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How aboriginal self-government works

Aboriginal self-government is an arrangement allowing aboriginal communities to assume greater responsibility and control over their own internal function, including law-making, taxation, and providing services.

Under Canada’s Constitution Act, Aboriginal Peoples have an inherent right to self-government, but not a unilateral one. Self-government agreements are typically negotiated with the government although litigation sometimes occurs as well.

As of 2018, Canada has signed 22 self-government agreements involving 43 aboriginal communities across the country.

The powers and jurisdiction of aboriginal self-government extend to issues internal to the community, integral to its aboriginal culture, and essential to its operation as a government.

Since aboriginal cultures vary, not all self-governments will have the same powers, but they can negotiate for jurisdiction over issues including:

  • education;
  • agriculture;
  • enforcement of aboriginal laws, including policing and establishment of courts or tribunals;
  • adoption and child welfare;
  • property rights, include succession and estates;
  • natural resource management;
  • local transportation.

Self-governments are not sovereign or isolated states. They still adhere to the Constitution, the Charter of Right and Freedoms, Criminal Code, and other applicable laws. Ottawa views aboriginal self-government as a tool for more effective governance of a distinctive culture and people within the constitutional framework, not a way to declare independence from Canada.

Given that, there are many legal, social, and national issues that extend beyond an aboriginal self-government’s powers.

In some areas, the community can negotiate to retain a degree of power, but it overall remains the federal government’s area. This includes issues like:

  • divorce;
  • labour and training;
  • penitentiaries and parole;
  • gaming;
  • environmental protection;
  • emergency preparedness.

Many other matters remain strictly under the federal government’s control and aboriginal governments have no reason to retain legislative authority. These include:

  • Issues of sovereignty and international relations (national defence, diplomacy, immigration).
  • Economics, including monetary policies, the central bank and trade policy.
  • Federal undertakings, such as Canada Post, the census, telecommunications, shipping or aeronautics.
  • National law and order, including Criminal Code offences and emergencies.

Read more:

Fact Sheet: Aboriginal Self-Government

Approach to the implementation and negotiation of aboriginal self-government

Map of self-governing First Nations in Canada