Unist’ot’en:The Problem with First Nations Governance


I’m finding it hard to cut through all the rhetoric about the Unist’ot’en blockade, but a couple of things do stand out.

Of course, the rhetoric and outrage have no logical basis. The RCMP arrests natives, and it’s a slam-dunk there will be nation-wide protests. It’s all about sound bites and news clips. And when there’s a pipeline involved, craziness prevails.

Royalty: an Outmoded Form of Government.

The Wet’suwe’ten Nation needs to take a page from Canada’s book. We used to have hereditary rulers, too, but we have assigned them cultural and social duties. We keep them out of government except in a strictly symbolic way, because we have learned through bitter experience over the centuries that non-elected rulers are far more concerned with staying in power and less concerned with what the people want. In this case, the problem is what the Unist’ot’en clan wants.

Which is what is happening in Northern BC right now.

The supporters of the “Hereditary Chiefs” would like to paint a simplistic picture of a power struggle between the elected band council (the stooges of the Indian Affairs Department, who only have the right to run the Reserve lands) and the so-called “Hereditary Chiefs,” who are the traditional leaders of their people, and who claim control of huge swathes of Canada on behalf of…whom? In this case, not on behalf of their people, because obviously they do not have the support of a majority of their people in the use of those lands. The claim that the band councils only have jurisdiction on the reserves is ludicrous. The Indian Act gave control of the Native lands to the band councils. Now that the Natives have exercised their rights to more territory, surely the councils have jurisdiction there as well. Surely because a handful of more far-seeing individuals laid those claims, that does not give them the right to disenfranchise all the other members of the tribe and take control themselves. That’s a bare-faced power grab.

Who Are “Hereditary Chiefs?”

I used the term “so-called” because, if I have it straight, these chiefs do not inherit their positions. They earn them in what I assume is the hereditary manner: hence the name. Perhaps “Traditional Chiefs” would be a more accurate term. But giving them a “hereditary” title gives them more power, straight out of the playbook of the old monarchies of Europe.

How Do They Earn Their Position?

Pardon me for applying logic to politics, but faced with the olio of First Nations governance, investigative journalism devolves to something much more like my dog entertaining himself by pursuing his aft appendage. Here goes:

In any discussion of Native leadership, we must consider the much-vaunted governance system of consensus that I gather most native tribes used back in the day before democracy was forced on them. Thus the best way to earn the right to traditional leadership was a skill at reaching consensus. We are told that Native leadership was all about leading the people in the direction the people wanted to go. If a majority of the people made a decision, the hereditary chief had no power to say, “You’re wrong.” Leaders who led in another direction soon found themselves leading no one at all.

Where’s the Consensus?

The Unist’ot’enleaders have not been able to reach consensus, because a majority of their people* have signed off on the pipeline deal. So they have fallen back on the traditional line of all non-elected leaders, which is, “I’m your leader, and you’ll do as I say.” They are holding the rest of Canada hostage, playing the Indigenous Rights card to garner support from across the country.  The unmistakable conclusion is that they have laid claim to a huge swathe of Canada, not for their people but for themselves.

Short Term                 

How much of this is “traditional rights,” and how much of this is all about the power of an increasingly small number of people to hold the rest of their own nation and the whole country to ransom? They have two choices. Act like democratic Canadians and follow the majority, or act like traditional Unist’ot’en and follow the consensus of their people. Of course, they could always admit that they are not fulfilling their role of consensus-makers and step down from their non-hereditary positions.

Long Term

This whole mess demonstrates once again the problems caused by agonizingly lengthy treaty negotiations with First Nations. No one can blame businesses and various levels of government for trying to get things done. We can’t be expected to put the whole country on hold for the next fifty years while the wheels of deliberation grind slowly.

It has not escaped my notice that once a treaty is signed, these traditional leaders will be subject to the wishes of the majority of their people and their power will wane. As such, they have no motivation to push for a solution to any of this mess. The Federal Government is in a similar position of giving away power, something governments never want to do. No wonder nobody’s solving the problem.


*Of course, this supposition of a majority is questionable as well, since the band councils are probably elected by the First Past the Post method, and we all know how democratic that is.

3 comments for “Unist’ot’en:The Problem with First Nations Governance

  1. Jo-Ann Merkel
    January 14, 2019 at 3:20 am

    Gordon excellent article except for the last line……democracy rules

    • renaissanceadmin
      January 29, 2019 at 3:06 am

      Actually, Jo-Ann, band council elections are some of the best (worst?) examples of how the First Past the Post system can be manipulated if voters aren’t well informed enough to notice. Hence the small (sometimes one family) groups getting huge salaries to do nothing for their people.

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