Hereditary Chiefs and Elected Chiefs: What’s the difference?

Treaty 2 Territory- The confusion around understanding the difference between elected Chiefs and Hereditary Chiefs is because most people don’t know much about the Indian Act or our history. This Indian Act election system, in which most of our Nations still operate, has negatively impacted the way in which our people traditionally governed themselves.  It has displaced our inherent authority as leaders and has eroded our traditions, cultural practices, and our belief systems. It doesn’t reflect our needs and doesn’t align with principles of modern and accountable governments. 

Elected Chief and Council

Elected chiefs and council is a system created out of the Indian Act of 1876 by colonialists who came to America, seized, and claimed Indigenous land and attempted to put their own system into place.  It is not a traditional way of governance. 

Canada (the Crown) wanted a more familiar way for First Nations communities to communicate with the government and represent their own nations. The Indian act created the elected chief and council system as a way of eliminating the practice of hereditary chiefs. It gave Chiefs and band councils authorities, powers, and jurisdiction only within the borders of the reserves and required elections to be held every two years. These are elected by their people but are accountable to the federal government. 

When the three-year election cycle was reduced to a two-year election cycle, it seriously affected the ability of Chief and Council to make any significate progress on long-term development initiatives, to govern and act in the best interests of their members, or to build effective foundations for community development. With leadership changes every two years, it is difficult move forward with resource development projects that require long-term planning.  This political instability is not good for any kind of economic development. 

The two-year electoral cycle also makes it difficult for nations to work together on bigger initiatives because elections are all held at different times.  Chiefs, with different visions join at different times which negatively effects the progress of proposed plans.

Hereditary Chiefs

First Nations peoples who have occupied this land since time immemorial had effective, traditional forms of leadership and governance. Our pre-contact form of governance was based on leadership by hereditary chiefs. These traditional leaders were headmen or headwomen, clan leaders, or heads of villages. Hereditary Chiefs are a form of First Nations governance that predates British colonial rule.

Hereditary chiefs, as the name indicates, are those who inherit the title and responsibilities according to the history and cultural values of their community. Their governing principles are anchored in their own cultural traditions. Hereditary chiefs carry the responsibility of ensuring the traditions, protocols, songs, dances of the community, which have been passed down for hundreds of generations, are respected and kept alive. They are caretakers of the people and the culture with many following a matriarchal line.

The traditional governance structures of many nations were part of a productive and highly evolved society pre-contact, and many lost the traditions of these structures throughout Canada’s history, including the undermining of women and Elders in leadership roles.

In some nations, you may meet an Elected Chief who is also a Hereditary Chief which may cause conflicts and protests as with the West-suwet’en protests in 2019 and 2020.  If a corporation does not take du diligence in researching the ways in which a nation conducts its affairs, it can run into issues when the elected and Hereditary Chiefs disagree. 

So, this leaves us with questions, “Can a nation have both?  Can we go back to the old ways? And what happens when Elected and Hereditary Chiefs disagree?”

Renée McGurry, Earth Lodge Development Helper

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