A member of the Mi’kmaq National Ancestral Government says First Nations leaders need to reflect on their definition of self-government, ahead of a national conference on the complex issue.
The first First Nations Self-Government Summit, a three-day conference sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and a number of First Nations organizations in the Atlantic region, is scheduled for this week. in Halifax.
Discussions and presentations from First Nations leaders across the country are expected to provide guidance on achieving self-government for communities in the region, according to a news release.
Antle Denny Sr. Kji-keptin (Grand Captain) of the Grand Council, the ancestral governing body of the Mi’kmaq, said chief organizations must ensure that their standards of self-government differ from those of the Canadian government.
“[Canada’s] self-government plan is that we govern like them,” he said.
“From the perspective of the Grand Council, that’s not the case. It’s just not our way.”
The Mi’kmaq Grand Council, which predates European contact with the Mi’kmaq, now includes a Grand Chief, Grand Keptin, and about 40 kept communities in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.
Council not recognized
Despite its historical significance, Denny said, the Grand Council is not currently recognized by Canada or provincial governments as having political jurisdiction.
“The Grand Council has always been there, but the government doesn’t want to deal with us,” Denny said.
“If Canada wants reconciliation, why does it not reconcile with the true national government of the Mi’kmaq?”
Denny said Mi’kmaw self-sufficiency in language preservation, education and environmental protection cannot be achieved if leaders are dependent on Canadian politics and funding.
Restoring the strength of traditional roles and practices, or the “Mi’kmaq way,” is the best way to start, Denny said, but the effects of colonization have slowed progress.
“We have to figure out what’s important to us,” Denny said.
“We have to follow the guidelines of our people, but it’s difficult for many of them… who lived in residential schools and who still suffered from everything we went through.”
Policies lack “Indigenous understanding”
Canada’s attempts to facilitate self-government for Indigenous nations have been skewed by colonialism, said Hayden King, director of the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“Canada says ‘Here we have a self-government process that you can use’…but to date, none of those policies or processes reflect an Indigenous understanding of what self-determination really means,” said said King.
King cites federal ideas like the White Paper of 1969 and the First Nations Governance Act of 2002, both of which sought to move away from the Indian Act, as examples of the ineffectiveness of implementing Indigenous self-determination through Canadian politics.
He said the same could be true for the Liberal government’s rights and recognition framework.
“There were a number of attempts, but most of them were rejected,” he said.
“I don’t think legislation in principle is necessarily a bad thing if it empowers First Nations and truly sidelines government, but we haven’t seen that yet.”
Crucial to the process, King says, is finding an effective way to combine traditional governance structures with the contemporary band council system, which was imposed under the Indian Act, and then clarify control of land. and resources by the First Nation.
“I think there needs to be a push at the national and regional levels…to really exercise jurisdiction over the territories as opposed to just reserve-based autonomy. I hope that’s on the agenda of conference this week,” King said.
Implement treaty rights, says Elder
Mi’kmaq elder and historian Dan Paul of the Sipekne’katik First Nation said that after all territorial lands are returned, he believes Canada has an obligation to give First Nations the time and resources needed to adapt their traditional lifestyles to modern times. An opportunity, he said, that was taken from the Mi’kmaq
“If the European invasion hadn’t happened… God knows what they could have accomplished,” Paul said.
“[Pre-contact Mi’kmaq] were smart people. They would have made great improvements over the centuries, but that’s something we’ll never know.”
Paul said he believes one path to self-government has already been revealed by Canadian courts: the implementation of treaty rights.
“It would show true enlightenment if [Canada] would start enacting legislation in this regard,” he said.
Paul, an author, has been researching and writing about First Nations self-government for decades. He said Canada has rarely played a role in the voluntary implementation of Indigenous rights and almost all progress has been imposed by the Supreme Court.
Paul said that from where he sits, “real” First Nations self-government is still a long way off.
“On a scale of one to 10, I’d say we’re maybe only at the second stage.”