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Module 2: Introduction to Indigenous Governance
Developed by Anna Hunter. Revised by Nicole Wegner, Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan.
This module is an overview of theoretical and practical aspects of Indigenous governance and politics. The aim of this module is to promote an understanding of Indigenous traditions and visions of governance and to introduce existing governance structures in First Nations communities. First, the module presents a brief overview of the current political landscape facing Indigenous people, including an introductory discussion of self-government. Second, concepts and visions of Indigenous governance and politics are presented. The incredible diversity of Indigenous peoples and their political interests will be outlined and some of the important aspects of traditional Indigenous governance noted in the report of the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples will be presented. Finally, the module will conclude with an overview of band governance systems in Canada.
By the end of this module you should be able to:
Evaluate the importance of discourse on Indigenous self-governance in Canadian state and social relations.
Assess motivations that underpin demands for increased representation of Indigenous peoples within Canadian state and society.
Explore the key features of the contemporary political environment facing Indigenous peoples and their governments.
Compare the complexity and diversity of Indigenous peoples and their interests.
Assess the important role that traditional forms and practices of governance continue to play in modern Indigenous societies.
Explore current governance structures related to the band government system in Canada.
Read the module Learning Material.
Read the Required Readings.
Complete the optional Learning Activities. These will not be graded but will enhance your understanding of the course material.
Complete the Self-Test and check your answers with those provided. If you have additional questions, please contact your instructor.
Complete a Reflective Learning Journal Entry for this module within Canvas. This is a graded component.
Check the syllabus for any other formal evaluations due.
Within a span of twenty-five years, Aboriginal peoples and their rights have emerged from the shadows, to the sidelines, to occupy centre stage.
This quotation from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report (RCAP 1996 vol. 1, “Negotiation and Renewal,” 20) is also the introduction to Alan Cairn’s influential text, Citizens Plus (2000). This statement reflects on the emerging political importance of Indigenous peoples and their rights in state and social relations. In the face of a multitude of historical and contemporary challenges to tribal life, Indigenous people have successfully used a variety of different venues and approaches to protect and promote their interests. Indigenous peoples have litigated at the Supreme Court of Canada; they have negotiated comprehensive modern-day treaties and specific jurisdictional delegation agreements; and they have increasingly entered into mainstream electoral politics. When formal mechanisms have failed, they have resorted to tactics of direct action and confrontation to obtain public attention for their particular cause or situation. As a result of this multi-pronged approach, Indigenous peoples have made significant progress in terms of getting their needs and interests onto federal and provincial government agendas across a broad spectrum of policy sectors, including health, economic development, taxation, and education.
Learning Activity 2-1: Strategies for Political Change
Consider various ways of interacting with the government. From your perspective, which strategy is the most effective?
Complete the class poll shown below. You may vote for more than one answer.
One of the most exciting related trends has been the emergence of a discourse on Indigenous self-governance. Indigenous self-government is a topic of growing importance in Canada’s political culture. From a position of relative obscurity in the late 1960s, the discourse has since emerged in the forefront of the Canadian socio-political landscape. Indigenous/Aboriginal self-governance discourse has assumed a prominent role in constitutional negotiations and federal-provincial intergovernmental relations. In addition, formal institutions and academic programs have been established by Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations, universities and colleges in order to study the meaning and practice of self-governance. Many media and political commentators readily discuss its positive and negative attributes and feasibility. It has become obvious that whether or not Canadians and their governments believe Indigenous self-government is a good thing, it is definitely an important public policy consideration.
Within the past decade, there has been a noticeable shift away from strict theoretical discussions of the meaning of self-government to more practical and applied analysis of its implementation. On a similar note, it appears that drawn-out and costly negotiations concerning constitutional recognition of the Indigenous right to self-government are being sidestepped in favour of negotiating agreements that work within the current constitutional framework. Perhaps entrenched constitutional recognition of Indigenous self-government will occur one day, but it is not going to prevent Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments from negotiating individual agreements for governance that take on a variety of forms. Visit the following link to view a short description of past and contemporary self-governance negotiated agreements between the Canadian government and individual First Nations: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100016293/1100100016294
Learning Activity 2-2: In or Out?
There is great debate on whether Indigenous groups can best achieve meaningful change from inside or outside the current political structures in Canada. View the following video from The Agenda with Steve Paikan: “Canadian Aboriginals: In or Out?”
After watching the video, leave a whiteboard note on whether or not you think meaningful change can happen in the current system, and why.
Demands for Increased Representation
Another important and interrelated trend lies in the heightened awareness of the need to ensure the inclusion and representation of Indigenous peoples within the multiple sites of power and decision-making within Canadian society. Indigenous peoples require greater participation in formal state mechanisms including federal and provincial executives, legislatures and judiciaries. Indigenous peoples also require greater participation in the governance and administration of non-governmental mechanisms of a civil society like the mass media, corporations, universities and colleges, and non-profit organizations. Increased Indigenous participation offers the opportunity for the successful integration of western and indigenous traditions, philosophies and ideologies for the benefit of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. When policy and programming strategies include the input of their targeted group, their potential for success dramatically increases and solutions are more in tune with the needs of the communities. In addition, participating stakeholders are more committed to supporting the initiatives.
Learning Activity 2-3: Indigenous Participation in Federal Elections
First Nations persons first became eligible to vote without repercussion in 1960. Prior to 1960, a First Nations person had to give up Indian status and treaty rights in order to vote. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker changed these parameters and as of July 1, 1960, First Nations persons were freely able to participate in elections without losing their status.
Key Features of the Current Political Environment
Indigenous peoples are pursuing these changes in the face of a number of profound changes that are occurring within Indigenous societies themselves. In his article entitled, “From the Tribal to the Modern: The Development of Modern Aboriginal Societies,” David Newhouse lists and describes the following six factors that are influencing changes in Aboriginal society (Newhouse 1995, 402-403):
Urbanization: The demographics of urban Indigenous communities have reached a critical point where they can grow without additional migration from rural reserve-based communities.
Institutionalization: New social, economic, and political institutions are appearing at a rapid rate. These institutions either supplement or replace traditional kinship systems (primarily clans) with Indigenous society. As individuals, communities, and governments attempt to solve the problems facing them, more and more specialized organizations are being established.
Cultural identity reinforcement: The deliberate and internally defined individual and collective identities based upon traditional cultural groups are reinforcing cultural identity.
Re-traditionalization: A return to traditional worldviews, values, and customs is becoming the central aspect of Indigenous life for many individuals.
Textual transformation: There has been an emergence of a textual mode of cultural transmission, which is beginning to supercede the ancient oral transmission. The emergence of English as the lingua franca among Indigenous peoples is influencing modern Indigenous life.
Self-governance: The assertion of individual and collective control over the structure and processes of everyday Indigenous life is becoming increasingly common.
Each of these factors serves as an important guidepost towards the development of a solid understanding of the current realities facing Indigenous peoples and their governments.
The Diversity of Indigenous Peoples
Recalling from Module 1 that Indigenous peoples are also referred in legal or constitutional terms as “Aboriginal”, section 35(2) of the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982 provides a definition of the “Aboriginal peoples of Canada” that includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis. Each of these constitutionally recognized categories of Aboriginal peoples reference a number of distinct Indigenous tribal groupings and at least ten separate linguistic groups. It is important to note that Indigenous peoples are not racial or ethnic groups. In a manner similar to most civil nation states, including Canada, criteria for determining citizenship and membership extends beyond the singular determinant of biological ancestry. Indigenous peoples base their membership and citizenship codes on a balance of the following criteria: ancestry, kinship and identification with a clan; knowledge of culture, language, legends, and spirituality; self-identification and community acceptance; and residency.
Figure 2-1: Map of pre-contact Indigenous nations in Canada. Source: Carapella, A. “Canada,” Tribal Nations Maps. http://www.tribalnationsmaps.com/store/c6/Canada.html Permission: Courtesy of author Aaron Carapella, Tribal Nations Maps, http://www.tribalnationsmaps.com/
Across the country, there are hundreds of different tribal communities that occupy definitive traditional territories that inspire distinct identities, histories, languages, socio-political values and ideologies, and legal systems. This diversity is further compounded by a number of important characteristics that are outlined in the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP 1996 vol. 2, “Governance,” 139). From this section, it is understood that Indigenous peoples across the country:
Speak many different languages at many different degrees of fluency.
Have distinctive cultures and traditions.
Vary in social, political and economic circumstances.
Hold unique political status within Canadian confederation (i.e., status Indians, treaty Indians, non-status Indians).
Some First Nations have negotiated historical treaty relationships that pre-date Confederation and some First Nations have negotiated modern-day treaties within the last forty
Some Indigenous groups have large land bases, some have small land bases, and others do not have any land base at all.
Some Indigenous groups have outstanding land claims; others have entered into land claim agreements.
Some make up the majority population in a territory or region, while others are significantly outnumbered by the surrounding general population.
Some enjoy relatively broad governmental powers and administer a wide range of services and programs while others are in the process of assuming greater governmental powers.
Some follow age-old pursuits and ways of life and others have embraced new and adapted ways.
The interplay of these various characteristics plays a significant role in designing appropriate government policies and programs. Obviously, then, template solutions will not work. Legislation needs to be tailored to specific communities.
Stephen Cornell and Joseph Kalt write of the need for a “cultural match” between tribal members and their governing institutions. Cultural match refers to the degree of fit between the formal institutions of governance and the informal understandings about how authority should be organized and exercised that are embedded in political culture of the particular indigenous tribe (Cornell and Kalt 1999, 20). Consider then, the challenges of enforcing Western-styles of governance in Indigenous communities where cultural match is lacking. How might this cause challenges to local governance?
Another important consideration for policy and program development involves the internal diversity of Indigenous communities. Like any other modern society, tribal communities host a wide range of internal diversity in terms of socio-economic divisions such as age, class, gender, political status and non-status designation, on-reserve and off-reserve residence, and urban and rural issues. Policy decisions tend to affect each constituent group differently which has led to a palpable undercurrent of conflict and contention that bursts into periodic flashpoints. For example, consider the role economic status plays in policy issues. Educated Indigenous middle-class persons who have a significant degree of employment and income security have a different set of policy needs and expectations than more economically marginalized members of the community who may rely primarily on social assistance for their income. Creating policy and practicing sound governance in Indigenous communities therefore must account for the diversity of needs of community members.
Traditions of Indigenous Governance
Indigenous aspirations of self-government and self-determination originate in traditional perspectives on politics and government. Indigenous peoples filter their political participation through an inherently different world view of political processes and institutions. For many peoples, these world views are inspired and protected by Indigenous knowledge and values, and the shared belief that each Indigenous regime is characteristic of the creative adaptation of a people to an ecological order (Battiste and Henderson 2000) along with the accompanying belief that the natural world is alive and spiritually replete (Whitt et al. 2001, 701). Accordingly, many Indigenous peoples infuse their political traditions with a deep sense of spirituality and a sense of the interconnectedness of all things and relations (RCAP 1996 vol. 2, “Governance,” 109).
While Indigenous worldviews contain differences across nations, there have been shared individual and collective experiences of colonial oppression and domination. The multitude of negative state interactions on an individual and community basis has led to a high level of distrust for government intervention.
According to the RCAP, many Indigenous people continue to be guided, to some degree, by traditional outlooks in their approach to governing their communities. The Royal Commission notes that in the political life of most First Nations is a close connection with the family, the land, and a strong sense of spirituality. In speaking to the Commission of their governance traditions, many Indigenous people emphasized the integrated nature of their spiritual, familial, economic and political spheres. While many non-Indigenous Canadians tend to see government as remote and distinct from the people and everyday life, Indigenous people generally view government in a holistic manner, as inseparable from the totality of communal practices that make up a way of life.
This outlook is reflected in Indigenous languages that express the concept of government in words meaning “our way of life” and “our life.” Leonard Nelson’s testimony provides an excellent example of this outlook (RCAP 1996 vol. 2, “Governance,” 115):
If you take the word bemodezewan, you will find that it is a great way of life. . . . That is why it is difficult when you ask an Indian person to describe self-government. How do you describe a way of life and its total inclusion of religious rights, social rights, government rights, justice rights and the use of the family as a system by which we live? . . . . We are not prepared at this time to separate those things. They are a way of life for our people.
Learning Activity 2-4: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
Important Aspects of Indigenous Traditions of Goverance
RCAP lists nine important traditions of governance (RCAP 1996 vol. 2, “Governance,” 116):
The centrality of the land
Individual autonomy and responsibility
The rule of law
The role of women
The role of elders
The role of the family and the clan
Consensus in decision-making
The restoration of traditional institutions
Remember, RCAP emphasized that there is no uniform Indigenous outlook on these topics. There is no consensus about the suitability of these terms to modern forms of governance. However, they certainly do reflect important considerations for community and government development initiatives.
Modern forms of First Nations’ Government and Administration
Not all Indigenous peoples in Canada are subject to the same forms or structures of governance. For many First Nations persons, on-reserve band government is the local governance institution that guides day to day operations in a community. Most non-status Indians, Inuit, and Metis persons have not been subject to band government because these groups were historically excluded from the Indian Act, a piece of federal legislation that heavily controls governance of most First Nations’ peoples in Canada. While Inuit, non-status, and Metis persons have been formally recognized as “Aboriginal” under the 1982 Constitution, they are excluded from the formal legal structure of the Indian Act and therefore also excluded from the institutional governing guidelines set out by this Act. First Nations’ communities who have a self-governing agreement are also excluded from Indian Act regulations. For these groups, this has a direct effect on the type of funding and institutional responsibility given to them by the federal government.
While the Indian Act will be explored in greater detail in Module 5, the following section will briefly outline how the Indian Act band government structure works in many First Nations’ reserve communities across. Click on the tabs to learn more about each element of the Indian Act:
1. Reserve system2. Reserves3. Reserve residence4. Band5. Band council6. Band council control of reserves7. Band council elections8. Tribal council9. Assembly of First Nations
Reserve system: created by the Indian Act; these tracts of lands called reserves were set aside for Indigenous peoples’ occupation and use; Indian Act also dictated the political structures (band councils) to administer governance on these lands. Historically, this system disrupted traditional forms of Indigenous governance and traditional Indigenous nation groupings as the types of governance and reserve groupings were dictated by the Department of Indian Affairs.
Reserves: are tracts of land assigned under treaties; reserves are usually controlled by a band council unless the community has signed a self-governance agreement. As of 2011, there were 3,100 reserves in Canada.
Reserve residence: generally, only band members are permitted to live permanently on a reserve, however as an increasing number of First Nations have gained control of their own membership lists (previously controlled by INAC and dependent upon Indian status) there are now provisions for residency of non-band members on certain reserves. Many bands also have off-reserve members and may hold urban offices to service the needs of these non-residents.
Band: sometimes called an Indian band or First Nations band. As of 2013, there were 614 bands in Canada. A band is the primary unit of governance used to administer governance on most reserves in Canada.
Band council: is the elected government of a First Nations band that includes a Chief and a minimum of two Council The number of Council positions depends on the number of band members. While band council positions are responsible for minor bylaw enforcement, major decision making has been historically controlled by Federal portfolios such as the Department of Indian Affairs (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada).
Band council control of reserves: most band councils are responsible for a single reserve; however some band councils control multiple parcels of land (reserves). Band councils receive federal funding for operations but many First Nations also have own-source revenue generated from local economic endeavours.
Band council elections: held every two years. There are rules in sections 74-79 of the Indian Act that provisionally dictate how band council elections should operate. According to INAC, 238 band councils hold their elections under this system. In 2015, the First Nations Elections Act came into force that operates as an “opt-in” system for band councils to expand their election cycle to four years.
Tribal councils: larger regional groupings of bands who act as collaborative organizations for the interests of the participating bands.
Assembly of First Nations: a national organization that represents the Chiefs of the more than 600 First Nations bands in Canada. This organization was modelled after the United Nations General Assembly. The AFN relies upon the Federal government for funding.
Learning Activity 2-5
How does band governance compare to municipal (city or town) governments in Canada? Add to the list of similarities and differences.
Federal-Indigenous Governance Relations
Many political challenges that exist in Indigenous policy making stem from the relationship between the Federal government and Indigenous communities. As will be explored in greater detail in Module 3, a long-standing history of colonialism and assimilation has made many First Nations communities mistrustful of the Federal government. The band council governance system was imposed on First Nations, disrupting traditional methods and forms of government. It also created a relationship of dependency between band councils and the federal government as reserve communities had to rely on the federal government for funding and resources. For band councils, there has been concerns that capping federal funding to First Nations has resulted in an inability to provide proper services for local populations.
Learning Activity 2-6
Review the CBC article How does native funding work? and note your thoughts on First Nations’ funding in the text box below. Did any of the points surprise you? You may consider these reflections for your learning journal. Be sure to save and download your answer.
Governance of Indigenous peoples has been conditioned by a history of colonialism, a relationship to be explored in the following Module. However, as the needs of Indigenous demographics have evolved over time, governance policy must adapt to the changes and unique circumstances of Indigenous communities.
There are many elements of traditional Indigenous governance that were not included in contemporary forms of Western governance structures, such as the band council system. However, as these traditional, often spiritually-orientated and land-based practices have remained central to Indigenous communities, there is a growing desire for greater autonomy of Indigenous populations in the form of self-governance. Elements of traditional Indigenous governance as identified by RCAP should be considered as we explore self-governance possibilities in later modules. Students should note that while there is no uniform Indigenous perspective on governance, there are many shared tenets that have been found across nations.
Finally, as students now have a basic overview of band government in Canada, the following modules will explore how this system evolved and what limitations exist for this style of governance. Particularly as funding limits and Indian Act regulations have restricted the autonomy of Indigenous communities there is growing awareness of the need for greater control of political life by Indigenous populations in order to preserve and promote their traditional forms of governance through self-governing agreements and modern treaties to encourage a cultural match between community and government model.
Self Test and Answers
Quiz yourself by writing down responses to each of these questions below. When finished, click each question to reveal the suggested answer. Doing the Self-Test in this way will help you prepare for the Midterms and Final Exam.
1. What are some key features of the contemporary political environment facing Indigenous peoples and their governments?
According to David Newhouse there are six features of the contemporary environment facing Aboriginal peoples: shift from rural to urban population bases, shift from tribal to institutional governing systems, emphasis on cultural identity and a revitalization of traditional cultural values, a shift from oral to textual recordings of Aboriginal life, and a growing emphasis on the need for forms of self-governance.
2. How does Indigenous self-government in Canada effect state and social relations?
Because Canada’s federal system of governance has historically focused on national/provincial relationships, there is debate over ways in which Indigenous self-governance would fit into this relationship. In Canada, Indigenous peoples were governed under historical paternalistic and colonial policies from the federal government and there is a demand for institutional change that would allow Indigenous groups to take a greater role and responsibility in the political future of their peoples.
3. Why is there demand for increased representation of Indigenous peoples within Canadian state and society?
Increased Indigenous participation offers the opportunity for the successful integration of western and Indigenous traditions, philosophies, and ideologies. When policy and programming strategies include the input of their targeted group, their potential for success dramatically increases and solutions are more in tune with the needs of the communities. In addition, participating stakeholders are more committed to supporting the initiatives if they have an active role in their creation and implementation.
4. Why is the term “Indigenous peoples” used instead of “Indigenous people”?
Indigenous groups in Canada are very diverse. They speak many different languages at many different degrees of fluency, have distinctive cultures and traditions, vary in social, political and economic circumstances, have varying negotiated treaty relationships and land claims, reside in vastly different geographical locations, and exercise a variety of ways of life, from traditional practices to modern or adapted ways of living.
5. What role do traditional forms and practices of governance continue to play in modern Indigenous societies?
While most Canadians tend to see government as remote and distinct from the people and everyday life, many Indigenous peoples generally view government in a holistic manner, as inseparable from the totality of communal practices that make up a way of life. Traditional forms of government are important because, unlike Westernized forms of government that keep public and private lives separate, traditional Indigenous kinship government systems emphasize and incorporate social, spiritual, and familial relations into government practices.
Indigenous peoples (in the plural): refers to organic political and cultural entities that stem historically from the original peoples of North America, not collections of individuals united by so-called racial characteristics. The term includes status and non-status Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.
Aboriginal or Indigenous self-governance: Refers to practices and/or agreements that create institutional capacity for Indigenous communities to contribute to or participate in governing operations that affect their lives. Usually this refers to greater control and law-making authority over a range of jurisdictions (political, social, economic, etc.)
Cultural Match: Refers to the degree of fit between the formal institutions of governance and the informal understandings about how authority should be organized and exercised that are embedded in political culture of the particular indigenous tribe (Cornell and Kalt 1998).
Indigenous: refers specifically to the original people of a particular territory, namely the traditional tribal grouping who are self-conscious of their prior use and occupation of the land. This is the preferred term in international discourse primarily because its definition reaches beyond domestic nation state borders.
Indian: refers to the First Nations people of Canada who are divided into the categories of status Indians, non-status Indians, and treaty Indians. Status Indians refer to those who meet the legislated status requirements as defined by the federal Indian Act and non-status Indians include those who identify as an Indian in some ethnic or cultural sense but fall outside the Indian Act definition. A treaty Indian is a person who relies on the terms of historical or modern treaty relationships to define their legal standing within Canada. Another important sub-category is on-reserve and off-reserve Indians.
Inuit: identifies the indigenous peoples of northern Canada, who live above the tree line in Nunavut, northern Quebec and Labrador.
Métis: There are two separate branches of Métis group identity and interests: the inclusive model that includes anyone of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry who does not have Indian status or the nationalist definition of Métis that connects identity to genealogical links with an historic Métis community such as the historic Red River and Rupert’s Land Métis Nation (Giokas and Chartrand 2003).
Battiste, Marie. "James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson." Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge (2000): 35-36.
Cornell, Stephen, and Joseph P. Kalt. "Sovereignty and nation-building: The development challenge in Indian country today." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 22, no. 3 (1998): 187-214.
Giokas, John and Paul L. A. H. Chartrand. “Who are the Métis? A Review of the Law and Policy,” in Who are Canada's Aboriginal Peoples?: Recognition, Definition and Jurisdiction, edited by Paul L. A. H. Chartrand. Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing, 2003.
Hunter, Anna. "Exploring the issues of Aboriginal representation in federal elections." Electoral Insight 5, no. 3 (2003): 27-33.
Hunter, Anna. "The politics of Aboriginal self-government." Canadian Politics: Critical Reflections (2006): 24-39.
Whitt, Laurie Anne, Mere Roberts, Waerete Norman, and Vicki Grieves. "Belonging to land: Indigenous knowledge systems and the natural world." Oklahoma City University Law Review 26 (2001): 701.
Cornell, Stephen, and Joseph P. Kalt. "Sovereignty and nation-building: The development challenge in Indian country today." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 22, no. 3 (1998): 187-214. Available online at: http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/hpaied/ docs/PRS98-25.pdf
Hunter, Anna. "The politics of Aboriginal self-government." Canadian Politics: Critical Reflections (2006): 24-39.
Warry, Wayne. Unfinished dreams: Community healing and the reality of Aboriginal self-government. University of Toronto Press, 1998.