The pandemic conditions under which we are working mean we must revise our plans for the first year of our research. While we are very sorry not to be starting immediately in communities, it does create an opportunity.  It gives us a chance to complete research projects on topics that have already been raised at the community level and that will provide a useful foundation for the real work to come.

Sharing perspectives on governance at July 2019 workshop

The following list of foundational research projects is based on the many common questions raised by First Nations citizens and leaders in work that Satsan and his colleagues at the Centre for First Nations Governance (CFNG) have done at the community level over many years. They were also consistent themes during the two think tanks we held with participating communities in 2017 and 2019 in preparation for launching this project.

We want to make our work constantly and consistently accessible to those people who might use it. Our goal is to produce a variety of products on these topics including video presentations and interviews, fact sheets or briefing notes, as well as academic publications.  Everything will be posted to the website and freely available, although we ask that you please credit the project if you do use the materials.

This plan is a living document and will be updated as projects evolve.

Foundational Research to be done in 2020 and 2021:

Synthesis of basic research on the impact of the Indian Act in communities

“Seeing the bars of the jail around us”.

Canada’s federal law, the Indian Act, has been the main way the lives of First Nations peoples have been minutely managed for more than 150 years. It is so embedded in policy and practice both within the federal bureaucracy and at the Chief, Council and band administration level, that most no longer see how it continues on a daily basis to constrain and complicate the ability of First Nations to be self-determining.

The Centre for First Nations Governance (CFNG) and separately, several researchers associated with the Rebuilding First Nations Governance project, have published a great deal of research on the impact of the Indian Act. There is also a huge academic literature on the history of Indian Act and a smaller literature on its modern workings. The purpose of this synthesis project is to select the most applicable insights from this large body of work related to the goals of RFNG.

A possible starting point for the analysis is the insight that the Indian Act is a tool to organize First Nation leaders and administrators to do the state’s work. This is done principally through policies which determine the limits for what can be done and how things can be done. These policies are not ‘Big-P’ policies, like ‘assimilation’ or ‘reconciliation’. They are small-p policies: administrative rules, regulations, conventions and practices. These are numerous and almost invisible, though they must be obeyed.  For many First Nations the first steps are to make these visible, and to clarify the roles and responsibilities of chief and council so that they can find ways to use less time servicing small-p policies and devote more time to their priorities.

Steps away from the Indian Act

This study will describe pathways that have been and are being taken by First Nations who are working to contain the Act’s impact on their governance, and ultimately to remove themselves from it. As the work by more and more First Nation partners in RFNG proceeds, the study will be updated and revised in light of their experience.  As an initial document, it will have two purposes: (1) to share knowledge about how the developmental work is proceeding with First Nation partners and others and (2) to provide a benchmark, a record of current understanding against which the RFNG project’s success can be measured.

Systems Mapping the Indian Act

Systems mapping is a visual method of representing a complex set of relationships in a way that reveals patterns of behavior and leverage points for change. The systems mapping project for Rebuilding First Nations Governance grew out of the realization that even though there is a general understanding that many of the challenges facing Indigenous nations across Canada are interrelated, they have rarely been dealt with in any kind of systemic manner. Instead, they are generally approached in a piece-meal, issue-by-issue, or Nation-by-Nation way by external government agencies.

A systems map of the Indian Act can help people visualize the systemic impacts of the Indian Act that impede progress towards self-governance – from loss of language, ceremonies, and territories, to inequities in health care, education, and justice systems. The project goal is two-fold: 1)  to generate a systems map of the Indian Act to illustrate all of the ways this piece of legislation impacts Indigenous peoples in this country; and, 2) to generate conceptual models of systems dynamics created by the Indian Act, to demonstrate systemic traps that are responsible for the everyday challenges facing First Nations and help reveal strategies for systemic change towards self-governance and autonomy.

Webs of Accountability

Indian Act band councils do not have the legal authority necessary to create subsidiary bodies or agencies for the delivery of programs and services that are accountable to them and the band membership. As First Nations work with the existing opportunities for increasing control over their own affairs, they are required to create new organizations under existing Canadian legislation –typically legislation for the creation of societies or charitable organizations.  These organizations generally have boards of directors and a structure that is not designed to be adaptable to the creation of First Nation governments. Specific problems arise with legal status and capacity. Boards of directors are responsible to and bound by the legislation that creates them, rather than to the people they serve. This ultimately creates problems of accountability to the citizens of the nation, and a severance of vision.

RFNG will examine what issues this has created for good governance in many communities and ways in which organizations created to be responsible for land management or service delivery, for example, can be structured so as to be suitable building blocks for First Nations governments acting under their own authority through the inherent right to self government, which is recognized by Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution

Nation-based Constitution-building and law-making

First Nations have been working for many years on developing new constitutions and law-making practices that create self-governance capacities and loosen the hold of the Indian Act. The Centre for First Nations Governance published a study in 2006 that surveyed some of these, and likely other studies have been published as well. This project would build on this work to bring forward First Nations’ collective experience in this work, to highlight success stories and identify lessons learned.

Inherent Rights Jurisdiction: Laws, Regulations and Policy

This project will explore approaches to First Nation law-making, that begin with rediscovering a First Nation’s own pre-colonial laws and decision-making structures for how to live in harmony together and with the land. “Law making for nation rebuilding” is a process. It begins with research into the laws that existed pre-contact, which are commonly revealed through language, teachings and ceremony. As soon as as a community starts to talk about law making, the need for a constitution (the framework of ideas and decision-making structures within which laws are made and implemented) naturally emerges. In many cases, a constitution already exists within the language.

In addition to drawing on and synthesizing existing research into First Nation law,  we’re still thinking through how best to approach this topic.  If you’d like to suggest some ideas for this research, please contact us.

Key concepts of Indigenous Governance

A foundational principle of RFNG is that rebuilding nations requires revitalization of the governance practices that predate colonization.  Methods for doing this –as well as explanations of what the practices were—appear in numerous publications. While each First Nation will find guidance in its own history and legacy, it makes sense to bring forward the knowledge and experience that is already available. Examples are Kiera Ladner’s doctoral work on Blackfoot political theory, and of course John Borrows’ many publications –but there is a good deal more. We need to bring all this work forward to make it accessible outside the community of people who regularly read academic publications. Perhaps in the end it will be possible to draw out some common themes, but making the work more visible is the first step.

Important topics to cover:

  • Concepts and practices of representation in decision-making and inclusiveness of women, youth and Elders
  • Indigenous practices of federation and international cooperation. The example on the work plan envisions a discussion of the Iroquois Confederacy and the Blackfoot Confederacy, but there are potentially many more.
  • Methodology for searching within Indigenous languages for principles and values of self-government, building on the work of Val Napoleon, Riel Carriere, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, Lorna Williams, Tamalik (Janet McGrath) and others.

Key concepts from current international public administration

This project would provide working definitions of such key terms as government, governance, policy, citizen engagement, regulation, etc., ideally with examples from existing Indigenous governments. The definitions and discussion would be drawn from publications of the United Nations, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Harvard Project on Native Nations, and the Native Nations Institute based at the University of Arizona. This goal is to draw on this comparative work to find what works in the Canadian context.

Fiscal Relationships

This topic is under development. If you’d like to suggest some ideas for this research, please contact us.

Citizen Engagement and Communication Strategies

Consistent, on-going engagement of First Nation citizens, built upon the leadership’s commitment and the people’s consent is at the heart of governance transformation. The people are the rights-holders. There must be a community decision for change, and then a common vision of the direction of change, backed by the leadership and community members.

The CNFG has developed a range of techniques for citizen engagement, as have the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) and Turtle Island Institute. For this report, all of these tools and approaches will be described, with examples of when they have been used successfully and if possible, unsuccessfully. Experience to date has revealed that communities may have different starting points. This project will involve describing these and then reflecting on them in the context of other research on citizen engagement.