Blogs are opinion pieces and reflect their author’s views

First Nation Governance and Well-Being

Written by: Thomas Flanagan

First Nation Governance and Well-Being


[This is a short excerpt from a book I am writing entitled The Wealth of First Nations.]


The Indian Act contains a simple template for band government, prescribing biennial election of a single chief plus two to twelve councillors, depending on the size of the First Nation.  However, only a minority of First Nations follow the Indian Act model.  It was never imposed on all bands, and in recent decades it has become legally possible for First Nations to write their own constitutions departing from the Indian Act.  In 2015, the overall distribution was as follows (INAC, 2015b):


  • 234 (38%) Indian Act model
  • 344 (56%) custom governance
  • 38 (6%) legislated self-government agreement
  • 2 (0.3%) First Nations Election Act, an updated version of the Indian Act model with longer terms of office


There is an undeniable trend toward adoption of alternatives to the Indian Act model, although substantial numbers of First Nations also seem willing to retain it.

The question here is whether custom governance is associated with a higher standard of living and community well-being than the Indian Act model.  So far, the answer is no.  Quesnel and Ishkanian (, 2017: 9-10) found that the average Community Well-Being (CWB) index for custom bands was actually two points lower than for Indian Act bands.  (The CWB is an aggregate of statistics on income, housing, formal education, and labour force participation.  It is updated every five years with new census data.)  My own research tested the association between this governance variable and CWB in bivariate and multiple regressions using both 2006 and 2011 data and found no statistically significant relationship.  In a more focussed study of 21 First Nations with very high 2011 CWB scores, 11 were found to follow the Indian Act model and 10 had some form of custom governance (,  2016: 15).  There may be many good reasons for First Nations to design their own constitutions, but there is thus far no evidence that it is associated with a higher standard of living as measured by the CWB index.