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Ellis Ross: Why we must fight for elected chiefs

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Ellis Ross, MLA for Skeena in northwest British Columbia, provided us with some personal insight into the shortcomings of the Indigenous hereditary system.

“There’s this persistent romantic vision that—somehow—hereditary government among indigenous people is a noble tradition that works seamlessly. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Wet'suwet'en system is, for example, needlessly complex (and often, characterized by internal conflict) because of the fact that it is rooted in hereditary government. Although there is no automatic assumption of the title of ‘chief’ from parent to descendant like in a monarchy, it’s still ‘monarchical’ in the sense that elected band councillors often bear a limited sense of authority in comparison to the hereditary chiefs.”

"On top of this, hereditary rule has also led to disputes over indigenous law concerning who actually is the legitimate chief"—see The Globe and Mail’s description of the conflict between Gloria George and Wet'suwet'en chief Warner Naziel.

“This dispute over hereditary government boils over into a slough of other issues, including the question of ‘who bears the legitimate right to negotiate with the provincial and federal government? I recently went to visit Moricetown [Witset] to see this type of leadership in action. Let’s just say there were far too many overlapping organs of government—community representatives, elected [band] councilmen, hereditary leaders. It was utterly chaotic and dysfunctional.”

Mr. Ross offered up his own preferred alternative to hereditary government.

“In this day and age, it’s ridiculous that power is not yet held by the people among many indigenous communities. How can we as Canadians not have the right to choose our leadership structure? The government is steering us towards continued hereditary rule where we will never gain a say. It’s astounding that this conversation is not happening, especially when a leadership vote is so omnipresent in all levels of Canadian society—from our provincial and federal representatives to our school board members. And yet, among the First Nations, we continuously tread towards monarchy. It is incredible to think that in one of the most democratic countries, we’re seeing monarchy imposed by democracy.”

“The power of democracy is with the people. When we [First Nations] choose our leaders, we need men and women that are knowledgeable, decent, and bear a strong set of moral values. We need transparency and accountability. Under a hereditary leadership, I can’t exactly check my chief’s resumé, can I? We need to fight for the power to choose our own leaders if we want to see real change. If we don’t, it’ll be business as usual for the First Nations.”
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