First Nations Governance

Governance can be defined as the stewardship over the processes guiding everyday life. Despite this seemingly straightforward definition, First Nations governance is a complex matrix of relationships involving Aboriginal law, politics, administration, financial management, community and natural resource development and maintenance, as well as individual and community-based entrepreneurship. Canadian officials understand it to be a delegated authority to direct federal programming at the community level. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) and the provincial First Nations, however, view each First Nation in Saskatchewan as an independent sovereign nation with a pre-existing right to self-government that is both inherent and absolute.

The Liberal government under the leadership of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien established the Inherent Rights Policy in 1995, thereby committing itself to realizing First Nations governance. Self-government agreements would be negotiated; however, the degree of sovereignty was not considered enough from the First Nations perspective, which demands jurisdiction over a full range of institutions in social, economic, cultural, spiritual and educational spheres, as well as over First Nations lands. The federal government would be responsible for providing resources for education and other services, under the authority and direction of First Nations governments.

Beyond the larger self-government debate, First Nations governance is a complex reality. There are a number of mechanisms of First Nations governance in Saskatchewan, including the FSIN, seventy-four band councils, and ten tribal councils. The FSIN is the representative body of all of Saskatchewan's First Nations, committed to honouring the spirit and intent of the provincial treaties struck during the 1870s. Its role is to protect Treaties and Treaty Rights, to foster progress in economic, educational and social endeavours, to co-operate with civil and religious authorities, to offer constructive criticism and thorough discussion on all matters, and to maintain democratic procedure while promoting respect and tolerance for all people.

Tribal councils are made up of bands which join together to provide advisory and/or program services to member bands. In 1984 the Tribal Council Program was established; its goal was to provide funding to tribal councils to enable them to offer advisory services to First Nation members. Agreements to establish program and service delivery can also be struck with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and other government agencies. Funding for tribal council advisory services and administrative overheads is determined by a formula which takes into account the services delivered, the number of First Nations forming the tribal council, the on-reserve population of member First Nations, and the geographic location of the tribal council office. Finally, each band considers itself to be a sovereign nation, vested with the ability to govern its people and territory under its own laws and customs. A band is a First Nation that has established its own governing council, usually consisting of a chief and several councilors. Community members select the chief and councilors by either election or custom. These officials are chosen for two- or three-year terms to carry out band business, which may include: education; water, sewer and fire services; by-laws; community buildings; schools; roads; and other community businesses and services.

The recent proliferation of First Nations populations in urban centres has resulted in a call for the realization of urban governance. First Nations demands for increased influence and jurisdiction over urban services such as employment and cultural institutions have further heightened the debate. The complexity of urban issues suggests that many communities and leaders will need to become involved, including First Nations political organizations and Aboriginal service providers. First Nations are attempting to improve self-sufficiency through a variety of strategies such as the establishment of Aboriginal gaming. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, and the governments of Canada and Saskatchewan, are working with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (OTC) to develop an understanding on jurisdiction in the areas of child welfare, education, shelter, health, justice, treaty annuities, hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering, in the constantly evolving process known as First Nations governance.

Yale D. Belanger