Governance Requires Creative Indigenous Thinking: Conflicts require independent resolution

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel


The Algonquins of Barriere Lake in Quebec have been in constant struggle with the federal government for years.
The latest manifestation of this struggle is a call for a press conference where “hundreds of members” of Barriere Lake will challenge the Conservative government’s attempt to “forcibly assimilate” the community. By this, they mean the government’s use of Section 74 of the Indian Act to create a different system of governance than the one they claim is more respectful of traditional indigenous ways.
What complicates matter is an environmental pact signed with Barriere Lake, which is said will establish a sustainable development plan for logging over 10,000 square kilometres.
This past July, members engaged in a peaceful blockade of the access road to their reserve when Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) attempted to conduct a nomination meeting for Indian Act band elections.
These conflicts over governance are manifestations of a growing movement among indigenous members to claim their own governance and move away from the confines of the Indian Act.
The problem is the lack of an internal dispute resolution mechanism when inevitable conflicts arise.
Another critical issue is the legitimacy of processes established by First Nations. While the Barriere Lake group opposing the imposition of S. 74 claim the mantle of traditional governance, they neglect to mention the financial and service delivery issues on the community. Intervention did not come out of a vacuum. Obviously, there were problems with governance that led INAC to take this drastic step.
Who is to say that all members, or even a majority, support the traditional leadership code on Barriere Lake? Perhaps it is only a vocal faction. The only reason I see for Indian Affairs to get involved is to ensure the band code is representative of all members and is reasonably democratic. Indian Affairs, despite its paternalism, is only responding to conflict situations that are getting out of hand. One INAC policy analyst told me concerns begin and end with services. If there are leadership or governance conflicts, INAC will intervene when there is a legitimate fear services are threatened. They cannot really be blamed for this as they are thinking of the people. The vulnerable members of bands do not deserve to have service disruptions because two factions are too busy fighting.
Barriere Lake, of course, is not alone. Residents of the Eden Valley reserve in southern Alberta have blockaded a bridge leading into the reserve community in protest of a cancelled band election. The chief, claiming legitimacy from a community survey, has extended his term from two years to four, which means a coming election would be put off until 2012. The band has also instituted mandatory drug and alcohol testing for council members. David Bearspaw, chief of the Bearspaw First Nation (which is part of the Stoney Nakoda tribe), claims he passed a valid band council resolution authorizing the change. The problem is Bearspaw is under a custom election code, so Indian Affairs cannot intervene.
There is some merit to what Chief Bearspaw is doing as some argue it is better for band chief and councillor terms to run four years instead of two, so they have more time to set strategic direction. Bearspaw can also not be blamed for being concerned about drug and alcohol issues at the leadership level. Whether mandatory testing is the answer is another matter. The exact issues that have band members up in arms are not really the issue.
Being as the community is under custom code, some protesters have claimed that under Stoney custom if a leader is asked to step down, then he must.
So, apparently there is confusion and disagreement about what traditional custom actually calls for. The same could probably be said for Barriere Lake. Who is to say this is not a self-interested band faction just opposed to the current elected chief and council. They may be just upset that they are left out of the benefits. I’m not saying this is the case, only that as outsiders we are not sure. More importantly, we don’t really have a way to find out. Some times conflicts described as struggles between Indian Act chiefs and a more legitimate traditional system are covers for internal, factional struggles. The media, as important as they are, do not have the tools to figure out the conflicting sides.
The problem always comes when activist outsiders are brought in. Thus, what should be properly seen as an internal First Nation issue over the legitimacy of leadership becomes a way for political parties to score points against their opponents or activist groups to feel better about themselves, even if they fail to perceive the real issues.
So far, the best offer on the table is one by AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo to conduct a joint fact-finding mission with Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan to resolve the governance issues. This is positive, not because the AFN is the only legitimate spokesperson for First Nations (as they claim) or that INAC has the best ways forward. It is because the process would be independent of the community. First Nations require bodies that are outside the emotions of the battle at hand. This way, in the case specifically of Barriere Lake, outside parties can see through the posturing and decide which elements of governance are legitimate and which are not.
The first requirement is First Nation input as indigenous communities can see the nuance and complexities of the situation. They could better determine if a customary faction is actually rooted in tradition or is just a mask for internal band interests. Part of the problem is governance at the band level is top-down. As sociologist Menno Boldt argues, for First Nation governance to be truly legitimate it must involve all levels of society, not just well-connected band politicians and their allies. It must involve elders, women, and all segments of band society, including the poorest of the poor. First Nations, like all citizens, are committed to reasonable democratic norms. Most support things like freedom of opinion and believe in governance that respects the wishes of the people. If all segments of society are engaged in redesigning governance, they will likely come up with systems that respect modern democracy and traditional ways.
Indian Affairs must let go off its paternalistic grip on band governments and allow First Nations to develop their own dispute resolution systems. As said above, the two requirements are that the body be First Nation-led and those making determinations must be fully independent of the community in conflict. The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples released its report on band elections. One of the best recommendations was a First Nation electoral dispute resolution body. But, taken further such a body would be responsible for not just election disputes, but all broad governance issues, until First Nations adopt their own systems.
The answer is for First Nations to come up with solutions to governance disputes. First Nations need to present practical ideas to Indian Affairs that will empower bands to resolve their own conflicts.