… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

nisgaanationConcept description

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (reference below) defines Aboriginal self-government as “Governments designed, established and administered by Aboriginal peoples under the Canadian Constitution through a process of negotiation with Canada and, where applicable, the provincial government.”

Martin Papillon (reference below, p. 117) says that in the Canadian context there is no single definition of self-government, and instead, points to three narratives that have informed political debate and policy development related to self-government in the past 30 years:

  • self-government as self-administration (through delegated authority)
  • self-government as an inherent right, and
  • self-government as coexisting sovereignties

Papillon notes (p. 119-120) that:

“The revitalization of indigenous constitutional traditions is, of course, fraught with legal and political difficulties. Not only is this a direct challenge to orthodox conceptions of state sovereignty but it also raises several very concrete institutional challenges. For example, it is not clear how or even if Aboriginal peoples would be represented in the shared institutions of a two-tier federal system. Should all nations, no matter their size, have equal representation in what would become an extremely complex structure of executive federalism? Moreover, as Alan Cairns (2000: 191) argues in his critique of nation-to-nation conceptions of Aboriginal governance, it is not evident how one can reconcile a treaty-based association with a substantive conception of shared citizenship, a necessary condition, in his view, to fostering a sense of solidarity and cooperation across communities that are bound to live together on a common territory. More pragmatically, even with access to land-base revenues, most Aboriginal communities would remain dependent on fiscal transfers from the federal government.

“These obstacles are not insurmountable, but they illustrate the challenges in moving from theoretical constructs to more concrete institutional reforms. They also show the distance between conceptions of self-government as a form of devolution of powers, under which the foundations of Canadian federalism remain largely intact, and alternative models for coexistence between nations, which call for a fundamental rethinking of Canada’s constitutional framework.”


William Henderson and Gretchen Albers (2015), Self-Government – Indigenous Peoples, Canadian Encyclopedia, at, accessed 1 October 2016.


Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Terminology, at, accessed 1 October 2016.

Martin Papillon (2014), The Rise and Fall of Aboriginal Self-Government, in Canadian Politics, 6th ed., eds. James Bickerton and Alain-G. Gagnon, pp. 113-131. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Alan Cairns (2000), Citizens Plus. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press .

Topic, subject and Atlas course

Indigenous Governance in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 1 October 2016.

Image: BC Ferries, West Coast Ferries Forum, at, accessed 1 October 2016.