Principle 4: Indigenous self-government

This article is part of a series analyzing the Canadian Federal Government’s “10 Principles respecting the relationship with Indigenous peoples”. Click here to start over at the beginning.)

Principle #4 Reads:

Indigenous self-government is part of Canada’s evolving system of cooperative federalism and distinct orders of government.

Distinct Self-Governing Nations

Indigenous Nationhood precedes what we call Canada.

Roughly 50 distinct Nations co-existed on this land, governing themselves by their laws. Indigenous Nations traded with each other, built allegiances and at times warred. They also created treaties. 

Treaties are legal agreements between Nations. The “evolving system of cooperative federalism” that we call Canada was built on treaties between the British Empire and Indigenous Nations. The courts have affirmed Indigenous self-government sui generis – unique and distinct from cooperative federalism and distinct orders of government. Were Indigenous Nations involved in defining cooperative federalism as the democratic framework for Canada?.

Principle 4 does not specify if Indigenous self-government acknowledges such Indigenous Nations or if it is merely revised language for band governance under the Indian Act. Are we talking self-governing Indigenous Nations or Indian Act established communities? 

How did we go from Cooperation to Paternalism?

Dr. Mark Aquash an Anishinaabe scholar of the Thunder clan from Walpole Island First Nation between Ontario and the United States wrote an excellent historical account rooted in Indigenous perspective with First Nations in Canada: Decolonization and Self-Determination:

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the European immigrant population in North America was dependent on First Nations for their Indigenous knowledge and technological skills so they could adapt and survive in the new environment. Much of the Indigenous knowledge that European immigrants learned from the First Nations people had been absorbed into the North American consciousness and is a large part of contemporary Canada’s unique culture today.” Can we better integrate Indigenous knowledge into Canada’s unique culture today?

A lot of scholarly work has looked at how the Iroquois Confederacy shaped Canada’s constitutional democracy influencing colonial governance in both Canada and the United States. This Nation scale of self-governance was later undermined by the Eurocentric colonial interests.

The War of 1812 marked a distinct shift in the policy of British North America. Assimilation policy devaluing Indigenous institutions and culture has since been the norm. Indigenous cultural practices were made illegal, and cultural practices went underground. Can there be enough of a resurgence of Indigenous culture for self-governing Nations to operate as they did pre-contact?

Can we go from Paternalism to Cooperation?

Colonial policy has dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land and culture.

The self-governing Nations have been divided into no less than 634 recognized First Nation governments or bands which function more like a municipal structure to supply “education, health and well-being” as defined by original treaty obligations of Canada to Indigenous peoples. This Indian Act governance structure is seen to be paternalistic, how can we deliver vital services and support Nations rebuilding traditional culture and governance?

Are we talking Indigenous Nations or Indigenous Municipalities?

Will Indigenous self-governance be relegated to a municipal framework, nestled within the distinct orders of government within Canada’s evolving cooperative federalism? Or will the federal government support the reconciliation of whole Nations self-governing?

The vital needs for education, health, and well-being for Indigenous people – including but not limited to clean drinking water – are critical. The municipal model is what we have to implement infrastructure and services within Canada.

Yet what of the Hereditary Governance systems that have been systematically undermined? Does the Honour of the Crown extend to rebuilding Nations from what remains of cultures that were once, and not long ago, outlawed?

What are your thoughts?

What do you see happening with Principle #4? Can Canada reconcile 200 plus years of assimilationist policy with the 10 Principles? Can Indigenous Nations overcome the barriers built to practicing their inherent right to self-govern? And if so, how?

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