Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Spinning Wheels: Surmounting the Indian Act's Impact on Traditional Indigenous Governance

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Spinning Wheels: Surmounting the Indian Act's Impact on Traditional Indigenous Governance

Article excerpt


Media stories routinely report the vices of First Nations governance with alarming headlines that give the impression of widespread corruption in First Nations communities (Sandberg 2009). Nepotism is commonly cited as proof of corruption with reports of First Nations leadership providing preferential treatment to their families and supporters (Derrick 2013). Despite the persistence of negative news reports, systematic evidence that most First Nations governments in Canada are corrupt has not been forthcoming. (1) Nevertheless, there are governance problems in some Indigenous communities. Critics of First Nations governments have included Indigenous writers. Most provocative has been Calvin Helin, a lawyer from Lax Kw'alaams First Nation in British Columbia who wrote about nepotism, lack of accountability and band member complaints against their band councils (2006).

Why do some First Nations struggle with governance? The argument in this article is that contrary to the popular opinion that First Nations have only themselves to blame, a more reasonable explanation is that band governance, and the ineffectiveness that can result from governing under that structure, is the root of the problem. The Indian Act forces First Nations to abandon their traditional governance structures and adopt the foreign system of band governance. Traditional clan-based leadership selection, for example, was replaced with elections and can induce favouritism. Other changes include the replacement of accountability to nation members with upward ministerial accountability; consensus decision making with majority rule; and collectivism with individualism. Writers of Indigenous issues believe the dramatic political changes brought about by Indian Act band governance have contributed to the political problems experienced by some First Nations. Ken Coates, an academic researcher on Indigenous issues, articulated this belief:

Critics of Indian Act governments, and there are many across the country, suggest that the corruption and political difficulties encountered on some reserves is a direct consequence of the Indian Act. Only the removal of the Act, and the establishment of truly Indigenous governments, they suggest, will result in proper management and governance in Aboriginal communities (2008:10).

This article discusses one set of findings from dissertation research on First Nations governance in Western Canada. The study examines how First Nations governments, despite enduring ongoing legacies of colonization and operating under the Indian Act, a law that does not support good democratic governance, have worked to achieve and maintain effective governance. For this article, findings related to the Indian Act's impact on traditional clan-based systems of First Nations governance will be discussed: particularly, in what ways Indian Act elections can perpetuate nepotism and reinforce the status quo.


To understand the present-day challenges that First Nations face, it is necessary to learn about their past. If history is ignored, it would aid the general conclusion that First Nations were inherently corrupt and brought problems unto themselves. This section examines the changing landscape of First Nations governance from pre-contact traditional governance through to Indian Act band governance. The intent of this brief historical review is to provide the context needed to appreciate fully the governance challenges numerous First Nation communities confront today.

Traditional First Nations governance

Prior to European settlement, North America was inhabited by "independent self-governing Indigenous nations, with their own distinct cultures, languages, and systems of law and government" (Murphy 2001: 113). The basic political unit of self-governing traditional First Nations was extended families most often organized by clans (Alfred 1995; Beatty, Berndahl and Poelzer 2012; Boissoneau 2007; Borrows 2010; Helin 2006; Long 1990; Snow 2005). …

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