The Limits of Self-Government

Indigenous self-government cannot dispense with the Rule of Law and with democracy

In his post “On the Rule of Law, Blockades, and Indigenous Self-Government“, co-blogger Mark Mancini pondered the relationship between Indigenous legal orders and self-government on the one hand, and the Canadian constitution, including the Rule of Law principle that (along with certain others) underpins it, on the other. Mark wrote that

it may be the case that the Rule of Law as currently understood in Canada is not applicable to Indigenous peoples and their systems of government. In other words, we may require an approach which recognizes distinctive Indigenous self-government, as a constitutional matter. 

These comments are, as always, thought-provoking but, in my view, one should be wary of claiming that the Rule of Law is not relevant to Indigenous peoples. One should also be realistic about the difficulties involved in translating the ideal of Indigenous self-government into law, and about the limits of this enterprise.

I hasten to make clear that, as Asher Honickman and I have said in a National Post op-ed also dealing with the Rule of Law and its relationship to the ongoing protests, I regard the aspiration to Indigenous self-government as fully justified. It is, we wrote, “possible and highly desirable … for the perfectly legitimate aspirations of Indigenous Canadians to self-government to be recognized and given effect within the Canadian legal system”. On this, I agree with Mark. Indeed, our disagreement may be more a matter of emphasis and wording than of substance, but I thought it important to make it clear where I stand.


I am, of course, not Indigenous myself, and claim no expertise at all in any particular Indigenous legal system. However, I do endeavour to engage with Indigenous legal systems when I teach legal philosophy. More specifically, my legal philosophy course is entirely devoted to idea of the Rule of Law (sorry, Hart and Dworkin aficionados!), and one of the classes deals with indigenous customary systems ― notably tikanga Māori, but also the legal systems of Indigenous peoples in Canada, as presented in Jeremy Webber’s very interesting article on “The Grammar of Customary Law“. To repeat, this doesn’t make me an expert ― sadly, one cannot be an expert on everything one teaches ― but I do have some thoughts on the relevance of the Rule of Law to indigenous legal systems.

In a nutshell, it seems to me that, for all the very important differences between these systems and those based on the common law or the civil law, many concerns with which we engage under the heading of the Rule of Law are relevant to indigenous legal orders. Notably, through public re-enactment and stroy-telling at meetings involving entire communities, Indigenous legal systems ensured that their laws would be publicly known and understood, and that they would be relatively certain and predictable, to guide community members. Moreover, these laws, no less than those enacted in Western legal systems, tend to be more or less coherent, and to impose obligations that are possible to perform; if anything, one suspects that customary law refined over the generations does better at meetings these Rule of Law requirements than deliberately, and often stupidly, enacted law. And, in their own ways, Indigenous legal systems provided opportunities for those subject to them to be heard and to make their views on the law known to the rest of the community. (Indeed, Professor Webber writes that “[a]mong many North American indigenous peoples … [t]here is great reluctance to impose a particular interpretation of the law either on any member … or on someone of high rank”. (607))

I do not mean to take this too far. Of course, the way the Rule of Law ideals are implemented in communities that number a few hundred people engaged in hunting, gathering, and perhaps subsistence agriculture cannot be the same as in larger populations made wealthier by division of labour. Writing and the existence of people who specialize in knowing and applying laws make a huge difference ― not least by requiring a more explicit articulation and conscious implementation of Rule of Law requirements that can remain implicit in Indigenous societies. Some standard Rule of Law concerns, such as the one with retroactivity, crucial in a system where law is believed to be deliberately made, is meaningless in one where law is transmitted ― not unchanging to be sure, but endlessly adapted ― from time immemorial.) On the procedural side, they methods Indigenous legal orders employ for the resolution of disputes and the determination of individual or group rights and obligations do not necessarily look like the formalized proceedings of common law or civilian courts (any more than substantive rights and obligations they concern offer exact parallels with those recognized by the common or civil law).

But the points of commonality are real too. Needless to say, that’s not because Indigenous Canadians or Māori read Lon Fuller’s The Morality of Law or Jeremy Waldron’s “The Rule of Law and the Importance of Procedure”. The people who, over the centuries, developed European legal systems hadn’t read them either. But the human values that have long helped shape legal systems and partly mold them in accordance with what, in 19th century Britain, came to be called the Rule of Law, are relevant on Turtle Island and in Aotearoa as much as at Westminster and in Paris. When Albert Camus wrote, in The Fall, that “there is no worse torment for a human being than to be judged without law”, he was speaking a universal truth, or something close to it ― not just stating a culturally contingent fact about mid-20th-century Parisians hanging out in Amsterdam bars.

All that to say, so far as I can tell, the Rule of Law is not at all a principle alien to Indigenous legal traditions. While they probably did not reflect on it as explicitly as the Western legal tradition eventually did, they implemented it ― in ways that were appropriate to their own circumstances. But the circumstances in which Indigenous law would operate in the 21st century, even under self-government, would not be the same as they were before contact with Europeans; in some ways, things have changed irrevocably. More deliberate attention to the requirements of the Rule of Law will probably be in order ― not only, or perhaps even primarily, in order to satisfy some externally imposed requirement, but to give effect to the values implicit in the Indigenous legal traditions themselves.


This brings me, however, to another point that is missing from too many discussions of Indigenous self-government at the moment, including Mark’s. Indigenous self-government (which, to repeat, I would support) ought to respect some fundamental constitutional principles, whether they can be traced to Indigenous legal traditions ― as the Rule of Law can, I think, at least to some extent ― or not. I am thinking, in particular, of the principle of democracy, but also of the protection of minority rights.

In the conflict that arose out of the court injunctions in favour of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, some hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en have claimed special authority. To my mind, for any such authority to be enshrined in or authorized by the arrangements of Indigenous self-government, whatever their exact legal status, would be simply inconsistent with the Canadian constitutional order. Of course, Canada is a monarchy. But it is a constitutional monarchy in which, as the old catchphrase has it, the Queen reigns but does not rule. Almost all of the Crown’s powers are effectively held by the Houses of Parliament (primarily the elected House of Commons) or provincial legislative assemblies, or by ministers responsible to the House of Commons or legislative assemblies. The exercise of the Crown’s remaining “reserve” powers is constrained by constitutional conventions.

Any other arrangement would be intolerable. As the Supreme Court observed in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, “the democracy principle can best be understood as a sort of baseline against which the framers of our Constitution, and subsequently, our elected representatives under it, have always operated”, [62] and “a sovereign people exercises its right to self-government through the democratic process”. [64] The Court further explained that it “interpreted democracy to mean the process of representative and responsible government and the right of citizens to participate in the political process as voters”. [65]  This is, of course, consistent with Canada’s commitments under international law, for example under Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

I fail to see how Indigenous self-government can be constituted on any other basis. Perhaps this conception of democracy is not part of the tradition of all, or indeed of any, Indigenous nations. After all, its history in anywhere in the world is very short indeed. This simply does not matter ― for any polity in the 21st century. One could call the application of this principle to Indigenous peoples colonialism if one liked, but one ought to acknowledge that, in doing so, one would be defending values that are contrary both to Canada’s constitution and to its international obligations.

It is worth noting that the provisions of the Charlottetown Accord on self-government made at least some oblique reference to the structure and limits of the governments they would have put in place. What would have become section 35.1(3) of the Constitution Act, 1982 would have provided

The exercise of the right [of self-government] includes the authority of duly constituted legislative bodies of the Aboriginal peoples, each within its own jurisdiction,

(a) to safeguard and develop their languages, cultures,
economies, identities, institutions and traditions, and

(b) to develop, maintain and strenghten their relationship
with their lands, waters and environment,

so as to determine and control their development as peoples
according to their own values and priorities and to ensure the
integrity of their societies. (Emphasis mine)

This is, perhaps, not as clear as one might wish, but the reference to “the authority of duly constituted legislative bodies” in section 35.1(3) suggests that Indigenous self-government was to be democratic self-government. Giving effect to indigenous “values” and “ensur[ing] the integrity of their societies” must be done within that institutional framework.


To repeat once more, I hope that Indigenous self-government in Canada becomes a reality. But it would be naïve and dangerous to assume that it can do so on the basis of Indigenous legal traditions alone, without the infusion of principles modified or even imposed by the non-Indigenous world. Indigenous communities are part of a wider world ― not only of the Canadian legal system, but of the world beyond its borders too ― which means that both the form and the substance of their law will have to adjust to the way this world operates and to its requirements.

The good news in this regard is that, in some ways, the adjustment should be less difficult that is sometimes supposed. When it comes to the requirements of the Rule of Law, Indigenous legal traditions may recognize many of them implicitly, and adapting to other such requirements may be a relatively seamless development for traditions that never were static or fixed. Other changes, however, in particular the recognition of democracy as the fundamental mode of governance, may be less straightforward. But such changes are no less imperative. The label of self-government should not be allowed, let alone used, to obscure this reality.