Self-government | Canada

Republic of indigenous nations

How Canada’s indigenous nations are trying to revive old forms of self-determination.

Three women stand in a snowy landscape surrounded by trees. The women are singing and drumming. Three other people stand at the edge and watch the women.

Wet'suwet'en people hold a ceremony during their protest against the Coastal Gas Pipeline


Canada is often praised as a peaceful land, as a country of friendship. But one glance at its approach to its Indigenous nations reveals a more violent truth.

Long before Europeans set foot on Turtle Island (the indigenous population’s name for the big island known today as North America), indigenous people lived there. They had sovereign Nations with their own complex social, legal, economic and governing systems. Each Nation considered itself to be self-determining, with its own laws, rules and practices.

The long, violent colonisation of Indigenous territory and peoples in North America included the theft of most of their land and the killing of millions

Pre-contact, Indigenous Nations had highly specialised knowledge in medicine and science. They had also developed sustainable sustenance practices and traded with other nations. They had legal systems that had been refined over millennia. Each nation had their own unique governing systems: some were organised according to clans and houses like the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Political confederacies amongst neighbouring nations were also common.

The long, violent colonisation of Indigenous territory and peoples in North America included the theft of most of their land and the killing of millions– the inter-generational effects of this are still felt today. In Canada, the federal government has a long history of defining Indigenous peoples and treating them as though they were one race of “Indians”. Canada still largely puts Indigenous peoples into three generic groups: First Nations, Inuit and Metis – a practice that does not reflect the sovereign identities of Indigenous Nations.

There are 60-80 original Indigenous Nations that each have their own cultures, languages and identities. Colonial governments attempted to exert their control by dividing up these traditional Indigenous Nations into 634 First Nations (Indian bands), making them live on small reserves under the control of the Indian Act. That law controlled traditional governing practices and has been in place since 1876. It meant that the Mi’kmaw Nation, for example, was divided up into 29 individual First Nations, spread out over five provinces and into the state of Maine, USA – a fate shared by many other Nations.

Many treaties contradict oral promises to Indigenous nations

Although there were pre- and post-confederation treaties with some Indigenous nations, most historical treaties were signed under severe duress, with official written versions contradicting oral promises to Indigenous nations. In fact, even the United Nations special review of treaties with Indigenous peoples concluded that under these circumstances, there could not have been free and educated consent. Nonetheless, these treaties have since been used by Canada as the justification for its continued theft of Indigenous lands and resources and increasing settlement on Indigenous lands.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), created in 1991, documented the many ways in which settler governments tried to suppress Indigenous government structures by replacing their traditional governments with Indian Act-created band councils. The objective was to control Indigenous governments while assimilating Indigenous peoples into the body politic. This was made easier through strictly controlled food rations, laws prohibiting cultural practices, and restrictions from leaving reserves. And such an approach is not simply a remnant of the distant past: in 1969 the government published a White Paper on Indian Policy, advocating the assimilation of Indians once-and-for-all - triggering massive protests.

Thousands of indigenous children were taken away from their parents

The consequences of this inhuman policy are all too clearly visible today: in 2020 indigenous people are over-represented in foster families, prisons and among the homeless. They are disproportionately affected by violence, forced sterilisation or police racism. Their socio-economic situation is the worst of all Canadian demographics.

In 2015 the final report of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada” (TRC), it described the terrible normality which prevailed over past centuries: Thousands of indigenous children were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools called “Residential Schools” to be re-educated. Many of them were mistreated or abused for medical experiments. The aim was to kill Indian in the child.

A further historical low point is the ongoing high rates of violence towards indigenous women and girls, who are three or three and a half times more likely to become a victim of violence as their non-indigenous counterparts. In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found Canada guilty of historic and ongoing genocide which specifically targeted Indigenous women and girls, involving high rates of violence, exploitation, disappearances and murders of Indigenous women and girls. Increasing numbers of people are pushing for thorough investigations into these abuses, often viewing them as the consequence of the state’s ongoing repression.

In 2020, most Indigenous nations still find themselves governed according to laws and structures imposed on them by settler governments, structures which fail to reflect their cultural values or traditions. This causes conflict between Indigenous nations and Canadian governments, as well as within the nations themselves. Therefore, the movement to decolonize our nations gets ever louder. Many Indigenous leaders are moving to reject federal control and revitalize traditional governing systems.

There is no space to start discussions about sovereignty or autonomous governance

Indigenous nations govern themselves in three different ways. Those with traditional governments, which exercise a nation’s inherent sovereignty over their lands and peoples, are the most closely connected to pre-contact governing practices. However, regardless of their systems, the Nations are subject to Indian Act limits on jurisdiction and powers. There is no space to start discussions about sovereignty or autonomous governance, but grassroots Indigenous peoples, together with their traditional leaders are now questioning this status quo. Increasingly they are reasserting their sovereignty over their traditional lands and standing up to Canadian governments.

One such example is the Wet’suwet’en Nation which made headlines worldwide in the spring: The Coastal Gaslink pipeline had only made arrangements for a new pipeline with some of the impacted Indian Act band councils, whose legal authority does not extend beyond the reserve boundaries.

When the company along with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came to forcibly remove Wet’suwet’en peoples from their lands it triggered nationwide protests. Peaceful occupations lasted for months, effectively shutting down highways, roads, ports, railways, legislatures and even Ministers’ offices. The federal government was forced to meet with the hereditary leaders and come to an agreement to fast-track a negotiation process for We’tsuwet’en governance of their own lands. And, ultimately, the law is on their side.

Indigenous laws have never been deemed illegal and international human rights laws bind Canada to support the autonomy and land rights of Indigenous peoples. The Canadian government has also set itself the official goal of fully implementing these rights – but it is moving slowly. That is why more and more grassroots Indigenous peoples are rising up to assert their authority over their traditional lands.

The growing Indigenous rejection of Canada’s oppressive policies represent a real opportunity to confront the long legacy of genocide in the country - and to carve out a space for Indigenous autonomy.

Aus dem Englischen von Caroline Härdter