Why Do First Nations People Demand Self-Governance?
How the Canadian government disregards First Nations' claims to sovereignty
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving in Canada, you’ll often see social media flooded with more posts and memes about First Nations’ rights, land theft, and colonialism. That the indigenous peoples of Canada were here first is common knowledge, and that settler society has done harmful and racist things against First Nations people is well-known. But there is still a fairly large gap in the general understanding of what, exactly, happened—and about what issues First Nations people in Canada continue to face.
One such topic is of self-governance. Why do First Nations people demand it? Why do they feel so entitled to this right, when their populations are so small and they are so reliant on the Canadian government for support? Is this just a case of them wanting to have their cake and eat it too?
First, a quick history lesson. When colonizers arrived in the region now known as Canada, they encountered the various indigenous tribes that already occupied and thrived in this land. The exact details of all that happened during this early era of European and First Nations relations is too complicated and expansive to get into here, but this is what matters: The colonizers signed Treaties with First Nations people. (Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc. 2015; Chiefs of Ontario; Mann 2013; Elliott 2018) Treaties mark a nation-to-nation relationship—both parties involved in creating and signing these Treaties were sovereign nations in their own right, and the existence and recognition of those Treaties reasserts that sovereignty (Elliott 2018; Mann 2013; Chiefs of Ontario).
Sovereign nations have the right to self-governance and non-interference from the governments of other nations. (Mann 2013) Non-interference means just that – sovereign nations can’t interfere in the governance of other sovereign nations. That’s why Canada doesn’t write policies effecting the governance of France, for example. This means that, by the sovereignty they held before European contact and which is reasserted by the Treaties signed with the Crown (and taken over by the Canadian government), First Nations have the right to determine and manage their own systems of government, without input, supervision, or any other forms of control and interference from the Canadian government.
So the question should not be: “Why do First Nations people demand self-governance?” Instead, we should be asking: “When and how were these rights stripped away? And what does this mean for First Nations people?”
There are a lot of moving parts and key moments in the Canadian government’s process of asserting its control over First Nations, politically and economically, but the British North America Act is certainly notable. Enacted in 1876 and later called The Constitution Act, it created the Dominion of Canada (The Globe and Mail 2017), and granted the government authority to enforce its own laws and policies over indigenous people’s and their lands. (Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc. 2015) This was done by British Parliament without input or consent from First Nations (The Globe and Mail 2017). This was followed by a long history of the Canadian government asserting sovereignty and authority over people and issues it had no right no right to control, but had become the De facto sovereign leader of by enforcing this control (Mann 2013).
But does this matter? Is it not a good thing to have one, unified government managing and overseeing the issues of such a widespread population, using its authority to spread knowledge, tools, and resources over the massive territory of Canada?
To be more specific, the Canadian government might assert that it knows what’s best for First Nations people, or that it has their best interests at heart, but that does not mean that its actual actions and policies are positive for these groups or are developed with their needs and interests in mind.
There are a number of issues that self-governance would allow First Nations to reclaim power over and reshape with their own spirituality, economics, politics, and way of life in mind, including education, housing, health care, social services, etc. (Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc. 2015) Recognition of First Nations sovereignty is vital to their ability to thrive and separate themselves from systems of dependency created by the Canadian government (an exploration of which could be a whole separate essay), and will also allow First Nations people to more effectively protect their traditional territory and enforce more sustainable forms of economic development (Mann 2013).
This isn’t just better for First Nations people—it’s good for all peoples of Canada. Moreover, it’s not up to Canada to decide what’s best for First Nations people, just as Canada can’t decide what’s best for France, or Germany, or the United States, or any other sovereign nation.
Chiefs of Ontario. ‘Understanding First Nations Sovereignty.’ Retrieved October 10, 2019 (http://www.chiefs-of-ontario.org/first-nations/sovereignty/).
Elliott, Alicia. 2018. ‘A Memo to Canada: Indigenous People Are Not Your Incompetent Children.’ The Globe and Mail. Retrieved October 10, 2019 (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/indigenous-memo-to-canada-were-not-your-incompetent-children/article37511319/).
Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc. 2015 ‘Why do Aboriginal Peoples Want Self-Government?’ Retrieved October 10, 2019 (https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/why-do-aboriginal-peoples-want-self-government).
Mann, Spencer. 2013. ‘Sovereignty: Do First Nations Need It?’ Idle No More. Retrieved October 10, 2019 (http://www.idlenomore.ca/sovereignty_do_firstnations_need_it).
The Globe and Mail. 2017. ‘An Enduring Compromise.’ The Globe and Mail. Retrieved October 13, 2019 (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canada-150/an-enduring-compromise-150-years-since-the-british-north-america-act-1867-became-law/article34468557/).