Indigenous Grassroots & the Indian Act Band Council

by Zig Zag, Warrior Publications, January 7, 2013Grassroots fist logo

Debates arising from the recent Idle No More movement have revealed two main interpretations of what comprises the grassroots.  One seeks to exclude band councils, while the other views chiefs & councillors as an integral part of the grassroots, simply by virtue of them being members of the community.  Clearly, we need some basic understanding of what constitutes the grassroots in order to advance our movement.

Community elites, band councils, and the grassroots

According to one definition, the grassroots are “the common or ordinary people, especially as contrasted with the leadership or elite of a political party, social organization, etc.; the rank and file” ( ).

In a political party, there are officials who have power and control over the organization. There is a party leader, a treasurer, a secretary and a chair, who together form the executive. They control the resources of the party, including money, buildings, communications, and staff, and make decisions based on a chain-of-command (from the executive down to the staff workers).

The political party shares the same basic organization as a corporation, a state government, and a military force. All are structured as a pyramid of power, with hierarchies, centralized power, and authoritarian means of control. At the top is a commander, president, or chief executive officer. Below this are their executive or general staff of officers, who in turn control various parts of the organization (committees, or military units, for example). At the bottom are the rank-and-file workers, party members, or soldiers.

The band councils imposed under the 1876 Indian Act have the same form of organization as the political party, state or municipal government, corporation, etc. At the top is the band chief, assisted by other councillors, who together control most of the resources of the band, including funding, authority over housing, education, social services, infrastructure, etc. They control most communications & social spaces. They employ staff workers to carry out much of the day-to-day work, and are often the main employers on reserves. Political organizations formed by the band councils also have the same type of organizations and resources at their disposal (for example, the Assembly of First Nations).

Members of Westbank band council; are they our "leaders"?

Members of Westbank band council; part of the grassroots or a political & economic elite?

Based on these definitions alone, I would assert that band councils as well as their political organizations are not a part of the grassroots. It doesn’t matter that they live within the community, or are family members. They form an elite within the community and wield far greater power than the community members themselves.

Furthermore, they gain their special legal, political and economic power from the colonial state in the form of funding, government legislation, recognition as official leaders, etc. Not only do they have their own interests as an elite (which may include their preservation as a band council, wealth, status, power, etc.), they are also vulnerable to state control, manipulation, and even liquidation. In short, they are totally dependent on the state for their continued existence, not on the grassroots people.

From this, we can conclude that the grassroots isn’t simply members of the community, but is instead those community members who do not hold positions of political or economic power. It is through the exercise of such power that elites impose control over the community, which contradicts the very meaning of grassroots organizing.

How should Native grassroots movements relate to band councils and other elites?

There are over 600 band councils in Canada. Like Indigenous nations across the country, they are not a homogenous group. These differences result from their unique histories, cultures, environment, etc.

I have been accused of being overly harsh towards the band councils, with some asserting that not all are corrupt collaborators. In practise I know this to be true, as I have worked with some band chiefs on campaigns involving grassroots people. Some of them seemed sincere and well intentioned. Many were also opportunistic.

Some band councils may be genuinely interested in participating in a movement because it defends people, territory and way of life. Some are pressured by grassroots people to support a particular campaign. Others, of course, oppose grassroots efforts, and openly work with the police and government to suppress them.

Our relationship with individual Indian Act chiefs or councillors may be on a case-by-case basis, but it should also be based on principles that apply to all elites that seek to work as allies. Grassroots movements:

“…must include people from the groups most affected by an issue, and must not be dominated by wealthy, educated, and well-meaning allies. The wealthy can be allies who bring resources but they have to know when and how to take a step back.

“Movements fail when those who are most excluded are sidelined. It is vitally important that that those who are most affected by the issues that the movement is trying to address are propelling that movement.”

(“Bottom-up Organizing,” by Greg Jobin-Leeds, Education Week website)

Elites, such as middle-class professionals, are not necessarily excluded from grassroots movements. They can provide vital resources, including funding, communications, transportation, etc. But these resources should not permit elites to exercise power & control over the group.

Consequently, the leadership of grassroots movements should not be vested in elites or individuals, but rather arise from the the community itself. It is the community members who should meet, discuss, and decide on their course of action. This decision-making power should never be delegated to others, for then the very purpose of grassroots mobilizing would be lost.

Posted on January 7, 2013, in Decolonization, Documents and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Lingit Latseen and commented:
    I can’t recommend Zig Zag’s blog enough for an alternative perspective on Idle No More. Here he lays out the troubling relationship with Band Councils with the colonial Canadian government. A similar relationship exists on the US side between various Native institutions that receive legitimacy and/or funding from the US Government. These sorts of institutions are alien to our traditional way of life. They are hierarchical institutions that are ultimately beholden to the US and Canadian governments. This is in stark contrast to our traditional form of self governance which was always a decentralized alliance of autonomous bands, clans, villages, kindship groups and families.

  2. Excellent analysis. Here we have a men’s fire and a woman’s fire. Then when needed, a people’s fire. All have 3 sides of the fire as put forth in our Great Law. We decide by consensus. This is our process. Some times it takes a while to reach consensus. Then at times we need to put it “under our pillow” for more deliberation to pull up at a later time.

  3. I have been to alot of meetings in my lifetime and involved with many different organizations, groups, causes,etc.
    In many of the larger community forums I often feel frustrated by the process, the format of the meeting.
    Line up at a mike, or put your name on a list or hold your hand up to get chosen to speak.
    From talking circles and consensus practices in smaller groups I have learned or sensed that there is a truth that is waiting to comein and be heard.
    When it does we all recognize it.
    So when we meet we are waiting for that truth and someone
    usually does state it even tho a few attempts have been made.
    When it is spoken a shift happens in the room/space and we feel awake and grounded together.
    It is my sense that the elders knew this and decisions came from this waiting together.
    So this is why meetings,talking circles are less about talk but more about listening.
    I like listening to most First Nations persons because they speak English so well. Plain and simple.Easy to understand.
    I have seen bigger community meetings about issues fall apart or build into something based on the format of the mtg.
    How it is conducted and who is facilitating it and how they do it.
    The question is: Is everyone who had something to say/contribute been able to do so?
    So I have come up with a new word/term for what I mean: “flow facilitation”.
    No need for Roberts Rules of Order,etc
    You trust and watch for the flow to happen and maybe have to move a branch or rock to keep it happening.
    6We do not see this in the House of Commons or the legislatures and most public meetings.
    Democracy is a big word and ofcourse concept.
    I don’t see it being practised.
    I would like to tho.
    I think it might be the party system that buggers it all up.
    What if everybody got elected as an independent and then actually discussed issues and needs and voted on proposed solutions!
    How this related to your topic here on your blog, I am not very sure…but , I felt the need to put this here.

    • Perhaps what you’re seeking is “participatory democracy.” You can google it. How we meet and how decisions are made are important aspects of grassroots organizing. Our own Native cultures also have many examples of grassroots organizing since it was a way of life. Today we are socialized to believe that only the European way of organizing works, with an official leader, central authority, Robert’s Rules of Order, etc. In South America, many Native nations have retained their traditional grassroots ways of organizing, both for survival and resistance. I would recommend a book entitled Dispersing Power by Raul Zibenichi, it’s about the Aymara experience in autonomous, grassroots organizing during times of revolt (in 2000, 2003, and 2005, I think).

  4. Thanks for sharing your insights and information about this. I have heard about this band council but, i was not fully aware of its background.

  5. I deny consent to be represented and I waive the benefit. I am a self determined Sovereign and child of the Great Creator, I am a living and breathing embodied Spiritual Human Being on the land and a part of the universe, I choose to have the capacity for Rights and Duties. Please provide proof and fact of something alleged that I cannot do.

  6. Your articles represent very critical, very important analysis. They are well-written. You deserve much support. Thank you.

  7. What constitutes grassroots is Indian people who are living in poverty and recieving no benifits that chief and councils enjoy. Simply put Aboriginal Indians who are fed up with with being ignored by Indian Band chiefs and cousellors and the government. Other grassroots people are Bill C-31 Indians who are refused band membership while whites are accepted into bands.

  1. Pingback: A brief overview of Idle No More Events « The Dreamer Propulsion Project

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