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Indigenous governments expand their influence

Yukon First Nation governments are filling the gaps where Western political institutions have failed. They're not alone.

Yukon First Nation governments are filling the gaps where Western political institutions have failed.

They’re not alone.

Last month, Bolivians re-elected their first indigenous president and largely approved devolving powers to regional aboriginal governments.

In September, 20 Ugandans died in clashes over the rising power of traditional kingdoms that predate British colonization in the early 1900s. In Scandinavia, the Sami Parliament is expanding its influence over people who have been overlooked by national governments centralized in Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki.

Throughout the world, aboriginal people are resurrecting political traditions once treated as archaic and backward.

But at the end of the day, what makes these governments any more likely to succeed than the states colonizers tried to impose?

“It’s about self-determination,” said Gavin Gardiner, a policy analyst with the Carcross Tagish First Nation.

“That’s the fundamental difference between self-governing First Nations and non self-governing First Nations,” said Gardiner, a 27-year-old Saskatchewan native.

“A self-governing First Nation, to a greater degree, has the ability to begin the decolonization process and to move toward true self-determination.”

Gardiner, who worked as an adviser to former Saskatchewan premier Lorne Calvert before moving to the Yukon two and a half years ago, sees a connection between the web of indigenous governments springing up around the world and the often ambiguous concept of democracy.

Back at the University of Saskatchewan, one of his professors, Peter Ferguson, was studying the rise and fall of democracies - what makes people gravitate toward their protection and what makes people rebel.

“I started thinking about that again coming to Carcross, where what people are doing is really nation-building,” said Gardiner. “It seems that same pattern is being replicated in these self-government communities.”

“They’re really involved in the democratization process - ensuring that their governments are more representative, open to criticism and community participation.”

Gardiner has decided to put his idea to the test.

He’s earned a $20,000 fellowship with the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, a grant organization that supports inventive studies of public policy in Canada.

Established by two accountant brothers in 1965, the Toronto-based non-profit selected 10 “young and emerging leaders in Canada who have demonstrated a commitment to international issues and are likely to exercise leadership roles” as recipients of their Gordon Global Fellowship for 2010.

In the next nine months, Gardiner will travel to Uganda, Bolivia and Scandinavia to study what he sees as a global trend toward more democratic political institutions that don’t fit the traditional Western governance model, whether they be Westminster-based or republican in nature.

First and foremost, he’ll be comparing indigenous self-governments with what he’s learned at the Carcross Tagish First Nation.

In Carcross, Gardiner is learning how to incorporate traditional politics with Western governance.

“The legislation is a melding of Western case law and legislative techniques with oral history and traditional stories,” said Gardiner.

“Instead of being prescriptive - like in most Western legislation the words ‘thou shall and thou shall not’- it tries to set out, traditionally, how the law would be practised,” he said.

“For instance, the Family Act talks about how traditionally different members of the family reacted to each other, so what the responsibilities of a father is to the son and how the aunts and uncles play in there.”

“And with wildlife it’s the same thing,” he said. “So it uses traditional stories to say, ‘Here are the principles by which we conducted ourselves - like the laws of the land traditionally.’

“It’s trying to codify that into a system of laws in the modern context.”

Carcross and other Canadian First Nation governments are creating political institutions that are legitimate and respectable in the eyes of their citizens.

But how do you create legitimacy? How do you make people believe in their chief and council?

“That’s the challenge of every government, and Carcross is no exception,” said Gardiner.

“But at the same time, there’s a philosophy that they apply here called the theory of change,” he said. “There’s four stages to it, the first one being belonging. If you don’t feel as though you belong to something, you’re not going to assist it in any way.”

As people grow to identify with their governments, they begin to feel obligated to improve and protect it.

“I think that’s how you create legitimacy,” said Gardiner. “If you can create something that people have a sense of belonging to, they’re more likely to give back to it, whether if that’s through public service or talking about the legislation in a social context.”

People in Carcross talk about their government’s legislation a lot more than a non-aboriginal Yukoner might talk about what’s going in the territory’s legislature, he said.

The tough part is injecting the substance of traditional governance into these emerging polities.

“The structure of governance itself, at least in Carcross, has been modified to reflect traditional values,” said Gardiner.

“The whole concept of consensus is integrated into official decision making,” he said.

Council members are chosen to be part of council by their lineage in several different clans, said Gardiner.

“There’s a recognition of traditional institutions and bodies in that sense.”

The administration is organized on the basis of the medicine wheel, with four departments signifying the emotional, spiritual, mental and physical aspects of the self.

“Governance is the volition to hold them all together and act on them,” said Gardiner.

In Uganda, where concerns over the rise of traditional kingdoms turned violent late last year, regional governments are slowly gaining legitimacy over the centralized government headquartered in Kampala.

“They’ve re-established their government and it’s clan-based, just like Carcross,” said Gardiner.

“The big similarity there is the land-claim issue,” he said. “When the British came into Uganda in the 1900s, they promised the Ugandan Kingdoms 9,000 square kilometres of land. There is still a claim on that land.”

The Bugandan Kingdom, the largest of Uganda’s four traditional kingdoms, represents the country’s largest ethnic group, around 16.9 per cent of the population.

“What the kingdom has been doing is they’ve been setting up communal access and communal ownership of land in the same way that First Nations are doing to try and re-excercise (their concept of) land ownership, that it’s not your land or my land, but it’s our land.”

Bugandans have set up parliaments with administration and executive offices using traditional principles, he said.

Right now, the battle is over setting over a federal system based on Bugandan principles.

“It’s a very controversial topic,” said Gardiner.

“There’s a national government and local governments with nothing in between,” he said.

“(Bugandans) are looking at becoming a regional government and the government for the region where their traditional territory encompasses,” he said.

Bolivia, where Evo Morales, the country’s first leader of Aymara descent, has been in power since 2006, is also going through major changes in its constitution and government structure to enfranchise indigenous people who have been maligned since the days of the Spanish Conquest.

In last month’s election, 12 municipalities across the county voted to decentralize power away from the capital, La Pas, and into the offices of regional governments.

According to Spanish news sources, most or all of the municipalities approved the measure, said Gardiner.

Some might say he’s comparing apples and oranges. After all, these governments come from widely diverging traditions.

But at the heart of Gardiner’s studies is a question about what humans need fundamentally from the social order that surrounds them.

“If you start to look at how governments here are moving, you have family conferencing, circle sentencing in courts and you’re moving toward that more-consensus model of government and government structures,” said Gardiner.

“That’s universal, almost universal, in indigenous structures of government whether you go to Bolivian communities or Uganda or other circumpolar places too,” he said.

“It seems to be that is the way we all did or do things, whether it’s Canadian First Nations or even early settlers - it wasn’t the same adversarial processes that’s in place (now.)”

By uncovering certain universal principles about social order, like self-determination and belonging, Gardiner’s studies could one day help reform the shortcomings in Canada’s political structures.

Canada’s courts have been much faster at incorporating lessons from aboriginal political structures into the mainstream than our legislative and executive institutions, he said.

“I think we do see a movement back to that,” said Gardiner. “Maybe not so much in the governance realm, but I think it’s a matter of time, hopefully.”

Contact James Munson at