Why Do Indigenous Peoples Want Self-Government?

February 26, 2015

'Namgis Traditional Big House, Alert Bay, BC. Photo: David Abercombie, Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/albategnius/29682238760
'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.

For Indigenous Peoples, the return to self-government is considered foundational to nation-building. Agreements are critical to communities that want to contribute to and participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

Generally speaking, a return to self-government shapes social and economic well-being and can include provisions for:

  • Education
  • Health care and social services
  • Police services
  • Housing
  • Property rights
  • Child welfare
  • Agreements

Self-government is often referred to as an “inherent” right, pre-existing in Indigenous occupation and government of the land prior to European settlement. Some Indigenous people balk at the concept of Canadian governments granting them self-government because they believe the Creator gave them the responsibilities of self-government, and that right has never been surrendered – it was simply taken by government legislation. In this light, self-government does not have to be recognized by federal or provincial governments because the right continues to exist.

In August 1995, the Government of Canada formally recognized the inherent right of self-government for Indigenous Peoples by releasing its Federal Policy Guide: Aboriginal Self-Government – The Government of Canada’s Approach to Implementation of the Inherent Right and the Negotiation of Aboriginal Self-Government (shorthand title is the “Policy Guide”), which provides, in part:

The Government of Canada recognizes the inherent right of self-government as an existing Aboriginal right under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. It recognizes, as well, that the inherent right may find expression in treaties, and in the context of the Crown’s relationship with treaty First Nations. Recognition of the inherent right is based on the view that the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada have the right to govern themselves in relation to matters that are internal to their communities, integral to their unique cultures, identities, traditions, languages and institutions, and with respect to their special relationship to their land and their resource” [2] (emphasis added)

Attaining a self-government agreement is not readily done, as the Nisga’a can attest. There is no “one-size fits all” template. There was an attempt in the 41st Parliament session (June 2011 – September 2013) to introduce a First Nations Self-Government Recognition Act (Bill S-212), but it died on the vine.

While self-government is not a quick fix for the deeply rooted social, health and economic issues that plague Indigenous communities, it is a step towards empowering communities to rebuild and heal from the intergenerational effects of residential schools.

You may notice that we use Indigenous, Aboriginal and First Nations in this article. Terminology relating to Indigenous Peoples is evolving. For clarity on the different terms used and why, please consider downloading our free ebook, Indigenous Peoples: A Guide to Terminology.

This post was updated in January 2023.

[1] Section 91(24) The British North America Act
[2] Federal Policy Guide: Aboriginal Self-Government – The Government of Canada’s Approach to Implementation of the Inherent Right and the Negotiation of Aboriginal Self-Government

Learn more about Indigenous Awareness

Topics: Indigenous Self-Government

  • There are no suggestions because the search field is empty.
Covenant House logo, photo of Trevor Snider - Commemorating a Reconciliation Ally - Donate today!

About this Blog

Let this blog be your guide to Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples®. We have hundreds of articles loaded with tips, suggestions, videos, and free eBooks for you. Happy reading!

Subscribe to the Indigenous Relations Newsletter

Recent Posts

Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., provides information on this blog for free as a resource for those seeking information about Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Readers looking for more detailed information, or who have questions, can sign up for our fee-for-service training. Also, ICT encourages everyone who reads this information to use their best judgment given their own circumstances, vulnerabilities, and needs, and to contact a consulting or legal professional if you have more specific questions. Join the conversation over on our Linkedin page.