Prior to European settlement, First Nations were independent and had their own laws and governance systems.
We know from Indigenous writers and the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that most traditional First Nations governance systems were centered on extended families, most often organized by clans.
According to anthropological research, there were two main styles of traditional First Nations governance: hierarchical and egalitarian. For both styles, family was central to the way First Nations organized their traditional governance institutions.
This included leadership selection, which was predominantly family-based. In non-hereditary First Nation societies, clan members agreed to the appointment of a relative to lead their clan and represent its interests at the collective political table.
Thus, a nation’s main governing body consisted of leaders from each clan. Decisions were typically made by consensus, meaning that every member of every clan had to agree before a decision could be passed (see Long, 1990).
Family-based leadership selection combined with consensus decision-making ensured equality because each clan, no matter its size, was represented in government through its kin-leader and had an equal say in political decision-making.
While no governance structure was trouble-free, clan-based political systems worked for First Nations and sustained their communities for centuries.
Although the Royal Proclamation of 1763 established a fiduciary relationship between the Crown and First Nations and called for their protection, assimilation had been on the mind of colonial government early on.
When First Nations refused to assimilate voluntarily, Canada concluded that traditional governance was blocking assimilation and passed the Gradual Enfranchisement Act in 1869.
This act ruled out autonomous traditional First Nations governance and implemented a male-only elective system. The Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs reported to the Canadian legislature that the law’s election provisions would speed-up assimilation and replace the “irresponsible” system of traditional First Nations governance with a responsible form of elected governance (see Holmes, 2002). The election provisions were carried over to the original Indian Act of 1876 and have been there since.
Government’s plan to destroy all traces of traditional First Nations governance failed. Despite the enforcement of elections, traditional family-based leadership selection practices survived in that clans continued to select relatives to represent them on the governing council.
But Indian Act elections transformed family-based leadership selection from a consensus approach that ensured equal representation and power for all clans to a majority-based system that allowed the large clans to have the deciding vote. Elections created inequality as it gave the large clans more political clout than the smaller clans. As the Indian Act only permits a limited number of council seats, majority rule can often result in an elected council that consists primarily of members from large clans.
Leaders that want to be re-elected, including the visionary ones, are essentially pushed by the election system to keep their supporters, many of them relatives, happy.
How is that more responsible than traditional First Nations governance where all clans, regardless of size, had equal power and representation, where everyone had a say in political decision-making and where all nation members were treated fairly and had the same access to community resources?
Dr. Terry Poucette is an assistant teaching professor at the school of public administration at the University of Victoria, where she also earned her PhD. She is a member of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation Wesley band and her research interests include First Nations governance and Indigenous leadership. Poucette writes Culture and Politics as a monthly column for the Rocky Mountain Outlook and Cochrane Eagle.