Hereditary Chiefs vs. Elected Chiefs: What’s the difference (and why it’s important)

Sign from Wet'suwet'en protests. Photo: Jason Hargove, Flickr

The Wetʼsuwetʼen protests in 2019 and 2020 were widely reported on and sparked public interest around one of many misconceptions of Hereditary Chiefs and Elected Chiefs, and what differences they have in an Indigenous community. When the elected chiefs voted TransCanada, now known as TC Energy, to allow Coastal GasLink to begin construction through their territory, the resulting reactions from the traditional hereditary chiefs, an Indigenous governance that pre-dates colonialism pushed back the project, causing costly delays for the company.

It begs the question, how can a nation have both? What happens in these instances, where they may disagree?

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Frank Calder: The Man Who Moved the Mountain

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This is another installment in our series on the people behind the transformational court cases that affect Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Please visit Delbert Guerin Defender of the Musqueam Nation and Delgamuukw and Gisday’way to learn about the men behind those court cases.

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Indigenous Self-Government Clarification

Longhouse at UBC Museum of Anthropology. Photo: Thomas Quine, Flickr

“Indigenous self-government” is a term that carries some misunderstanding. And as we’re likely to be hearing it about it more frequently as Indigenous nations increasingly move away from the Indian Act, it seems like a good time to provide some clarity on what it is and what it isn’t.

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What is the Nation Rebuilding Program?

In January 2019, a situation arose in northern BC that brought to the public’s attention the fact that some Indigenous communities have two forms of leadership, hereditary and elected. The public also became aware that the two forms of government have different roles and responsibilities and that they may not necessarily agree.

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What are First Nation inherent rights?

For some First Nation people, inherent rights are rights bestowed upon them by the Creator who placed them on Turtle Island and provided them with instruction on how to live. While not all creation stories are the same they all share this theme. The Creator’s instruction formed the basis of the traditional knowledge, culture, traditions and oral traditions that have directed First Nations ever since. Therefore, First Nation inherent rights are not granted by the Crown and attempts to insinuate otherwise will be met with arguments of assimilation.

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What Is Indigenous Self-Reliance?

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Indigenous Peoples want the ability to participate in the political, and more importantly, the economic mainstream without having to rely on federal funding to meet their community needs. In addition to business opportunities, they also want to get into the realm of taxes, royalties and revenue sharing on land developments which are viewed as critical to becoming self-reliant.

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Why Do Indigenous Peoples Want Self-Government?

'Namgis Traditional Big House, Alert Bay, BC. Photo: David Abercombie, Flickr

Perhaps a more accurate question would be, “Why do Indigenous Peoples want self-government back?” Long before European contact, Indigenous Peoples had their own established political systems and institutions – they were self-governing. And Indigenous Peoples have been trying to regain the right to govern themselves and preserve their cultural identities since the British North America Act in 1867. Now known as the Constitution Act, it gave the federal government the authority to make laws about “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians” [1] – or, in other words, apply Euro-Canadian ideals, policies and laws on Indigenous societies. In 1887, Nisga’a and Tsimshian chiefs journeyed to Victoria to request treaties and self-government – it would not be until 2000 that the Nisga’a Treaty was signed.

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Self-Government Arrangements - 4 Examples

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When we take a look at the day-to-day operations of a band we see that all the actions of the band are directed in accordance with the Indian Act. This is a huge problem for bands, and their politicians, because it means that while they are elected by their people, they are accountable to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development of Canada. Their preference would be to change to a system where the governing leaders are elected and accountable to their people. Such models do exist and the communities with self-government arrangements have done well in terms of the nation-building process. Here are four examples:

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Indigenous Peoples of Treaty No. 6 Territory and the Queen Commemorate the History of the Crown and Treaties

May 29, 2012, Traditional territory of Treaty No. 6…Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island (Canada) have always had a unique relationship with the British Monarchy through the Treaties that were agreed to with the Crown. Treaty No.6 was entered with the Crown at Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan in 1876 and is central to a special celebration taken place next week. Onion Lake Cree Nation through its Treaty Governance Secretariat will be hosting an “historic” Treaty No.6 Summit from June 3-7, 2012. This big celebration will also coincide with Queen of England’s, Diamond Jubilee which marks the 60th year of her reign.

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Why does Aboriginal Self-Government Matter?

Why does Aboriginal self-government matter?  It matters because it is one of the key building blocks for strengthening and supporting Aboriginal governments thereby promoting and supporting a greater self-reliance. Communities that negotiate self-government agreements assume the power to govern their internal affairs and make the decisions that affect their community.

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