Within democratic political systems, the ultimate source of authority rests with the citizens who elect a government.
Accordingly, elections serve as the primary tool of accountability. Because citizens elect government officials in positions of power, they have the right to hold government accountable and to oust leaders they perceive to be unaccountable.
In 1996, the Auditor General of Canada studied accountability from the perspective of First Nations and found that federal government “did not invent accountability and that it was practiced by First Nations in their own way prior to contact.”
In the pre-colonial era, First Nation leaders were primarily accountable in two ways. One was spiritual accountability.
Owning to their holistic worldview, First Nations understood governance to be interconnected with family, land and spirituality. Failure of leadership to adhere to the Creator’s laws could result in consequences detrimental to the nation.
A Chief explained that leaders were careful not to stray from high moral standards because “For First Nations, the teaching was the Creator knows and you can’t fool him, you can’t lie. If you lie, you will pay, and your people will suffer.”
Second, First Nation leaders were accountable to their people, largely through consensus decision making. The consensus requirement was interdependent with accountability because leaders would inevitably have to report back to the people the results of decisions.
Indigenous lawyer John Borrows tells us that reporting often took place in ceremonial settings where leaders publicly relayed to the Creator and people how they had fulfilled their leadership obligations.
The Indian Act eliminated traditional accountability practices of First Nation governments. First, the western political standard of separating church and state was applied in the Indian Act in that there was no mention of spirituality within the context of band governance.
Over time, the absence of spirituality in Indian Act band governance would have eroded traditional forms of spiritual accountability.
The Indian Act also abolished the traditional requirement of First Nation leaders to be answerable to their people by making band council exclusively accountable to the Minister of Indian Affairs.
Astonishingly, the Indian Act does not require band council to provide any financial, program or planning information to nation members.
Criticizing the accountability deficit, Indigenous lawyer Calvin Helin commented: “That is the one of the biggest defects of the system of governance set out under the Indian Act. Even though elected Chiefs and Council are voted in through community elections, they are not ultimately accountable to the very community members that elected them in the first place.”
Despite the Indian Act, many First Nation governments have taken it upon themselves to be accountable to their people through such means as internal reporting policies, regular general band meetings and posting financial and program reports online.
Nevertheless, the Indian Affairs website confirms that “there is no current requirement for them to do so.”
Frances Abele summarized the political problems caused by the foreign band governance system when she remarked that “The Indian Act has a powerful impact on the quality of democracy in band governments. Having the force of law and backed by financial power, the Act mandates one particular set of institutions and practices at the exclusion of others. In this way, it affects the abilities of First Nations to shape more accountable and democratic governments.”
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.