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What is customary about band custom elections?

Over half of the of the 600+ First Nations communities in Canada currently have band custom election codes

Many believe that political problems experienced by some First Nations are perpetuated by the foreign Indian Act. Dr. Ken Coates reiterated this belief in his 2008 research paper when he said, “Critics of Indian Act governments, and there are many across the country, suggest that the corruption and political difficulties encountered on some reserves is a direct consequence of the Indian Act. Only the removal of the Act, and the establishment of truly Indigenous governments, they suggest, will result in proper management and governance in Aboriginal communities.”

Some First Nations aspire to establish truly Indigenous governments by adopting band custom election codes. The Indian Act and federal “Conversion to Community Election Policy” makes it possible for First Nations to opt out of Indian Act election provisions and, according to the 2010 Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples report, “revert to custom electoral systems.” The term, band custom, is misleading because it does not mean reverting to traditional leadership selection practices. The Senate explains that custom “means community-designed electoral codes rather than hereditary, clan or consensual based systems of leadership selection.” Over half of the 600+ First Nations communities in Canada currently have band custom election codes.

In the eyes of many First Nations people, band custom elections are beneficial because they are more in line with culture and tradition. An Elder I spoke to thought band custom elections reflected the ways of First Nations. “In our case, we had an effective governance system. Long before we accepted the contemporary system, which we call band custom. Band custom, the way we understand it, is a good fit because it contains traditional practices in governance.” A Chief, however, disagreed that band custom election codes were traditional and remarked, “It’s not really band custom then its different from the Indian Act.” A quick scan of band custom election codes appears to validate the Chief’s remarks as most are like Indian Act elections. This is not surprising since government requires band custom election codes to contain western democratic election procedures.

Nevertheless, the Senate said that when band custom codes are “properly drafted, they are far more likely to provide a system of government that is culturally appropriate, politically responsible, transparent and accountable.” After adopting band custom election codes, a few First Nations reverted to their hereditary systems and don’t hold elections. Other band custom election codes have restored some of the decision-making power that people traditionally had, allowing them to hold their leaders accountable and reprimand them for unethical behaviour.

After centuries of stifling government control under the Indian Act, First Nations have been able to gain back a greater level of authority through band custom election codes. Despite this positive advancement, the extent to which First Nations can revert to traditional governance practices through band custom election codes is limited by government requirements. As opposed to trying to advance the right to govern themselves through delegated government authority like band custom election codes, a sure-fire way to establish truly Indigenous governments is through the implementation of their inherent right to self-governance.
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.