First Nations Governments
From BC Guide to Watershed Law & Planning
Europeans first arrived in British Columbia in the 1770s. At that time the aboriginal inhabitants of British Columbia, now called Indians or First Nations People or Natives, were organized various communities throughout the province. Each community had its own rules and laws, and its own government.
With the establishment of colonies, and later the province of British Columbia, most of these First Nations communities came under intense pressures.
- Diseases brought by the settler populations decimated their numbers;
- Settlers and prospectors occupied large chunks of First Nations territory;
- Missionaries and government sought to induce them to abandon their cultures, going so far as to seize First Nations children and put them into residential schools;
- The colonial and then federal governments unilaterally imposed new rules on First Nations governments – replacing their traditional government with appointed, and later elected, band councils and restricting First Nations territory to small reservations;
- The federal government passed laws banning the potlatch (a key feature of coastal First Nations culture) and fundraising to complain about the removal of First Nations lands.
The federal and provincial governments, for many years, viewed First Nations as wards of the state, incapable of making their own decisions and needing to be looked after. While there is increasing recognition that First Nations governments should have broader powers and more self-control, there is still significant disagreement over what this new form of First Nations government should look like.
The Indian Act
Under the Constitution Act, 1867, the federal government has powers over “Indians and Indian Lands”. To this end, the federal government has set up a department exercise these powers. The Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) is responsible for the administration of land and resources on reserves.
The main piece of federal legislation governing First Nations is the Indian Act. An earlier version of this Act replaced the traditional First Nations governments with government structures that the Canadian government was more familiar with and could work with more easily. The current version of the Indian Act continues to set out what First Nations government must look like. (This is not to say that all First Nations peoples have accepted this model).
Under the Indian Act:
- A community of “Indians” living on a reservation are known as a band and are governed by a Chief and Council.
- In most communities the Chief and Council function very much like the mayor and council of a *Under the Indian Act, a Band Council only has certain powers which can only be exercised over the reserve and Band members.
See the page on the Indian Act for more information on the powers of the Band Council.
Some B.C. Indian Bands (West Bank, Musqueam, Lheit Lit’en (Fort George), Nauatqua (Anderson Lake), and Squamish First Nations) have broader powers to create land use plans and by-laws under the First Nations Land Management Act. There are also a small number of special acts changing the powers of other First Nations governments. These include a number of Final Agreement Acts signed as a result of modern treaties and the Sechelt Indian Band Self-Government Act.
Self-Government and Rights
The Indian Act is a grant of powers from the federal government to a band council. However, First Nations Governments existed long before the Indian Act and there is increasing recognition that traditional rights of governance. First Nations Councils are increasingly simply asserting their right to self-government, passing laws and electing governments without following the requirements of the Indian Act. In some cases the Canadian courts are recognizing that First Nations self-government does exist in Canadian law.
In addition, the Canadian courts have recognized that First Nations may have aboriginal title and/or other rights over areas in their traditional territory (not just reserve lands). These traditional rights include some rights to control what decisions are made about those lands and rights, and may (the courts haven’t said yet) include the right to create laws about the use of lands with aboriginal title.
First Nations have a right to be consulted (in a meaningful way) about government or industry proposals that may affect their claims of aboriginal title. In addition the provincial and federal governments are trying to negotiate modern treaties that will define the rights and title that First Nations possess. Since Band Councils usually speak for the First Nation, this gives Band Councils responsibilities not reflected in the Indian Act.
Related Guide Pages:
For More Information about First Nations Government:
- “First Nations Communities in B.C.”] from B.C. Government’s Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation
- Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Website
- Northern and Indian Affairs Canada Website
- “An Historical Look at Canada & B.C.’s Relationship With First Nations”, a brief summary of historical events related to First Nations in British Columbia as presented by the Cariboo Tribal Council.