The Indian Act footprint of Indigenous Governance

Current affairs on Turtle Island or Canada show the continuing struggles of indigenous people across the land. What is the historical legacy that leads to the disconnection between land stewards and settlers?

Pre-settler, the original people lived within developed systems of governance, laws and customs that honoured spirituality. With the settler invasion, Christianity came cloaked as spirituality. However, underlying this religious invasion was the colonist mentality of greed, superiority and materialism. It is this same underlying thinking that has desecrated the original ways of the indigenous people.

From the earliest contact, indigenous people shared and were inclusive of the newcomers. Initially the newcomers relied upon the original people to guide them and to help them survive in this unchartered (to them) land. The indigenous people knew every stream or river. The indigenous knew the best places to hunt, gather or take winter refuge. It is this knowledge that continues as a land based relationship.

From the land and spiritual guidance comes the original ways of governance. There are no terms for hierarchical positions in many indigenous languages only terms to differentiate between positioning within families, clans and in relation to the larger community. The language like the land and the people are equal and interconnected.

Contrast this understanding with the divine right of kings, aristocracy or the ruling classes. Many settlers came to North America to escape hierarchies and societal fates. Their comparator was a harsh environment where every man, woman or child struggled for themselves. They were not familiar with structures that worked together for the benefit of all.

It is with this selfish mindset that the first colonial settlers began legislation like the Indian Act (1876). This legislation followed earlier British Acts including the Royal Proclamation (1763) and the British North America Act (1867). The Indian Act contained the ways that the original people would be divested of their land and way of life. One significant factor was the stipulations for voting in a chief and council or a “democratic” system of governance. This thinking did not acknowledge or understand the original peoples careful community based leadership models.

The initial acts of removal to reserves, forced starvation and genocide with smallpox blankets were not enough to terminate Canada’s first peoples. In Clearing the Plains, James Daschuk documents that Indian agents selected “more amenable” tribal members to assume leadership roles, quickly crushing any vestiges of original autonomy or inherited leadership values.

This action allowed someone untrained or a person not mentored by the community to break from community held practices. Indian agents usually rewarded this individual with more food, blankets or better shelter. Therefore, the roots of interfering in the original ways of governance were established.

The breakdown of the original people continues. The prohibitions begin to pile up. There are passes to leave the reserve. If one wants to get schooling, serve in the army or marry a non-native (for a woman), it is disenfranchisement. Overnight the original people are no longer themselves or in the federal language, no longer Indians. Similar impediment laws continue to lead the original people to forced assimilation or to other means of dealing with this legislative trauma including suicide or addictions leading to death.

There is also a 100-year period of residential schools and forced removal of Indian children that did not end with residential school closure but came under a new authority – child welfare or child and family services.

We see the historical beginnings of colonial influence on original governance. Hereditary leaders who balked at being moved, getting passes or watching their people starve, were quickly put aside as dissidents. Have things changed in 140 years?

Band members vote in today’s Indian leadership models. To the ordinary Canadian this seems fair because there is no accurate historical knowledge of colonial or federal interference. What is not common knowledge is that reserves are comprised of nation members who are clans who can then vote as a block. If this happens then the same chief and council can be re-elected despite platforms, mismanagement or oppressive policies. Is this democracy?

In traditional governance systems, different ways of choosing headman or council members had been in practice. With the interference of the successor colonizer state, this tainted governance system is now in First Nation communities. There have been allegations of corruption, vote buying, vote tampering, calls for forensic audits, and other requests from membership trying to challenge “indigenous governance”. Are they challenging indigenous governance, that is the long held traditional governance practices of their people, or are they really challenging the puppet chief and council systems of the successor colonizer state?

If there is a voting block of clans or groups that keep in a chief and council what happens to their opposition? In a municipality, people run on platforms. If there are problems encountered mayors must treat all members equally because they don’t know who voted for or against them. On reserve, we know. On reserve there are membership lists with family listings so you know that this family has 80 votes, or this has 25. You can in effect gauge the number of votes you will receive if you run for office.

You can also choose not to help those who voted “against” you. It is denial of jobs, access to education funds or training dollars, and other various “rights”. Is this fair? And where can people complain about or remedy this situation? They can go to mainstream courts for judicial reviews or civil courts but remember these complainants are impoverished and voiceless. Furthermore, if government made this one-sided governance system, why would courts treat it differently?

Even today, in 2016, “chiefs” will become angry if indigenous people question their authority. One basic tenet of administrative law is that there must always be a grievance mechanism in place. Therefore, in reconciling nation-to-nation talks, essentially it is Canada the successor state talking to the leadership that Canada has influenced. Is it any wonder that problems continue to run rampant across this land for the original people?

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