Leadership selection in First Nations
The Government of Canada is committed to working in partnership with First Nations to support effective First Nation governance.
COVID-19: Elections can be postponed
To address the public health risks associated with voting, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) developed the First Nations Election Cancellation and Postponement Regulations (Prevention of Diseases), which provide a mechanism for First Nations to postpone their elections and to extend the terms of the chiefs and councilors to avoid a governance gap.
The Government of Canada continues to recognize the health risks of holding gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in at-risk, underserved Indigenous communities, and particularly as parts of the country contend with a third wave of COVID-19 and highly contagious variants. As of April 8, 2021, the regulations have now been extended for 6 months, with a sunset clause of October 8, 2021. Elections may only be postponed or cancelled under strict conditions, such as:
- extending the tenure of office by no more than 6 months
- requiring that any postponed elections are held before December 31, 2021
The amended regulations continue to provide that the term of a chief or councillors can only be extended twice and that each extension must be no longer than 6 months. However, an amendment has been made to provide an exception for chiefs and councillors whose tenures have been extended twice prior to April 9, 2021. The exception allows the tenure of these chiefs and councillors to be extended one final time for a period not exceeding 6 months, that any such postponed elections must be held prior to December 31, 2021, and that no extended terms can be past December 31, 2021.
The final decision to hold or postpone an election belongs to the community leadership. ISC will support First Nations leaders in whichever option they choose.
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About leadership selection in First Nations
The majority of First Nations governments are composed of a chief and councillors who are responsible for making decisions on behalf of the First Nation and its members.
The selection of a chief and councillors can be held in one of four ways:
- following the steps outlined in the Indian Act and the Indian Band Election Regulations
- using the new and optional First Nations Elections Act
- according to a community's constitution as part of a self-government agreement
- using a community leadership selection process (also called "band custom")
Leadership selection under the Indian Act
Around 200 First Nations in Canada hold elections under the Indian Act and the Indian Band Election Regulations. Under the act, elections must be held every two years.
A typical election under the Indian Act may include:
- the appointment of an electoral officer to manage the overall election process and all related activities
- the opportunity for voters to nominate candidates for the positions of chief and councillors
- the ability to vote in person on-reserve or by mail-in ballot
- the counting of votes and declaration of elected candidates
In an election held under the Indian Act, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC):
- approves the appointment of electoral officers
- trains and supports electoral officers during the election to ensure that election rules are followed
- approves the First Nation council's choice of electoral officer or appoints the electoral officer when there is no First Nation council in place
- receives, investigates and decides on election appeals
Candidates or eligible voters have 45 days following the election to file an appeal with ISC if:
- they feel there were corrupt practices in connection with the election
- there was a violation of the Indian Act or the Indian Band Election Regulations that might have affected the results of the election
- there was a person running who was not eligible to be a candidate
Leadership selection under the First Nations Election Act
The First Nations Elections Act and First Nations Elections Regulations came into force on April 2, 2015. The act and regulations were developed in collaboration with First Nations organizations to make improvements to First Nations election processes.
This was initiated by the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs with First Nations to develop recommendations on a bill to address concerns about the election process under the Indian Act. In October 2010, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and the leaders of these organizations launched a national engagement exercise on electoral reform. With the support of the Government of Canada, these organizations met with other First Nation leaders across the country between October 2010 and March 2011 to present their recommendations, seek advice and reach consensus on improving the election process for First Nations.
The First Nations Election Act is part of the Government of Canada's commitment to provide frameworks that support stronger, more stable and effective First Nations governments.
The First Nations Elections Act does not change the Indian Act election system and First Nations can continue to hold their elections under the Indian Act if they wish. Similarly, First Nations that hold their elections under their own community or custom election system can continue to do so. To find out more about the benefits of the First Nations Elections Act, consult the chart below.
Comparison chart: elections under the Indian Act vs. elections under the First Nations Elections Act
|Indian Act||First Nations Elections Act|
|How to opt in||
|Term of office||
|Same election day for multiple First Nations||
|Number of council members||
|Qualifications of candidates||
|Rules and procedures for nominations||
|Acceptance of nominations||
|Recount of ballots||
|Offences and penalties||
|Removal from office||
|How to opt out||
How to opt in
After having held community discussions and consultations, a First Nation council must signal its decision to opt into the First Nations Elections Act by:
- adopting a band council resolution
- asking the Minister of Indigenous Services to add the First Nation to the schedule of the act
- providing a date for the election
- sending it to their ISC regional office
Upon receiving a band council resolution, ISC will issue the ministerial order to add the First Nation, which may take several weeks.
View a sample First Nations Elections Act band council resolution.
To find out more about the First Nations Elections Act, contact ISC's Public Enquiries Contact Centre.
Conversion to community election system
A First Nation that holds its elections under the Indian Act election system may develop its own community election code and ask the Minister of Indigenous Services to issue an order that removes the First Nation from the application of the act's electoral provisions.
To learn more about this conversion process, consult the Conversion to Community Election System Policy.
Community or custom leadership selection processes are often documented in a community's election code, which provide the rules under which chiefs and councillors are chosen for those First Nations who are not under the Indian Act election rules. These codes vary depending on the First Nation and are often unique to the specific community.
ISC is never involved in elections held under community or custom election processes, nor will it interpret, decide on the validity of the process, or resolve election appeals. The department's role is limited to recording the election results provided by the First Nation.
When a dispute arises concerning a community or custom election process, it must be resolved according to the related provisions in a community's election code, or by the courts.
To learn more about the community or custom leadership selection process of a specific First Nation, please consult the First Nation directly.
Leadership selection in self-governing First Nations
Self-governing First Nations do not fall under the Indian Act. They establish their own laws and policies in a broad range of matters for their communities and according to their cultures and traditions, including leadership selection. Self-governing First Nations elect their leadership through individual election processes which vary depending on the First Nation and are often unique to the specific community.
As with a community or custom leadership selection process, ISC is never involved in the election processes held by self-governing First Nations, nor will it interpret, decide on the validity of the process, or resolve election appeals. The department's role is limited to recording the election results provided by the First Nation.
To learn more about the election processes of a self-governing First Nation, please consult the First Nation directly.