Self-government: an overview.

AuthorDempsey, L. James
PositionFeature Report on Advances in Aboriginal Law


This article will attempt an overview of the various proposals and processes that have been initiated over the last forty years with the goal of attaining Aboriginal self-government. While it will not describe any actual structures that have been proposed, such as the municipal, or the nation within a nation models, it will try to clarify some of the confusion that has arisen concerning this issue. In particular, a focus on the intentions of Canada and the various Aboriginal groups will be the main theme. A second topic will be to compare the successful achievement of a form of self-government by the Nisga'a of British Columbia with the people of Nunavut.

Prior to looking at self-government, there is a need to provide definitions for the terms we use. While "Aboriginal" has become one of the most popularly used terms, one must remember that its legal basis is in our Constitution Act 1982 which recognizes three groups as Aboriginal people: Indians, Inuit, and Metis. Therefore, it can be misleading to use the word "Aboriginal" when talking about an issue if all three groups are not affected by that particular topic. For example, if the issue is how self-government will be implemented on Canada's reserves, this does not involve the Metis, and only to a minor extent, the Inuit. To replace the word "Aboriginal" with "Native" can lead to the same problem. Stating that the aspirations of Native people are for a traditional form of governance would be an oversimplification due to the fact that each of the three groups has unique goals, and in fact, these goals can be different even within a particular group. While "Native" does not have a legal meaning, it is prevalent in the media, but more often than not is usually referring to Indians. Even the term "Indian", which is an ethnic group most Canadians are aware of, has been conscientiously replaced with "First Nations", a term chosen by the people most affected by the word. Still, it must be noted that the federal government continues to use the term Indian in its legislation such as the Indian Act and the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. So, "Aboriginal" or "Native" will be used when referring to all three groups or in a legal context; otherwise, the terms "First Nations", "Inuit", or "Metis" will be used.

Basically, the issue of self-government and its negotiations have revolved around determining how the final product will fit into the Canadian state. For the most part, the federal government has driven the process since 1970 with the overall focus being on the government's priorities and interests with little attention to Aboriginal concerns. In fact, the process has been less about Aboriginal people and more about articulating the legislative, territorial, and administrative relationship between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. Particular attention has been paid to the 609 First Nations and their lands (reserves) across the country and the Inuit of northern Canada. The Metis have a different, more informal relationship with the federal government and, for the most part, Metis issues have been and are directed more towards provincial governments.

In 1969 the federal government proposed to radically change the relationship between the government and Canada's First Nations when it released the "White Paper". The policy paper called for the repeal of the Indian Act, which would end the legal obligation the government had, and turn reserves over to First Nations people as private property. The government believed that it was the Indian Act that, although...

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