Select Page

Indigenous Politics

Introduction by Rebecca Major

On “Indigenous Politics”

Problematic when studying Political Science is the centralization of western political thought. This approach neglects the history and political organization of Original Peoples who were marginalized through colonial processes. Just as John Borrows recommends integrating Indigenous knowledge in Canadian legal processes and learning, the same should apply to political science. When learning about political history on Turtle Island, regardless of the topic, Indigenous Peoples and political organization should be central, which leads to conversations about relationships and the impacts of colonization. Significantly, much of Canada’s legislative and constitutional history includes Indigenous Peoples, yet too often Indigenous political interaction is ignored or treated as an “add on” topic.

Here, rather than reflect on the relationship of Indigenous politics to “Canadian Political Science,” I provide an historical overview of First Nations and Métis politics and political engagement, followed by notes on Inuit Politics and political engagement, and concluding thoughts on the contemporary study of Indigenous politics.

An Historical Overview of First Nations and Métis Politics and Political Engagement

Before contact and colonization, Indigenous societies engaged in politics and diplomacy, and political protocols existed within and between communities. The diversity between different Indigenous Nations is reflected in cultural practices and is important because there was no pan-Indigenous political identity. Historically, Indigenous confederacies existed across Turtle Island (North America). For example, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy predates colonialism and includes elements of relationship protocols, laws, and treaties exemplified through Wampum (treaty belts). Confederacies were a way to come together to use politics and relationships to deal with outside threats. Today, many confederacies are built on pre-contact law and endure as part of modern governance structures.

Following colonization, there was diplomatic engagement between Indigenous groups and European powers, creating relationship agreements (treaties) protected under constitutional law. Because there was a competition between French and English colonizers, treaties were used as tools by the European powers to assert colonial dominance and create alliances with Indigenous Nations. The Nations involved entered into agreements with the expectation of respect, a founding principle of the treaties. In the years leading up to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Peace and Friendship Treaties and Peace and Neutrality Treaties established formal political relationships. These agreements include Indigenous rights that the judicial system continues to interpret. For example, Donald Marshall Jr. proved the relevance of these historical treaties when he proved he had a treaty right to trap lobster with a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision.

In the 19th century, the diplomatic relationship between Indigenous Nations and the British Crown shifted, and land treaties were negotiated using community diplomacy. These land treaties became the means for the Crown to dispossess Indigenous Peoples from their land. This shift also created the need for new forms of diplomacy and political organization. Different Nations began letter-writing in attempts to create formal relationships or for acknowledgment that no relationship had previously existed. Western Indigenous leadership was particularly active, sending letters, petitions, and lobbying the British Parliament. For example, Alexander Kennedy Isbister advocated for free trade rights in Red River and went to England and testified before Parliament in 1857. His testimony spoke to poor governance and political concerns, particularly for the Indigenous residents of Red River. In this era of diplomacy, there was a shifting power balance revealed in the colonial administration’s responses, revealing that they only acted out of necessity.

When the Numbered Treaties were signed in Western Canada, they were intended to give the Crown access to these lands. The pattern of making treaties when and where the Crown wanted access to land dictated what engagement looked like. Indigenous communities either sent letters or petitions to enter into relationships or communities sent communications asserting their sovereignty. In both cases, the government ignored them. Political engagement and diplomatic attempts by Indigenous communities continued into the 20th century when a delegation of leaders from British Columbia went to England in 1906. When the treaties were signed, the relationship agreements happened at the community level. By signing the Numbered Treaties, community-level political organization were disrupted by the Indian Act. The Indian Act established a governance formula for regulating ‘band politics’ at the community level.

While some Métis did take treaty, many waited and took Scrip, or they paid back the treaty annuity and took Scrip. Although the Métis practiced community-level governance through community councils and practiced political and social structure Wahkootowin, the Métis disposition of land rights happened at an individual level rather than a community level like in treaties. This method of land title acquisition was by the Crown’s design. Using this individualistic manner for dispossessing Métis people of land created an opportunity for the government to ignore Métis community governance and disengage Métis politically until the constitutional discussion around patriation in the 1970s. Historically, Métis community councils engaged the Crown through diplomacy, requesting to have treaties or to be heard and have their rights recognized, like the diplomacy from the Red River Region during the transfer of land from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Crown.

Métis continued to live in close-knit communities into the 20th century, with some communities today recognized as unorganized towns. In Saskatchewan, the government practiced a relocation program, starkly contrasting the position taken in Alberta. In the 1920s, Métis in Alberta were politically organized to engage the government. This activity led to the Ewing Commission and the creation of Métis settlements that endure today as governing political entities. The Métis activities in Alberta inspired political organization in Saskatchewan. Without restrictions like those placed on First Nations Peoples through the Indian Act, the Métis were legally allowed to politically mobilize. These organizations evolved into provincial lobbying organizations.

The Indian Act disrupted First Nations political and governance organizations by legally enforcing government-designed band governance. Included in these laws were measures to prevent assembling and organizing or raising funds to challenge the government over grievances of unfulfilled treaty promises and obligations. Following the First World War, returning First Nations soldiers began forming political entitles by establishing an organization that later became lobby groups used for national conversations. Today, the Indian Act structures band-elected governance. Some First Nations communities elect Indian Act-established band councils, as well as maintain traditional governance councils, such as the communities that form the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Indigenous grassroots organizations evolved over the 20th century, largely reacting to government policies and actions. In 1969, the Trudeau government released the “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969,” more commonly remembered as the “White Paper.” This proposed policy created a backlash and solidified the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) as a permanent Indigenous Rights lobbying structure and forced the government to withdraw its White Paper policy. Additionally, the event created a springboard for the NIB to advocate for First Nations peoples as the national agenda shifted to the patriation of the Constitution. These Constitutional discussions occurred without Indigenous partners at the table, upsetting many Indigenous communities. Indigenous Peoples demonstrated displeasure with a national day of mourning declared by the NIB and a grassroots movement known as the Constitution Express. Under the leadership of the Union of British Columbia Indians and the NIB, First Nations Peoples applied political pressure to include ‘Aboriginal’ rights in the patriated Constitution. In 1982, the NIB’s general assembly founded the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), keeping the NIB identity for administrative purposes.

While First Nations advocated for constitutional recognition through the NIB and provincial lobby groups, the Métis did the same through the Native Council of Canada (NCC). Under the leadership of Harry Daniels, the NCC engaged the federal government for Métis inclusion in the patriated Constitution. Following patriation and the inclusion of Métis in the Constitution, the NCC split, creating the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) and the Métis National Council (MNC). The purpose of the MNC is to coordinate efforts between provincial-level Métis organizations. The CAP continues coordinating with provincial organizations, representing Métis and non-registered First Nations Peoples, particularly in urban centres.

Notes on Inuit Politics and Political Engagement

One of the three Indigenous groups that fall under the protection of the Crown are the Inuit. Inuit-Crown relations developed once the federal government found it necessary to engage with the Inuit. Until the 20th century, the federal government mostly ignored this relationship, until the federal government faced the Quebec government in court regarding fiduciary responsibility in R. v. Eskimo (1939). The Supreme Court of Canada found that the Inuit were a federal responsibility, and that the relationship should reside with Crown, not the province. The second half of the 20th century saw growing colonial interference in Inuit life and politics. The 1970s saw a shift, with increasing political mobilization. The federal government undertook a program of relocation in the 1950’s, moving Inuit communities around the Arctic in an effort to establish sovereignty over the Arctic during the Cold War. Many Inuit moved again in the 1970s and 1980s as they moved to settlements created by the federal government. It was during this time that Inuit land claims discussions circulated and political advocacy for Inuit-governed land took root. Expressed as Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit-occupied region of Turtle Island has a different colonial history and experience than Métis and First Nations. Through various forms of political engagement and establishing structures, land claims such as the Nunavut Final Agreements, which established the territory of Nunavut, fundamentally reshaped the north.

On Studying Indigenous Politics…

In the 21st century, political activism and research–including political science– tends to focus on nation-to-nation relationship lobbying and inter-governmental political engagement. Through the Royal Proclamation, the rights of Indigenous Peoples rest at the community level, creating a political imperative for the Crown to engage with Indigenous communities and local politics. While lobbying and political engagement with the Crown are seen to be “Indigenous politics,” they are not the whole story. Politics for Indigenous Peoples includes community participation, which is more than advocacy and includes social interaction and protocols. Politics starts with community and ends with community. What politics looks like depends on the community and the relationship involved in the exchange.