Aboriginal Self-Government through Constitutional Design: A Survey of Fourteen Aboriginal Constitutions in Canada

By Alcantara, Christopher; Whitfield, Greg | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Aboriginal Self-Government through Constitutional Design: A Survey of Fourteen Aboriginal Constitutions in Canada


Alcantara, Christopher, Whitfield, Greg, Journal of Canadian Studies


Despite a rich and diverse literature on the revitalization of Indigenous legal traditions and constitutional orders, no one has yet looked at modern Aboriginal constitutions in Canada. This essay draws upon the comparative constitutional design and Aboriginal politics literatures to describe and analyze the texts of 14 Aboriginal constitutions. The findings suggest that these constitutional documents are similar to non-Aboriginal ones in many ways. Specifically, both deal with similar political problems and try to express and protect local political cultures. In short, they represent practical attempts to marry Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal constitutional orders and legal traditions in the contemporary context. Students of Aboriginal politics and law should pay greater attention to these documents, and especially to their origins and evolution over time.

Malgré l'abondance et la diversité de la documentation sur la revitalisation des traditions juridiques et des ordonnances constitutionnelles autochtones, personne n'a encore examiné les constitutions autochtones modernes au Canada. Le présent article s'inspire de modèles constitutionnels comparatifs et de la littérature sur les politiques autochtones pour décrire et analyser les textes de 14 constitutions autochtones. Les résultats suggèrent que ces documents constitutionnels sont similaires de plusieurs façons à des documents constitutionnels non autochtones. En particulier, ils traitent tous de problèmes politiques semblables et ils essaient de présenter et de protéger les cultures politiques locales. En gros, ils représentent des tentatives pratiques de combiner des ordonnances constitutionnelles et des traditions juridiques autochtones et non autochtones dans un contexte contemporain. Les gens qui étuthent la politique et le droit autochtones devraient porter une plus grande attention à ces documents et, particulièrement, à leurs origines et à leur évolution dans le temps.

Indigenous legal traditions have a long history in Canada, preceding Canada's legal traditions by many generations (Alfred 2005, 2009; Henderson 2006, chap. 4; Ladner 2005; Law Commission of Canada 2007; RCAP 1996; SIattery 2008; Walters 2009). These complex and developed traditions, like other elements of Indigenous cultures, reflect the diverse sets of beliefs and practices that are unique to each Indigenous group in Canada (Borrows 2006, 1). While European settlers initially recognized and worked within these Indigenous legal traditions, they eventually attempted to eliminate these practices through assimilation, with devastating effects (Alfred 2009; Borrows 2006, 5-6; Henderson 2006, chap. 1; Ladner 2009).

Although European and Canadian settlers were somewhat successful in their assimilative campaign, the wider cultural frameworks of Indigenous peoples, including legal traditions, have not disappeared. Indeed, "many Aboriginal communities today are actively revitalizing their legal traditions and developing contemporary laws based on the values that informed and shaped their traditional approaches to the governance of human relationships and dispute resolution" (Borrows 2006, 7; see also Alfred 2009). Recent scholarship, for instance, has documented how Indigenous peoples have worked towards "protection, repatriation, and control of their cultural heritage in accordance with their laws" (Bell and Napolean 2008, 1), while other works identify environmental concerns as a central impetus in the resurgence of Aboriginal legal traditions (Borrows 2002, chap. 2).

The mechanisms through which this revitalization is taking place have also been diverse (Hurlbert and McKenzie 2008; Kuokkanen 2007; Ladner 2009; Rafoss 2008; Whyte 2008). For instance, John Borrows argues in favour of a Canadian jurisprudence that respects and incorporates Aboriginal legal traditions and thought into judicial decision-making (2002, 6-12). In a separate vein, Richard Overstall identifies several cases of informal negotiation and bargaining that show promise for accommodating Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal legal traditions (2008, 110-112).

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