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How Canada’s Indian Act destroyed direct democracy

The foundation of Western democratic governance is the participation of the people in the political process through representative democracy.

The foundation of Western democratic governance is the participation of the people in the political process through representative democracy. Simply stated, citizens elect leaders to represent them in the legislature and make decisions on their behalf. The idea behind representative democracy is that the short time in office will motivate leaders to act in the public’s best interest. Frequent elections, in other words, will keep leaders accountable (see Dickerson & Flanagan, 1994).

Democracy was not a Western invention. First Nations practised democracy long before the arrival of Europeans to North America. The difference was that in traditional First Nations governance, democracy was direct rather than representative.

According to Indigenous scholars, what made direct democracy possible in traditional governance was that rule was by consensus. All nation members were given the opportunity to express their views and had to agree before decisions could be passed.

This allowed everyone to participate directly in governance and contribute to decisions. Consensus decision-making ensured that traditional First Nations governance systems were truly democratic.

You will remember from last month’s column that Canada considered traditional First Nations governance to be “irresponsible” and an obstacle to civilization. It believed that representative democracy was a more responsible form of governance and imposed an elective system on First Nations through the 1869 Gradual Enfranchisement Act. Elected band councils with short terms were established. Every second year, band members were given the opportunity to hold their leadership accountable through the ballot box. Election provisions were transferred to the Indian Act and remain to present day. Whether leaders are elected through the Indian Act or band custom election codes, representative democracy has become the foundation of governance for most First Nations in Canada.

The Indian Act’s enforcement of representative democracy did away with direct democracy. It did so because the band council that nation members elected to represent them now had the authority to make decisions on their behalf. Consensus decision-making was not necessary as the Indian Act required that decisions be made by majority rule.

By giving band council decision-making authority, the Indian Act removed the power that nation members had enjoyed under traditional governance as they could no longer consent to political decisions.
Furthermore, nation members were unable to hold their leaders accountable year-round as they had done through direct democracy.

As a result of the Indian Act elective system, nation members were reduced to having a say and holding their leaders accountable once every several years at election time. Ovide Mercredi, the former National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, referred to the Indian Act system as a “10-second model of democracy, since it gives us input at the ballot box for a total of about 10 seconds every few years. We have gotten used to a style of government that does not reflect our tradition of fully involving the people.”

Chief Mercredi questioned the alleged superiority of representative democracy when he said, “The truth is that our basis for governing our lives has been more consensual and democratic than Canada’s.
It is more directly democratic. Canada’s idea of democracy is majority rule.

Our idea of running governance is consensus by the people. Who is to say that Canada’s principles are better than ours?” (See Mercredi and Turpel, 1993).
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Terry Poucette is a member of the Wesley First Nation and PhD graduate in public administration (UVic). She is now an assistant teaching professor at UVic.