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Political & Economic Organizations - Additional Reading

This book will provide additional information on the historical Political & Economic Organization of First Nations and Inuit. 

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Book: Political & Economic Organizations - Additional Reading
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Traditional Social Organization

Social structures answer questions such as: How should food be acquired and distributed? Who should make decisions? How should conflict be resolved?

Traditional First Nations and Inuit social organizations revealed a high degree of cooperation and mutual support because individuals relied on people around them for all of their needs.

villageA large extended family was necessary in order to perform all the work necessary for day-to-day life including taking care of shelter, food, transportation and defense needs.

The primary living group of most First Nations varied with the season.  People living in the area now called Alberta usually lived in extended family groups during the winter and larger groups at certain points in the summer.  Group size was not based on a certain number or family size limit, but instead on practical requirements.  Groups had to be big enough to provide for themselves, but not so big that they had to struggle.

Extended Family and Clans

Iroquois CouncilTraditionally, the Plains and Woodland Cree’s basic social unit was the extended family.  This group included uncles and aunts from both the father’s and mother’s sides.  All children in the group were cousins.  Grandfathers and grandmothers could include both the parents of an individual and the brothers and sisters of the grandparents.  Often families would adopt children and or older people that did not have a family of their own.

Among nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the basic social unit was traditionally the clan.  The Blackfoot clan was similar in size and function to the Cree extended family.  The clan was made up of a chief, his brothers and parents, and others who were not necessarily related.  Clan membership was flexible and individuals were free to join other clans. 

Beyond these basic social units, First Nations had a variety of social structures.  Each family group was generally linked to wider groups sharing common ancestors, language, and other ties.  These wider relationships could include societies, nations, alliances and confederacies.

Clan systems among Eastern Woodlands and Pacific Northwest First Nations were slightly different.  Clans were associations that went beyond the extended family because families were so large and spread out over a large territory.


Nations in the Blackfoot Confederacy had many societies with responsibilities that covered spiritual and administrative functions.  Societies included members from all the clans and most were male oriented and age graded.  This meant that as a boy got older, his responsibilities became more complex.  Elders who were heads of societies were held in great esteem and would be supported by the younger members of the society.

At a young age, I became an active member of the Blood Tribe Horn society, Brave Dog society and the Prairie Chicken society of the Siksika Nation.  Through these society memberships, I have received knowledge of traditional teachings and doctrines from my spiritual grandparents.  I encourage youth to pursue these societies as they assist in your understanding of our unique culture and language.  The ability to speak and understand your language makes it a lot easier to comprehend these teachings and society rituals.

Les Buckskin Jr., Blood Tribe

Roles and Responsibilties

Traditional First Nations communities had greater social equality than European societies at the time, although individual First Nations varied in the degree of equality.

All groups had institutions to ensure that resources were shared fairly.  For example, food was distributed equally regardless of who killed the game.  Trade and gift-giving were common and everyone had obligations to support and help each other.


No person had noticeably more than anyone else and if they did, it was given away.  Feelings of envy and greed were reduced and there was little incentive to acquire more material wealth than could be used or given to others. Groups encouraged sharing and the most generous individuals were admired.

Men were generally hunters, scouts, and defenders.  Boys learned skills related to these future roles. Women organized the camps, cared for the children, and prepared the game that had been killed in the hunt.  Girls generally assisted with tasks such as picking berries.


storytellingIn traditional education, knowledge was given a practical purpose.  Education involved passing on skills, information, and perspectives necessary for spiritual and social balance in the community.  Lessons combined learning with laughter, exercise, family, spirituality and active contribution to the community.

The content of lessons had been passed on from generation to generation.  People would hear the same stories many times throughout their lives. Education was considered an ongoing process, and people were expected to continue learning throughout their lives.

Traditional teachings embraced the pursuit of living in harmony with oneself, one’s family and one’s community, including the community of the natural world.  Individuals were expected to regenerate these cultural teachings through their actions, thoughts, and words.  In this respect, education was considered everyone’s responsibility.

Conflict Resolution

cirlceIn traditional First Nations and Inuit communities, appropriate behavior was considered a personal responsibility. Traditional teachings encouraged people to take this responsibility.  Few incentives to break the law existed because individuals saw themselves holistically, as a member of the community.  They saw rules that were good for the community as being good for themselves.

Traditional methods for resolving conflict reflected respect for all people involved.  Each person was given an opportunity to speak to an issue, usually in a talking circle.  Every participant in the circle was required to be respectful.  This mutual support helped the community reach a resolution while retaining or restoring the dignity of those involved.

Traditional Government and Decision Making

Governance in First Nations and Inuit communities was democratic in that everyone in the community had the opportunity to voice their opinions and participate in the decision-making for the common good. 

CrowchildIndividuals held equal power in decision-making. Council and consensus was the method used to make a decision. Leaders had the role of guiding or assisting the group in reaching resolutions.  They did not make decisions alone or try to impose their own ideas on others.

Decisions were adopted if they promoted the common good of the whole community.  The common good meant not only the community making the decision, but the good of future generations and the natural and spiritual world.  First Nations took a holistic view of decisions.

Traditional Metis Governance

Before the Red River Métis began their annual buffalo hunt, they formed a government to organize the massive operation.  Like other aspects of their culture, the government was a mixture of First Nations and European cultures.

red river cart

Men of the camp elected a captain, usually and Elder, to lead the hunt.  The captain was selected for his ability as a hunter and for qualities such as honesty and fairness.  A council of lieutenants was also elected, with one lieutenant elected for every ten hunters.  These officers met to determine the time, place and direction of the hunt.  They were also responsible for deciding the number of animals to be killed. 

Later, Métis governments reflected a similar blend of cultures.  When the Métis established a provisional government at Fort Garry in 1869, it followed the principles of the buffalo hunt.  All the men of the settlement over the age of twenty-one elected a council of Elders. The council, in turn, elected a president and secretary.  When an issue affecting the whole community came up for debate, it was referred to the community for discussion.  All elected leaders of the provisional government were expected to be accountable to the community and could be removed if the community believed they were incapable of governing.

Economic Organization

In general, traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit worldviews led to economic systems that stressed self-reliance, thoughtful use of resources and sharing through family networks.  Everyone contributed and was in turn taken care of in a system of mutual support.

These economic systems are distinctly different from capitalist and communist systems because their worldviews saw a fundamentally different relationship between humans and the planet.

Through their education, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people learned that the Creator and the natural world supply everything needed for life. This provision is not without restriction – all things in nature (plants, animals, mountains, and streams) are equal to humans and must be respected as such.  Demand for the earth’s resources must, therefore, be modest and according to need.

Exploration and Early Trade

 riverviewAlthough explorers were coming to North America in search of various riches in the 15th and 16th centuries, most showed little interest in settling permanently in Newfoundland, Labrador and the north shore of the River Kanata (St. Lawrence River).

The British visited each summer to fish, landing temporarily to dry their catch. Other countries also fished in the region and some hunted whales further north. The French, like the British, were content for the rest of the sixteenth century to use North America as a fishing resource.

A. Fur Trade

Just as First Nations had always adapted their lifestyles to accommodate nature’s changes – the seasons, migrating animals, climatic variations – so they adapted their ways to take advantage of the European visits. 

beaver hatsA profitable sideline soon arose during the occasional encounters between fishers and the First Nations and Métis.  While on their annual summer fishing trips, visiting Europeans traded with the First Nations, taking home furs that met a growing demand in Europe.  Beaver pelt hats were a status symbol in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This early trade was relatively simple and beneficial to both parties.  First Nations and Métis brought furs and the Europeans brought other trade goods.

B. New Opportunities

France was the first country to develop a permanent European settlement in Canada. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain established a post at Stadacona.  It became an important trading centre that helped move the fur trade into a new era.  Until then, the trade had been concentrated on the eastern coasts.  Now France began to draw on the resources of the interior.

Champlain lacked both the knowledge and people needed to travel to this region, so he formed alliances with members of the Ouendat Confederacy, the Innu and the Odawa.  These nations worked with France as middlemen.  They ferried trade goods up the St. Lawrence River, traded them with the inland nations, and brought the furs back to the post.  Indeed, as the fur trade expanded, it was the middlemen and the Europeans that made most of the profit, not the trappers that provided the fur.

C. The Hudson's Bay Company

In 1659, two French brothers-in-law, Medard Chouart Des Grosseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson, made a trading expedition past Lake Superior into what is now Michigan.  They came back with 60 canoes full of furs and an idea.  Why not use the sea route through Hudson Bay to trade directly into the interior?  The French government didn’t think this was a great idea, so Des Grosseilliers took the idea to London.  On May 2, 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was born. 

HBCThe British Crown granted the HBC exclusive rights to trade in the territory where the rivers flowed into the Hudson Bay.  Before then, the First Nations living in this region – Cree and Nakoda - had been on the outer edge of the fur trade.  Now they were in the centre, with the French on one side and the HBC on the other.

British traders did not travel into First Nations territory, instead staying at their posts and waiting for the First Nations to bring furs to them.  As a result, the Cree and Nakoda became new middlemen.  They became experts at playing the British and the French against each other, transporting furs to whomever they believed would give them the best price.

Exchange and Adaption

Although the Europeans were quick to see the value of North America’s Natural resources, they were not as quick to embrace First Nations and Inuit technologies. In their view, Europe represented the modern, technologically advanced, and superior world of countries, cities, capitalism and Christianity.

This false sense of superiority prevented them from seeing that much of their knowledge and experience was useless in their new surroundings.  Many Europeans failed to live through their first winter overseas, dying of exposure or malnutrition.  Those who survived often did so only because First Nations and Inuit peoples shared knowledge, medicine and food with them.

A. Voyageurs

Some European, especially young French men, adapted readily to First Nations ways of life. The freedom and independence of the First Nations suited many of the men. Some had come to New France to escape the rigid social structures of their European Homeland.  Lured by the promise of fur profits, some of them travelled into First Nations territory to begin trading directly with the inland nations.  These men became known as coureurs des bois “runners of the woods” or voyageurs.

 courier de bois

The voyageurs often stayed inland for years, marrying First Nations women and raising families.  They and their descendants, the early Métis people, increasingly took over the middleman role in the St. Lawrence fur trade.

Watch The National Film Board's "The Voyageurs" Video

The Voyageurs by ONFB , National Film Board of Canada

B. Changing First Nations

The fur trade slowly changed the ancient First Nations way of life; they found themselves adapting to European-style commerce and politics. European and First Nations leadership structures contrasted greatly.  No First Nations leader had the kind of formal power wielded by someone like the factor, the trader who controlled each HBC post.  If the factor’s power was incompatible with First Nations beliefs, then the idea of a monarch ruling over a colony from a distant land across the sea must have seemed nonsensical.  First Nations leaders were usually those among the group who were seen to have experience and wisdom. 

Over time, European ideas took hold.  For example, European fur traders identified trading captains among First Nations peoples they dealt with and gave them special status.  These trading captains were often the most successful hunters or trappers, so they began to accumulate material wealth.  Among some groups, this led to a fundamental change in leadership to favour people who possessed material wealth, rather than those who gave it away.

C. The Homeguard

Unlike their First Nations and Metis partners, most HBC employees lacked the skills needed to support themselves through hunting.  To ensure a fresh supply of meat, they encouraged First Nations people to camp near the posts.  These people became known as the homeguard.

Each year, the homeguard began setting up camp in time for the spring goose hunt.  They received brandy or strong beer to celebrate the start of the hunt, along with powder and shot.  The homeguard then returned to the post with meat and feathers to trade.  Inside the post, HBC employees preserved and stored the birds for the winter.

After the hunt, the homegaurd dispersed to their favorite family fishing spots, occasionally returning to the post to trade some of their catch.

At times, the post relied heavily on the homeguard for their survival.  At other times, the homeguard depended on the post. Because they spent much of their time gathering furs and provisions for trade, the homeguard sometimes found themselves short of food.  Many of the areas immediately surrounding the posts became overhunted, providing less and less to those who lived near them. When famine threatened, the homeguard looked to the HBC for support. Sometimes the company gave this support in the form of credit, which put First Nations peoples in debt to the company.

D. The Metis Family

The earliest Europeans to marry into First Nations families were the voyageurs.  Most of the  children of these marriages were either raised as First Nations or Europeans and did not view themselves as being part of a distinct culture.

As the children of these marriages grew up, and married other individuals with similar backgrounds, a new and distinct culture began to emerge that was neither European or First Nations, but a blend of the two. This cultural evolution began in the 1600s and reached its peak by the 1800s.

Metis people had an enviable position in the fur-trading world, which encouraged them to have a sense of pride and distinct cultural identity.  They learned about European technology and values from their fathers, many of whom insisted their children be educated and raised as Christians.  They learned traditional First Nations skills from their mothers, who encouraged their children to be multilingual.  Their mothers bridged both cultures and influenced children to adopt beneficial elements of each.

Expansion West and North

In 1760, the Seven Years’ War between France and England ended with the defeat of France in Quebec on the Plains of Abraham.  This led to a significant shift in both the fur trade and First Nation – European relations in Canada.

Until that point, British settlement in Canada had been limited. In 1749, they established Chebucto (Halifax), their first major settlement.  It was not a promising start.  In the first winter, nearly 1000 of the 2500 settlers perished.  Those who survived faced increasing hostility from the Mi’kmaq, who were alarmed at the permanent settlement in their territory.

With the fall of New France, settlements grew rapidly.  Thousands of New Englanders arrived in Nova Scotia in the 1760s, followed by other immigrants from Ireland, England, and Scotland.  After the American War of Independence, waves of settlers who wished to remain in British territory flooded north.  About 20,000 of them settled in Nova Scotia in 1783 and 1784.

The British settlers were entirely different from the French fur traders.  They wanted land.  Agriculture needed a system of land ownership, fences, roads, railways, supplies, and towns.  Whereas the fur trade economy depended on the First Nations maintaining at least some parts of their traditional ways of life, such as their mobility, agriculture was completely opposed to this lifestyle.

It was a turning point in the history of First Nations and Europeans.  Once, by far the majority of the population, some First Nations found themselves increasingly in the minority.  In addition, disease drastically reduced their populations, weakening their ability to resist the changes overtaking their territories. Particularly in the east, where most of the settlers moved, many First Nations found themselves in conflict with settlements and sometimes were displaced from their traditional lands.

A. The Western Trade

Independent Scottish traders began to take control of French trading posts, competing with each other as well as the HBC.  The HBC had little choice, but to do the same and in 1774, they established their first inland post, Cumberland House, on the lower Saskatchewan River.  In the face of this challenge, the Scottish traders decided to pool their resources and the North West Company was born.

HBC trading routes

In the decades that followed, the two companies leap-frogged each other, establishing posts further and further west. Rocky Mountain House opened in 1799 and the American Fur Trading Company built their first trading post in 1831.  These western posts allowed the Blackfoot Confederacy to directly partake in the European trade.  For the next four decades, members of the Blackfoot Confederacy pitted the British against the Americans, always holding out for the best price and taking their buffalo robes, dried meat and furs to the company that offered the widest range of trade goods.

Around this time, alcohol began to play a larger role in the fur trade.  The HBC and North West Company were eager to maintain the flow of furs.  They realized that First Nations had little incentive to keep hunting and trapping for furs once they had all the trade goods they needed.

Alcohol, however, was a different story.  It could be consumed on the spot so that people would always be eager to trade for more.  It could be transported more cheaply and easily than many conventional goods such as metal pots and tools.  It was also addictive.

Before long, alcohol became one of the most important trade items for both the HBC and the North West Company, with often disastrous consequences for First Nations communities.

B. The Northern Fur Trade

Once the HBC was firmly established in the territory south and west of the Hudson  Bay, the company cast its eyes north.  Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, they made repeated attempts to establish trade with Inuit peoples.  For decades they did not succeed.

Then, in 1839, they sent an Inuk employee north from Fort George in search of trade.  That first summer, he brought a single family back, but the next year he returned with about thirty families with furs and skins for trade.

Little Whale RiverAfter that, Fort George enjoyed rather regular trade with Inuit peoples,.  In 1851, the HBC opened a northern post at Little Whale River in order to expand the northern trade.  The post operated for the next forty years.

Seal pelts and sealskin clothing made up a good portion of the Inuit trade goods.  Skins were more valuable when their layers of blubber were left intact.  There was a growing shortage of whale oil, used in lamps and candles, and seal oil made from blubber was an excellent substitute.

The Buffalo Trade

By the mid to late-eighteenth century, the North West Company and the HBC had extended their trade far into the interior. The new posts were far from the eastern ports to Europe and the companies faced a huge challenge shipping supplies and trading goods in, and transporting furs out. Crews often spent months paddling canoes and needed a portable, concentrated food source to sustain them.

PemmicanIn 1779, Nor’Wester trader Peter Pond brought back pemmican from a trip he made to the Athabasca River.  Pemmican is made by drying buffalo meat, grinding it in to a powder and mixing it with melted fat. Sometimes berries are added for flavor and extra nutritional value.  Pemmican had been a staple food among First Nations for centuries.

Pemmican kept indefinitely and provided huge amounts of food energy for little weight.  In short, it was the perfect food for traveling fur traders. The demand from the competing companies for pemmican, newly popular buffalo robes, and dried buffalo tongues gave birth to a new economic opportunity for both First Nations and Métis people. 

During their fall hunt, First nations used buffalo jumps or buffalo pounds to kill large numbers of buffalo at once.  They quickly dried most of their meat in order to preserve it for the winter. They pounded in into pemmican and the sewed it into buffalo hide sacks. The traditional part of their way of life was easily and profitably expanded to supply fur traders.

A. The Buffalo Jump

For thousands of years, Plains First Nations had hunted buffalo, their primary food source.  The buffalo also provided clothing, tools and shelter. First nations used various hunting methods; the most sophisticated being the buffalo jump.

First Nations hunters took advantage of the buffalo’s instinct to stampede when faced with danger.  They searched for sites where cliffs occurred without warning, and they devised a way to channel the stampeding herd over the cliff.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo jump, an enormous site, has four distinct components. The gathering basin, 40 square kms of grazing area, attracted herds late in the fall.  Hunters disguised in buffalo robes lured the herd, imitating bleating calves, toward the drive lanes.  As the herd moved closer, the hunters circled behind, shouting and waving robes to frighten the herd into a stampede.  Thirty different lanes, lined with 20,000 cairns, directed stampeding herds towards the cliff site.

Below the cliff site was the processing area, where groups camped while butchering the buffalo, sun-drying the meat for pemmican, and cleaning the skins.  Every part of the buffalo was used.  Such a huge operation required the cooperation of many groups that separated again after the hunt.

B. The Metis Buffalo Hunt

Metis Buffalo hunt

The hunting technique used by the Metis differed from that of their First Nations ancestors.  Instead of driving buffalo over cliffs or into enclosures and killing them with spears or arrows, the métis used guns and horses called buffalo runners in a technique called “running the herd”. 

At the beginning of the hunt, scouts were sent to locate the herd.  When it was spotted, the hunting group rode forward in single-line formation.  At a signal from the captain of the hunt, the riders charged the buffalo, causing them to stampede.  The riders would then gallop into the herd, select an animal, and fire at point-blank range from their galloping horses.

The 1840 buffalo hunt occurred at the peak of the buffalo trade.  The hunting party left its organization camp near the Red River in early June.  It included:

                620 men

                650 women

                360 children

                586 oxen

                503 horses

                1240 Red River carts.

They travelled 402 kms in nineteen days before the first buffalo were spotted.  When the hunt ended on August 17, the party had over 454,000 kilograms of meat and hides to transport back to Red River.

Decline of Trade

By the early nineteenth century, the fur trade was in decline.  Part of the trouble lay in Europe.  The Napoleonic Wars between France and England drastically reduced the demand for furs and made it more difficult for fur trading companies to attract European workers. 

Relentless competition between the HBC and the North West Company virtually wiped out fur and game animals in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and depleted them elsewhere across the prairies.  Buffalo herds that once blanketed the land in herds of fifty to seventy-five million were now a fraction of their original size.

In 1821, the North West Company was absorbed into the HBC, ending four decades of competition in western Canada.  First Nation’s and Metis peoples lost the advantage of dealing with two competing companies and became increasingly more dependent on the HBC.

The situation grew worse as the nineteenth century progressed.  Silk replaced beaver as the favored material for making hats, but the beaver had been all but trapped out in most of the country.  The buffalo, which had become the new engine of the trade, was also in decline.  By 1870, the animal was almost extinct.

For Plains First Nations, the loss of the buffalo was devastating.  Their way of life had revolved around the buffalo for centuries - the center of their traditional political, economic and spiritual institutions.

Changes in fashion resulted in more demand for mink and marten in the early twentieth century, so trading posts expanded rapidly in the Artic.  After reaching a peak in the 1920’s, the northern trade suffered during the Great Depression and rapidly declined.  By the 1950’s, few northerners could make a living from the fur trade.

Within a few hundred years, the fur trade transformed the lives of aboriginal peoples from coast to coast.  As the fur trade ended, it left the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples facing a difficult and uncertain future.

Business and Politics

Before 1969, Aboriginal Peoples had made several attempts to organize a national political organization.  Each organization failed, generally because of lack of government support or attention.  These included the League of Indians after World War I, the North American Indian Brotherhood after World War II, and the national Indian Council (NIC) in 1961.  The NIC’s goal was to promote unity among all the constituents – in this case, Status Indians, non-Status Indians, First Nations that had signed treaties and Métis peoples.  The NIC failed partly because it was too difficult to develop a single voice that could speak for the needs of all its members.

Letter from Frederick Loft, President of the League of Indians of Canada, to Chief Murray, Oka, Quebec
In his letter, Frederick Loft outlines the goals, aims, and ambitions of the League of Indians of Canada, and wants Chief Murray and his band to consider becoming members of the League. Loft states how necessary it is for Aboriginal peoples to unite; across the country, he says, "we...are sadly strangers to each other," even though they share the same "needs, drawbacks, handicaps and troubles." He goes on to say that the League's goals include land rights, since as law-abiding citizens they too have served their country and king, in war as well as in peacetime. In the second page of Loft's typed letter to Chief Murray, Oka, Quebec, Frederick Loft continues to explain the goals of the League of Indians of Canada. He personalizes the invitation to Chief Murray with a short handwritten note at the end of the letter, asking the chief to respond as soon as possible. He also reassures the chief that the League is “non-sectarian,” meaning that there is no religious discrimination, and any Aboriginal person can join regardless of differences in spiritual beliefs.
Department of Indian and Northern Affairs
November 26, 1919

After the NIC broke up, Métis people and non-Status Indians formed the Native Council of Canada.  Status Indians formed the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB).  Soon after the NIB was formed in 1968, the federal government announced its White Paper. 

None of the national Aboriginal political organizations you read about in this chapter have official political power.  The Assembly of First Nations does not, for example, represent its constituents in the House of Common as an elected Member of Parliament does.  Instead, national Aboriginal political organizations lobby the federal government on behalf of their communities’ interests.

Assembly of First Nations

AFNThe National Indian Brotherhood changed its name to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in 1982. The AFN represents the interests of over 630 First Nations in Canada both federally and provincially. Its mandate is 'to restore and enhance the historical relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government'.  Where one First Nation speaking out might not receive the attention it needs, the AFN is highly influential because it speaks for so many member nations.

The organization works to present unified views on issues affecting First Nations people, such as Aboriginal rights, economic development, education, environment, health, housing, justice, language and literacy, social development, taxation and treaty rights.  Treaty rights are special rights to land and other benefits due to people who signed a treaty and descendants of those people.  The AFN also acts as a forum for various First Nations to maintain relationships among one another.

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples

Métis peoples interests and those of non-Status Indians were first represented nationally by the Native Council of Canada (NCC), which was formed in 1971.  During the 1983 constitutional negotiations, a large group of Métis people felt that the NCC was not adequately representing their distinct interests. They broke away from the NCC and formed the Métis National Council. 

The NCC changed its name to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples in 1987 and still represents the interests of many Métis people and non-Status Indians in Canada.

Metis National Council

Metis MapThe Métis National Council (MNC)'s goals are to represent and promote the interests of the Metis Nation by: 

  • restoring Metis lands and resources
  • achieving full recognition of the historical contributions of the Métis Nation to Canada
  • developing cooperative relations with Canadian governments
  •  promoting progress among Métis people
  •  preserving Métis culture.

The MNC today has provincial associations in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.  The provincial associations are responsible for representing all Metis people in their province.  Each provincial association has an elected council and sends representatives to the MNC. In 2001, The MNC formed the Metis National Cabinet.  It is responsible for policy making in areas of culture and heritage, economic development, environment, health, international affairs, social development, women’s issues and youth.

Each provincial association has regional councils, each with its own constitution.  Although each region has a different set of rules, common to all is the principal that all Métis people are allowed to participate. Because Métis peoples were not included in the Indian Act or any other federal legislation until 1982, they have always been active at the provincial level.

Métis Nation of Alberta

The Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) was formed in 1932 to represent the interests of landless Métis people in Alberta. Its main goal was to reestablish a land and resource base for Métis people in Alberta. In 1938, they were successful and the Alberta government created twelve Métis settlements in the north-central part of the province.  Today the MNA represents the interests of all the Métis people in Alberta, including the many Métis people who do not live on one of the Métis Settlements,  It has programs that further Métis people’s political, economic, social, educational and cultural development.

Key Issues Facing Aboriginal Politcal Leaders


The issues each First Nations, Métis, and Inuit community face are different.  In addition, there are always individuals within communities who face problems not shared by others.  First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people experience many problems, including cultural differences, stereotypes, racism and discrimination.  Changing these attitudes can be a more challenging task than changing government policies.

A. Standard of LIving

The United Nations Human Development Index consistently rates Canada as having one of the world’s highest standards of living – including the amount of living space per person per dwelling, the number of major repairs needed on a home, access to quality water, healthcare, education and so on.  The same index places the standard of living for First Nations at the same level as developing countries, such as Botswana and Vietnam. 

Statistics Canada defines crowded living conditions as homes with one or more people per room.  This means that a home with a kitchen, living room, dining room and two bedrooms would be considered crowded with more than five people living there.  In the 2001, Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 17% of Aboriginals living off reserves reported living in crowded conditions, whereas only 7% of all Canadians reported this. In 2001, 53%  of Inuit people reported living in crowded conditions.


It was reported that 34% of Inuit peoples reported that there were times of year that their drinking water was unsafe.  In Nunavik, a northern Quebec Inuit region, the rate was reported at 73% during parts of the year.

 Government officials and Aboriginal leaders recognize that the causes for low standards of living (including poverty) must be addressed rather than the symptoms.  For example, programs need to address why individuals are unemployed, not provide money to replace employment income.

Aboriginal leaders today seek greater control over their lands and resources, as well as an equitable share of the wealth these resources represent.  They see this as an essential first step in re-establishing their peoples' self-sufficiency, something they enjoyed for thousands of years before European contact.

A Caution When Measuring Standard of Living

'Standard of Living' does not assess quality of life.  For example, poverty is one factor that causes low standards of living.  The rate of Aboriginal people living beneath the poverty line is nearly three times higher than that of other Canadians.  Yet First Nations considered poor in comparison to other Canadians might assess their own quality of life as high.  The people who left the Hobbema reserve in 1968 to live in Smallboy Camp, lived a life that had a low standard of living; tents for homes, fires for warmth in the winter and an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing.  Despite these living conditions, many people at the camp assessed their quality of life as high.

B. Land Claims

Many Aboriginal communities believe that the federal government has failed to provide them with the land that they are rightfully entitled to.  In these cases, they have launched land claims that demand title to territories legitimately belonging to Aboriginal groups based on historical use and occupancy.

A comprehensive claim is essentially a modern-day treaty.  These come about when a group of aboriginal peoples has been deprived of its traditional territory without ever having signed a treaty. For example, until recently, most First Nations in BC had never signed treaties, and the province did not recognize First Nations title to land.  Now the federal and provincial governments are negotiating land claims together with these nations.

A specific claim deals with issues rising from treaties.  They only affect First Nations, because only First Nations signed treaties. If a First Nation feels that it hasn't received the land it is entitled to according to signed treaties, it files a specific claim.

C. Self - Government

In, 1995, the federal government officially recognized Aboriginal peoples inherent right to self-government.  In other words, the government acknowledged that Aboriginal peoples have been denied a birth-right: the ability to govern their own lives.  Acknowledging this fact has proven easier than putting it in practice.  Although several Aboriginal groups now have self-government agreements, most are in negotiations.

Watch the video Westbank, British Columbia: A Self-Governing First Nation

D. Treaty Rights

CourtThe 1969 White Paper downplayed the significance of Canada’s historical treaties.  First Nations leaders responded strongly.  They saw the historical treaties as the foundation of their relationship with Canada.  They were appalled that the federal government intended to legislate the treaties out of existence.

Today, the Assembly of First Nations maintains a Treaties and Land Unit to provide technical advice, research, and administrative support to First Nations who have problems concerning their treaty rights.  Supreme Court decisions have repeatedly recognized the continued importance of treaty rights.

E. Health

Statistics Canada reports that Aboriginal peoples are one and a half times more likely to have a chronic disease than other Canadians.  Suicide rates are staggering, at three times higher than those in Canada’s general population.  Life expectancy is a full six years shorter.

Diabetes, one of the top five chronic health concerns of Aboriginal peoples, is of special concern.  In 2001, 7% of the Aboriginal population reported having diabetes, while 2.9% of the Canadian population reported the condition.

Alcohol and drug abuse often go hand-in-hand with poverty and unemployment, while leading to social problems and health issues. In Canada, Aboriginal people are two to six times more likely than other Canadians to have alcohol-related problems.

In 1982, Indian and Northern Affairs launched the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, which funds 54 treatment centres and more than 500 community-based prevention programs, most of which are controlled by Aboriginal communities.

Poverty plays a role in causing poor health, but it is only part of the problem.  Provincial and federal governments have been working with First Nations to improve the health of people in their communities.  For example, Alberta’s Aboriginal Health Strategy Project Fund supports programs to improve access to healthcare.

Justice Conflicts

Few First Nations languages include the concepts of guilt or sin.  A Choctaw-English dictionary complied in the 1800’s defined the verb sins as “to make a mistake” or “to be lost in the wilderness” – meanings quite different from those assigned to today’s criminal courts.

handcuffsMay aspects of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures are in direct conflict with the structured expectations of a courtroom.  In some cultures, looking directly at someone is considered rude and disrespectful.  In a courtroom, not meeting someone’s eyes is sometimes interpreted as an indication of guilt or untrustworthiness.

In traditional ways of handling disputes, First Nations people take responsibility for their actions and do not speak out against others. In Canadian courts, these cultural traditions often have resulted in guilty pleas and refusing to testify.  For a First Nations person operating within a traditional worldview, pleading not guilty to an offense that they committed would be lying.  In the Canadian court system, a not guilty plea is seen as an acceptable beginning to a court proceeding in which a person is innocent until proven guilty.  It is not up to individuals to confess guilt and incriminate themselves, it is up to the court to prove them guilty.

G. Education

schoolClasses have finally begun at the new Inuit cultural school in Clyde River, Nunavut, with 25 students enrolled for the fall term.

The $32 million Piqqusilirivvik facility is meant to teach Inuit traditional knowledge to Nunavut land claim beneficiaries. All the programming is delivered in Inuktitut by elders who act as instructors, advisers and counsellors.

Education is one of the top priorities for Aboriginal leaders across the country.  Since the early 1970’s, Aboriginal peoples in many areas have increasingly taken control of their young people’s education.  Federal and provincial governments have been actively involved in this shift of responsibility and control.  However, many communities still lack the control or funding they need to provide their children with the education they aspire to.

In 2001, 48% of Aboriginal people ages 2-24 had not completed high school, compared to 26%of the total Canadian population.  Aboriginals aged 25-44 who have post-secondary education is 39%, compared to 55% for the total Canadian population.


DelormeA growing number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are owning and operating their own businesses.

From corporations that employ hundreds of workers to one-person home businesses, they are offering goods and services across the entire spectrum of the economy – from hotels, banks and the oil and gas services to retail stores, restaurants, and colleges.

According to the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, there are 15,000 businesses owned by Aboriginal people in Canada.  Half of these are located in urban centres, with the rest located in rural communities or on reserves.  Aboriginal self-employment has, over the past fifteen years, grown at three times the average Canadian rate.  Today, many reserves have a full complement of business, professional and trades people.

A. Global Business

More and more, Aboriginal businesses are reaching global customers.

The Blood Tribe Agricultural Project (BTAP), which has received a 2003 Canada Export Award for excellence, is an example of a community-owned project with international success.  It is the largest irrigation operation in western Canada.  The operation provides permanent and seasonal employment for many of members of the Kainai First Nation.  Some people have received education, training, and mentorship through the project.

The Sawridge First Nation not only owns many hotels in popular tourist areas, such as Jasper National Park, but also owns the largest bottled water plant in Canada.  Sawridge Waters, located on Annacis Island, near Vancouver, exports Spirit Water to the United States.  The Sawridge people demonstrate great entrepreneurship and are a role model for many others.  The band’s objective is to be self-sufficient, providing jobs and a stable economic base that is not dependent on government contributions or on depleting natural resources.

B. Natural Resources

In the past, First Nations people on reserves watched as resource companies extracted oil, gas and trees from their area without receiving much or any benefit.  This is now changing.

Good Fish Lake CorporationThe Goodfish Lake Development Corporation is a manufacturer and cleaner of protective garments and work camp linens for eastern Alberta’s oil sands industry.

The Cold Lake First Nation has an economic benefits agreement with large resource companies operating near its reserve.  The agreement assures that some of the wealth that companies generate by taking resources from the region will be shared with the people on the reserve.  With training band members and improved communications between companies and First Nations regarding jobs and contracts, employment rates on the reserve are at an all-time high.

The Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) owns three office buildings and is getting into the oil and gas industry.  It consults with its Elders Advisory Council on cultural issues, long-term planning, and other matters. The Métis Settlements Act began a new chapter in the lives of the Métis people living on the province’s eight settlements. The development of the natural resources on the settlements is a big part of the plans to improve the people's quality of life.  Each settlement has short and long-term goals for sustainable resource harvesting, which means that the companies use environmentally sound practices that allow the environment to continue and function; which will help support future generations.

For example, the Gift Lake Métis Settlement has completed an extensive forest management plan to give an accurate inventory of settlement trees and their potential for logging and regrowth.