By Dimitrios Panagos and Allison Harell
Social-welfare indicators place Aboriginal women at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, making them one of the most marginalized groups in Canada (NWA, 2006). A unique combination of colonialism, racism and sexism is the principal cause of Aboriginal women’s marginal status (Green 2001). It should not be surprising that these intersecting forms of oppression have led many Aboriginal women to believe that their interests differ substantially from the interests of non-Aboriginal women (Udel, 2001). Moreover, Aboriginal women contend that the Canadian state and Aboriginal institutions are both obstacles to and facilitators for the pursuit of their interests (Green 2001). Yet, little is known about how Aboriginal women participate in such governing institutions, or whether their participation differs fundamentally from non-Aboriginal women.
In our article “Locating the Aboriginal Gender Gap” (Harell and Panagos, 2013), we examine Aboriginal engagement in politics in Canada. Specifically, we examine the political participation and attitudes of Canadian Aboriginal women in comparison to both Aboriginal men and non-Aboriginal women. Our analysis is anchored by two questions: Are there Aboriginal gender gaps in Canadian electoral politics? And, if so, what is the nature and scope of these gaps?
Since scholars began discussing the concept of gender gaps over half a century ago, social scientists have been primarily focused on understanding the differences in the political behaviour and attitudes of men and women. Thanks to extensive survey research, scholars can say that in the past few decades women are more likely than men to support parties on the left that promote social welfare programs, while men more often support parties on the right with their “get tough” approaches to crime and their focus on the economy (Burns et al. 2001; Gidengil 1995). Yet, this literature is, for the most part, guilty of focusing on women as a single undifferentiated group in comparison to men. The result is that the differences among women tend to get overshadowed by the preferences and behaviours of the majority. So, how and why might Aboriginal women differ from men in their political orientations?
To answer this question, we turn to the literature on political behaviour and the Aboriginal politics literature. These literatures are seldom considered in combination and so, perhaps, it is not surprising that they seem to diverge when it comes to understanding the nature and scope of Aboriginal gender gaps – assuming, of course, that these gaps exist. These divergent literatures point to two possible explanations, that we coin the “inequality hypothesis” and the “colonialism hypothesis”. The inequality hypothesis draws on what we know from studies of political behavior among the larger Canadian population, and suggests that Aboriginal gender gaps exist and that they parallel their non-Aboriginal counterparts. The argument is basically that socio-economic differences between men and women result in differences in political participation and attitudes. Because Aboriginal women face many of the same inequalities as non-Aboriginal women in Canada, there is good reason for believing that Aboriginal gender gaps exist and that they mirror the ones found in the general population…
In contrast, the colonialism hypothesis suggests that Aboriginal gender gaps exist but should manifest distinctive qualities. The Aboriginal politics literature highlights the central role colonialism plays in the lives of all Aboriginal peoples, and points out as well the gendered outcomes of colonialism. Based on this literature, we expect significant gender-based differences in Aboriginal peoples’ political behaviour. At the same time, the same literature illustrates that, given the centrality of colonialism, we should be cautious in generalizing conclusions drawn from general—and largely non-Aboriginal—population samples to the particular circumstances of Aboriginal peoples. In short, the Aboriginal politics literature lends credence to the idea that Aboriginal gender gaps exist, but it indicates that these gaps differ from the ones identified in the broader behavior literature.
We test these two hypotheses by using a unique survey that was collected among Aboriginal peoples in the Prairies in 2004 and matching these results to survey data from population samples collected among the general public, including the 2004 Canadian election study.
Our analysis shows that Aboriginal gender gaps exist and this is particularly true for vote choice, where Aboriginal women are almost 50% more likely to report voting for the NDP than Aboriginal men (59% of Aboriginal women said they voted NDP, whereas only 40% of Aboriginal men did). Yet, both Aboriginal men and women are much more likely than their non-Aboriginal counterparts to vote NDP.
While the inequality hypothesis goes some way to explaining the existence of this gender gap this hypothesis does a poor job of explaining its most interesting features. Thus, we argue that the results of our analysis are best explained by the colonialism hypothesis, which is capable of providing an account of both the existence of the gender gap in vote choice, as well as the difference in vote choice between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. This is because locating the gender gap among Aboriginal peoples requires that we understand why both Aboriginal men and women are more likely to vote for Canada’s social democratic party, while also recognizing that this is particularly true for Aboriginal women.
Our article reminds us that the concept of gender is too often used in universal ways, (especially in survey research) and when it is this can hide many important and interesting facets of our political lives together.
Burns, Nancy, Kay Lehman Schlozman and Sidney Verba. 2001. The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality and Political Participation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gidengil, Elisabeth. 1995. ‘‘Economic Man – Social Woman – the Case of the Gender-Gap in Support for the Canada-United-States Free-Trade Agreement.’’ Comparative Political Studies, 28:3: 384–408.
Green, Joyce. 2001. “Canaries in the Mines of Citizenship: Indian Women in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 34:4: 715-38.
Harell, Allison and Dimitrios Panagos. 2013. Locating the Aboriginal Gender Gap: The Political Attitudes and Participation of Aboriginal Women in Canada. Politics and Gender, 9:4: 413-438.
Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). 2006. Bill C-292, Kelowna Accord Implementation Act. Report Prepared for the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, December 2006, Ottawa.
Udel, Lisa J. 2001. “Revision and Resistance: The Politics of Native Women’s Motherhood.” Frontiers, 22:2: 43-62.