Introduction: A Case Study in Democratic Deception

In February 2016, Trudeau approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline, despite his government’s supposed dedication to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The commitment to the pipeline would have required the prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples, whose lands the pipeline will traverse. Numerous Indigenous communities have voiced their disapproval of the pipeline, and many have actively protested its construction on their traditional lands.

What does democracy have to with this?

On the campaign trail, Trudeau promised “sunny days.” He promised a real and fundamental shift in the recognition of Indigenous Rights. It is safe to assume that the citizens who voted for him based on these promises were disappointed.

By voting, the electorate hopes to influence the direction of policy making. Whether it be out of self-interest or for a commitment to finding the best solution to a particular problem, people express their preferences at the voting booth. This article will operate under the second assumption. To what extent can democratic mechanisms be an efficient channel to substantive positive shifts in Indigenous-settler relations? In this article, I will propose two reasons why electoral politics cannot fundamentally shift the recognition of Indigenous rights. Voting mechanisms are cannot ensure representation, and electoral politics will always fail to transform the Indigenous-settler relationship insofar as they leave the structures that reinforce the oppression of Indigenous people in Canada.

Protestor attends rally against the Kinder Morgan pipeline in Vancouver. Photo by William Chen, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Use of the photo is not intended as an endorsement of the protest.

The Failure of Democratic Representativeness

Przeworski, in his minimalist defense of democracy, argues that elections fail to produce representative leaders. Similarly, he demonstrates that elections cannot play the role of an mechanism of accountability.[1] Voters may act either prospectively by choosing leaders based on their campaigns, or retrospectively by supporting or opposing incumbents based on their previous term.

Two problems arise when the electorate chooses leaders prospectively. First, leaders are not bound in any way to their promises because there are no legal mechanisms to force them to enact their promises once in office. Secondly, it may not be in the best interest for leaders to be constrained to their promises. In unforeseen conditions, it may be best if leaders are not bound to their promises. In the case of an economic recession, political emergency or natural disaster, it may be undesirable that politicians follow through on their promises in the face of more pressing matters. Leaders should be able to adapt their policies to conditions they could not have anticipated on the campaign trail, therefore electing politicians based on their promises may be perilous. Trudeau’s campaign platform, for example, may be a good indicator of his general orientations, but they do not guarantee representation.

Concerning the retrospective dimension, Przeworski explains: “if citizens can discern whether governments are acting in their best interests and sanction them appropriately, […] those incumbents who act in the best interest of citizen win re-election and those who do not lose the election.”[2] Let’s say citizens fix some standards to evaluate the performance of their governments. For example, they will vote against incumbents if their income hasn’t increased by at least 4%, or if the crime rates in their neighborhood have not fallen by at least 6%. Citizens realize however that the achievement of their goals is not entirely up to the agency of the governments. Governments may or may not be operating under favorable conditions.

The financial capacity of the state may be dependent on its negotiating position at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it’s level of debt, or the whims of trade partners in setting tariffs. These factors may facilitate or hinder the achievement of policy goals. If citizens are aware of these conditions, they can adjust their standards and vote accordingly after making a fair evaluation of the performance.

However, citizens cannot know the favorability of conditions. Because voters cannot be privy to this information, they cannot concretely conclude whether the government acted in their best interest.  This leads Przeworski to conclude that “retrospective voting does not enforce representation when voters are not fully informed.”[3] Pressure for economic growth and corporate lobbying could be part of what pushed Trudeau’s to expand the Kinder Morgan pipeline.  Voters could never have full knowledge of all the factors that contributed to the decision, and thus could never vote accordingly. Trudeau’s particular agency is a minor factor in the process. Voting to sanction him is thus both irrelevant and impossible.

Person arrested at a rally against the Kinder Morgan pipeline in Burnaby, BC. Photo by Mark Klotz, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Structural Constraints

Structural constraints are another aspect that contributes to the failure in enabling the transformation of Indigenous-settler relations. Neoliberal structures constrain the agency of political agents and offers them a narrow range of options for improvement. The conditions that politicians operate under, such as the sovereign state system, colonial social structures and global capitalism, are inherently unfair. There is a limited set of options for justice without attacking the structures themselves. By assuming the leadership of these structures, it is no surprise that politicians end up creating policies that reproduce these injustices.

There is no doubt that Trudeau is responsible for some of the failures concerning his unkept promises to Indigenous communities. However, to argue that another politician would resolve Indigenous issues, insofar as they are still an agent of the state, is a myopic analysis of the problem. The extent to which Canada can realistically recognize Indigenous rights is questionable considering its long history of dispossession and infringement on them. To a further extent, many Indigenous people consider the existence of the Canadian state an aberration, since it was created by superimposing its sovereignty on lands they had occupied for centuries.

The crux of the problem lies not in one politician’s particular approach to Indigenous rights, but in the existence of the Canadian state itself. Trudeau himself is not the essential component of the problem, but merely assumes a role in a pattern. His example is simply more unsettling, considering the precise contradiction between his promise and his actions. Structural constraints exist and operate beyond electoral politics. Voting may generally orient the direction of policies, but insofar as they leave the problematic structure untouched, the fundamental problems of injustice will remain.


My argument was twofold: First, voting to ensure representation of goals and ideals fails because the implementation of policies is contingent on many factors that are beyond the reach of the particular politician. Second, seeing electoral politics as a channel for the transformation the colonial relationship misunderstands the structural nature of the oppression of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Glen Coulthard (2009) has argued that even if Trudeau’s actually committed to the full implementation of UNDRIP, it would have not transformed the colonial relationship in any significant way. This is because UNDRIP principles would have been necessarily subordinated to Canadian legislation. He explains:

But the settler state and its courts understand the term as reconciling the existence of Indigenous peoples’ title, jurisdictions, nationhood, and laws with the sovereignty of the crown. In other words, the state is trying to square a circle; trying to both affirm the principles of the Declaration within the colonial constitution of Canada. In doing so, a fundamental antagonism returns: whose rights are supreme? The way that the chips fall, time and time again, it is Canada’s. And that’s not reconciliation.”

There is often a sense in the democratic context that change can occur by choosing adequate and competent political leaders. However, the scope of change of the colonial relationship through democratic mechanisms is limited. Awareness of those shortcomings is crucial to direct our efforts for justice.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature Image by Mark Klotz, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Works Cited

[1] Przeworski, Adam. “Minimalist Conception of Democracy: A Defense.” in Democracy’s Value, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 23-25.

[2] Ibid, p.36

[3] Ibid, p. 38