had already established thriving communities across the
continent. In almost of of these societies leadership was in the
hands of hereditary chiefs. These chiefs had roles that
encompassed both secular and spiritual concerns. Decision-
making was based on consensus with the chief being advised
by groups of elders and the larger community. These chiefs served as monarchs over fairly small groups and areas. In
short, monarchy was well-established in Canada before the
arrival of the Europeans. Monarchy is a truly worldwide
phenomenon; only the details have differed.
There is a certain perception that monarchies tended to hold
(and make use of) more power the further back in time you
look. This is not strictly true. Monarchy has been adapted to
the needs of each community throughout time. Early hunter-
gatherers didn't need someone to pass laws nor did the first
farmers. In those times the monarch's role was that of a
peacekeeper, referee, guide, and representative of the group.
As societies grew and developed monarchs took on more
roles. The personal power of monarchs can be conceptualized
as being bell-shaped over time. That is not to say that one type of monarch is more 'true' than another but to emphasize that monarchs reflect the needs of their societies. The Queen today
shares more similarities with Canada's hereditary chiefs
regarding role/purpose than many of Her Majesty's
predecessors! The differences between an hereditary chief and
Canada's monarch are slight in theory but they are also slight
In a study in 1997, Manley Begay identified some basic
commonalities in how First Nations conceived of good and
effective leadership. Begay divided them into five common
"First, Native meanings of leader do not necessarily imply the accumulation of wealth (property and goods). Rather, there is an emphasis on position and role.
Second, Native leadership terminology implies a proactive approach with the use of terms like “to direct” and “leads the people.”
Third, a Native leader works with the people, rather than commanding or having power over them.
Fourth, there is a recognition that leadership has male and female aspects.
Fifth, the religious and spiritual aspects of leadership are important.”
conception of a monarch who reigns but does not rule. And
indeed many early settlers described the chiefs they
encountered in monarchical terms. I am unsure when exactly
this stopped but it seems to have gone along with a decrease
in the status of the First Nations.
Ogimà of the Algonquian
I contacting Chief Dominique Rankin about the Hereditary
Chief Tradition among Quebec's First Nations. He was able to
give me some insight into the traditions among the Algonquian. He described the chief's role as "being there to
awaken the memory of our ancestors" and to "become as the
protectors of all that is sacred". He also stated that they serve
to teach the future generations. The Hereditary Chiefs are in
direct line of decent for several generations and are recognized by the circles of elders. As prevails among most of
Canada's First Nations the chief elected under the provisions
of the Indian Act has taken over the political role.
Okimaw of the Cree
Professor Stonechild of the First Nations University of Canada
provided some background on the Cree traditions (as well as some information on the effects of the Indian Act on First
Nations leadership). She described the role of Hereditary
chiefs as being that of "role models, including being spiritual leaders".
Tyee Ha’wilth and Ha’wiih of the Tseshaht
The Tseshaht First Nation has a good overview of their tradition on their website.
Of note is how they describe Chief Adam Shewish: "He will never be replaced in our Parliament. He was the voice of reason, the voice of vision, the voice of calm, the voice of compassion, and, forever, the voice of praise.”
The echo of Bagehot's three rights of monarchs is unmistakable; the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, & the right to warn.
Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en
Again I am going to rely on an outside link to explain the tradition.
The Indian Act
their societies until the 1870s when the Canadian Government
passed the Indian Act. Tribes were to have 'band
governments' with elected leaders carrying out government
actions. These leaders (also called chiefs) would be elected
every two years. In a single move the hereditary chiefs were
undermined and divisions created in their communities. But
this was very much the point:
"The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change."
~Sir John A Macdonald, 1887
government undermined the very individuals who had the respect among the tribes to lead opposition to their plans. Professor Stonechild puts it simply enough; "The Indian Act
undermined all such positions." Even among the few First
Nations who did not have Hereditary Chiefs (such as the
Iroquois or tribes that lost their chiefs) choosing leaders was
based on consensus, not majoritarian vote.
The sidelining of so many hereditary chiefs in favour of what
is essentially a presidential regime marks the Indian Act as
Canada's most republican piece of legislation ever passed.
Hereditary Chiefs Today
Traditions it did not end them completely. Some First Nations
have kept their hereditary chiefs on an informal basis.
However, the division created by the Indian Act still remains
and in some First Nation communities the hereditary chiefs
and elected chiefs are at odds with each other.
its First Nations and this is one issue that may well get
overlooked. I feel the hereditary chiefs should be allowed to
have a formal role in the band governments. This would
restore traditions successive governments very much tried to
destroy. It would also put the reserves on track for better governance as they would now be run as constitutional monarchies. But this is just my opinion and it is the First
Nations who need to want to restore their hereditary chiefs
for it to happen.
A Kisaragi Colour