First Nations Self-Government: 17 Roadblocks to Self-Determination, and One Chief’s Thoughts on Solutions

By Matthew Wildcat

by Leroy Paul Wolf Collar
Brush Education
2020/$24.95/168 pp.

Rarely does one get to review a book for which praise and critique can be given in the same breath. Leroy Paul Wolf Collar’s First Nations Self-Government presents such an opportunity. A former Chief of the Siksika Nation, Wolf Collar provides an outstanding contribution to the literature dealing with the political culture of Indigenous peoples in Treaties 1–11 (commonly referred to as the numbered treaties) and the political challenges we face in our relationship with the Crown. Though primarily directed at “aspiring or new First Nations leaders who want to increase their knowledge and understanding about the roles and responsibilities of good leadership, management and governance,” I would suggest that anyone who wants to understand the shared political culture of the numbered treaties, namely non-Indigenous peoples who live in and work in these areas, should also read this book.

Wolf Collar details 17 roadblocks “in the way of self-government” for First Nations, especially those under the Indian Act. While these barriers are the creation of the Canadian government, Wolf Collar bravely calls on First Nations leadership to “stop asking for permission from federal or provincial governments” to act. For a non-Indigenous audience, roadblock one—First Nations governing institutions—provides a valuable explanation of the foundations of Indigenous sovereignty. Wolf Collar’s description of administrative hurdles in roadblocks 5–8 should be added to training manuals for all First Nation leaders. I also appreciated his ability to showcase the diversity of thought within the numbered treaties—and his willingness to spark debate. Roadblock 14, about housing on reserve, goes against the grain of conventional Indigenous thinking and suggests private ownership can play a role in on-reserve housing. Even if I don’t agree with his suggestion, the chapter on housing is excellent because it asks tough questions about sustainable revenues, governance capacity and the obligations of reserve residents, without letting the federal government off the hook.

While Wolf Collar does excellent work to put the shared understanding of the numbered treaty region into writing, one convention he reproduces should be questioned. Critique between Indigenous peoples is always an awkward undertaking in front of non-Indigenous peoples, who have a habit of using these critiques for their own purposes. But I do want to evaluate Wolf Collar’s tendency to discuss a commonly held idea without attribution.

Let me give an example: “When a First Nations community decides to opt out of the Indian Act, the Elders say that their community becomes disconnected from the treaties.” This style of writing is repeated throughout the book: “most First Nations people will tell you”; “many First Nations people believe”; “many First Nations leaders say.” In none of these instances do I think Wolf Collar’s subsequent claim is incorrect. Rather, the problem is that making general claims without attribution inhibits further discussion and debate.

Taking my cue from Val Napoleon’s work on Indigenous law, we should avoid making unsupported assertions or relying on generalities. When we are transparent with explaining our thinking and sources, we help ensure accountability, because others can evaluate our claims. Wolf Collar is transparent with many brave assertions throughout the book, which is why I found the unsupported claims to be jarring. In any case, those who wish to learn about the political culture of the numbered treaties will do well to read First Nations Self-Government.

Matthew Wildcat is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta and a member of the Ermineskin Cree Nation.

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