The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: who can speak on behalf of a nation?

Volume five of the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Renewal: A Twenty-Year Commitment, outlines a detailed approach on how best to implement the Commission’s recommendations. Implementation requires, in the authors’ words, “a rebalancing of political and economic power between Aboriginal nations and other Canadian governments.” (1) 

Volume five is relatively brief, but I can’t recommend it for the casual reader today. The high-level recommendations for implementation are covered in sufficient detail in the official summary of the final report published by the the commission and the detailed analysis the authors provide to support their recommendations is now fairly dated. 

Having said that, in my view, the authors nicely articulate at a high level what broadly needs to happen if political and economic power is going to be rebalanced. In doing so, they highlight a fundamental issue that will need to be resolved: with whom will the rebalancing take place?

They write (pg. 2-3):

• Aboriginal nations have to be reconstituted.

• A process must be established for the assumption of powers by Aboriginal nations.

• There must be a fundamental reallocation of lands and resources.

• Aboriginal people need education and crucial skills for governance and economic self-reliance.

• Economic development must be addressed if the poverty and despondency of lives defined by unemployment and welfare are to change.

The authors of the report are unequivocal on a key point: a band, which is a product of the Indian Act, only represents a small part of any given nation that is in need of reconstitution. When the authors talk of the need to reconstitute Indigenous nations they are thinking of political units which are much broader, both geographically and socially, than bands and their councils. By the author’s estimation, there are around 60 to 80 nations in the territories we now call Canada that need to be reconstituted, whereas the Federal government currently recognizes over 600 bands.

It’s also important to emphasize that the majority of Indigenous people don’t live on reserves, just over half aren’t registered by the Federal government (source), and many many people have been unjustly excluded from the opportunity to register or live on reserves. It may be convenient for the Federal government to negotiate with band councils and their representatives, but it seems entirely fair to say they do not represent or speak on behalf of the entire nation of which they are only one small part.  

And this raises an important question: who can speak on behalf of Indigenous nations in negotiation with governments? The authors are again unequivocal: Indigenous peoples are “entitled to identify their own national units for purposes of exercising the right of self-determination” (pg. 144). Unfortunately, this doesn’t answer the question so much as relocate it.

Indigenous nations have been fractured and splintered for generations and their political identities unduly influenced by the colonial state for just as long. The sense of “we” and “us” which is the foundation of a national identity was intentionally attacked by the colonial state and arguably continues to be subverted to this day, aided and abetted by some Indigenous people who benefit from the status quo. Yes, Indigenous peoples should determine their own national units, but the question of who belongs to which nation is not easily answered because the mutual recognition that is required to answer that question has been under attack for generations. 

Needless to say, in this fractured landscape, reconstituting a nation will be no easy task. Fortunately, it is not without precedent. Nations all over the world have been reconstituted successfully, especially in the period of decolonization following the Second World War. And while the process has not always been smooth, it is clear that a nation can be reconstituted with or without the support of the colonizing state. If Indigenous peoples want to reconstitute their nations, it can be done — with or without the support of Canada. The first step, I suspect, will be the development of an understanding of “we” and “us” other than the one created by the colonial state. 

3 thoughts on “The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: who can speak on behalf of a nation?

  1. Hi Sterling, What I do not understand: – the difference between a “status Indian person” with less than a (25% or 0%) proven bloodline and a “non-status Indian person” with a 25%+ bloodline. -who will adjudicate who is entitled to “entitlements”? So much more. Angélique

    Angelique Ellerton Retired Barrister & Solicitor LL.B LL.M JD. TEP


    1. Hi Angélique,

      Thanks for your comment and question.

      Although bloodlines, blood quantum and status are often raised in this context, they are all red herrings, from a historical perspective.

      Historically, Indigenous peoples didn’t use bloodlines to decide if a person was a member of their community. Generally-speaking, if they decided to accept a person into their community and the person lived in accordance with the expectations of the community, they were considered a part of the community, whatever their bloodline might be. Former mortal enemies were often adopted in this way.

      The focus on bloodlines and blood quantum was driven by the government’s desire to eliminate Indigenous communities and the government’s legal responsibilities to those communities. The focus on status and non-status Indians is a product of the same desire.

      However, even if we set aside considerations of bloodlines and status, the main thrust of your question remains pertinent, especially when Indigenous communities have been torn apart for so long.

      I’m not sure there is a short and easy answer to the question but my thinking on this question has been influenced by the authors of the report who make the point that we are talking about a social and political community which is far broader than the communities who happen to have band councils recognized by the Federal government.

      If the authors are correct in that claim, I suspect there will be a range of considerations that will be used to assess a person’s membership in that larger community and no single criteria will decide the matter.

    2. I’m rereading the Commission’s recommendations. These seem relevant to your observation:

      Regarding Aboriginal peoples and citizenship, the Commission concludes that

      Under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, an Aboriginal nation has the right to
      determine which individuals belong to the nation as members and citizens. However, this right is subject to two basic limitations. First, it cannot be exercised in a manner that discriminates between men and women. Second, it cannot specify a minimum blood quantum as a general prerequisite for citizenship. Modern Aboriginal nations, like other nations in the world today, represent a mixture of genetic heritages. Their identity lies in their collective life, their history, ancestry, culture, values, traditions and ties to the land, rather than in their race as such.

      Aboriginal nations, in exercising the right to determine citizenship, and in establishing rules and processes for this purpose, adopt citizenship criteria that

      (a) are consistent with section 35(4) of the Constitution Act, 1982;
      (b) reflect Aboriginal nations as political and cultural entities rather than as racial groups, and therefore do not make blood quantum a general prerequisite for citizenship determination; and
      (c) may include elements such as self-identification, community or nation acceptance,
      cultural and linguistic knowledge, marriage, adoption, residency, birthplace, descent and ancestry among the different ways to establish citizenship.

      As part of their citizenship rules, Aboriginal nations establish mechanisms for resolving disputes concerning the nation’s citizenship rules generally, or individual applications specifically.

      These mechanisms are to be

      (a) characterized by fairness, openness and impartiality;
      (b) structured at arm’s length from the central decision-making bodies of the Aboriginal government; and
      (c) operated in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and with international norms and standards concerning human rights.

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