and the Indian Act wasn't written until 1876.

New Zealand's electoral system changed a little in 1993 so that those Maori seats were floating -- meaning they are roughly equivalent to what the Maori population of New Zealand is. In the last election, in 2008, there were seven designated Maori seats. Some general seats were also won by Maori candidates.

New Zealand has a large indigenous population (about 14 per cent) in comparison to Canada's roughly four per cent, which includes status, non-status, Métis and Inuit people. If New Zealand's model was adopted in Canada we'd have 12 designated aboriginal seats.

Electoral areas for the Maori seats overlap the general electoral boundaries. This means all of New Zealand is represented in parliament by both a general seat and a Maori seat. Every eligible New Zealander then votes for both a general seat and a Maori seat.

The Maori people also have the advantage of an active Maori Party. Formed in 2004, the party's main focus is indigenous rights. Their priority is dealing with land issues, tax reductions and Maori language and cultural teachings in schools.

You can't help but be impressed by the Maori people. Although they do struggle with some of the same social issues that seem to affect indigenous people worldwide, they seem to have some benefits over us.

Perhaps it has to do with their strong sense of unity, since they all have a common language and sense of culture. Canadian indigenous people, on the other hand, are very diverse. We speak more than 50 distinct languages across the country. Maybe it's because the treaties the Maori signed were fiercely debated and they held out for long time for a better deal.

My strongest guess is it has to do with the fact that the ruling government included them all along. It says a lot about their relationship.

I'm all for getting rid of the Indian Act and replacing it with a contemporary relationship on equal footing. However, the Maori way of doing things -- a government with designated indigenous seats -- would make a far greater impact than any lobbying group or bureaucratic changes ever could.

Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2010 A16

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