Native democracy is broken

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary

Democracy is dysfunctional on Canada’s First Nations reserves. Nothing divides tribes more than band elections, which are almost always controversial and in many cases fundamentally anti-democratic.

In their quest for self-determination, Canada’s aboriginal leaders have adopted Western-style concepts of sovereignty as the cornerstone of their political aspirations. Indeed, that formula was mandated by the imposition of the Indian Act. But its electoral provisions do not always comport with aboriginal customs, which are diverse. Many believe the old ways were much better.

The history and experience of North American tribal societies differ from the European model. Most indigenous peoples believed in equality, and the collective “tribal will” constituted an important spiritual principle. Most tribes did not accept the idea that a man could acquire — through democratic mechanisms or otherwise — the inherent right to govern others, even in the service of tribal good. The people ruled collectively as one body with undivided power, performing all functions of government. The tribe wasn’t held to be the result of a contract among individuals, or between ruler and ruled, but of a divine creation. No human being was deemed to have control over the life of another.

Attempts to resolve the clash between Western governance styles and aboriginal cultures are not working. Many First Nations that have tried to bridge the gap have in fact made matters worse. Proposed changes to the way natives govern themselves frequently serve the interests of incumbent chiefs and councils to the detriment of their opponents and the overall political health of First Nations.

A snapshot of one recent election in a First Nation located in Northern Manitoba serves as an example. Election procedures were developed without consulting a wide range of band members. The Chief and those who support him applied rules and codes that are alien to band traditions, and which were designed to improve the chance of re-election. The election appeals section insured a foregone conclusion, with five members of the committee handpicked by the Chief and Council, as was the chief electoral officer. After the election, three of the appeal committee members received new houses without any apparent explanation.

The incumbent Chief delivered to every home on the reserve a large, expensive looking, glossy publication extolling his successes, with photos of him in exotic locales with an array of federal politicians. The Chief also had campaign videos produced, shot by a professional camera crew. Money seemed to flow fast and free right up to election day.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this election was outside interference from another First Nation Chief and council. They reportedly lent two years’ worth of their housing dollars to their incumbent ally. When this story broke in the Drum, an aboriginal publication, the silence, especially from Indian Affairs in Ottawa, was deafening.

Patronage, rather than custom, is too often the underlying principle at play when bands elect chiefs and band councils. But stopping the phenomenon is difficult because accountability is in short supply: The lofty position of chief allows office holders to set their own salaries, receive a multitude of other perks and dole perks out to favoured allies. Meanwhile, worthy candidates cannot compete against incumbents who are willing to abuse electoral rules and the bank to stay in office.

Many First Nations in the United States are breaking through this closed system by setting up independent agencies for reforming constitutions and electoral procedures. Eric Lemont’s work at Harvard University details the experience of four different tribal groups with some measure of success. The Cherokee in Oklahoma, the Navajo and Hualapai in the Southwest and the Northern Cheyenne in Montana have all tackled these issues.

“For all four nations,” Lemont writes, “problems or crises involving separation of powers issues played central roles in their decisions to begin reform.” Although the conclusions differed, and not all have yet been implemented, a few central themes apply to Canada’s problems. First, constitutional reform ought to separate powers and disperse checks and balances among a wide variety of tribal stakeholders. Second, once appointed, the officials charged with supervision of elections and the courts must be completely independent from the tribe’s active political process. Third, a band’s traditions of decision-making, and the energies of those who are now excluded, can be effectively tapped by setting up vehicles for including dissent by band members, with two-way flows of information.

Self-government will remain a chaotic chimera until we create reliable election procedures that are fair to incumbents and their opponents and that ensure Western styles of exercising authority do not trample native customs.

This appeared in the National Post August 6, 2004