In 2009, Sawridge First Nation implemented a constitution which removed the need for federal law on the reserve. It was one of the first First Nations in Canada to draft and ratify a constitution. Kapawe’no First Nation, by Grouard, has 11 codes of governance.
Sawridge First Nation borders the Town of Slave Lake. It is a small nation with 45 adult members, and around 75 members including children. It was one of the bands who signed Treaty 8 in 1899.
On August 24, Sawridge First Nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of signing their constitution – a major step in self-government.
At the event, Chief Roland Twinn gave a speech highlighting the history of the constitution signing.
Sawridge First Nation started looking into self-government in 1985, when Canada passed Bill C31 – a self-government policy.
In 1997, Twinn was first elected to council. At that time, Sydney Halcrow, councillor with Kapawe’no First Nation, started asking him questions, including: Who are you as a First Nation? and, Where are your documents?
These questions made Twinn and others ask themselves: what type of government are we?
The courts only look at documents, but First Nations people have oral traditions, which are only accepted when accompanied by documents.
In 2003, when Twinn was elected chief, the following question was at the forefront of much of the conversations he was having with people: “Do we want to be self-determining and self-governing?”
Halcrow asked him, what is the legal definition of an inherent right, which is part of the Canadian Charter Section 25 which deals with Indigenous people and treaty rights.
“A right given to me by the creator,” Twinn said.
Halcrow agreed. The dictionary definition is a bit different, but aligns with this.
This raised the question why Sawridge was negotiating with the Canadian government to become self-governing.
The question became how to document the decision to be self-governing, which is when Sawridge started drafting a constitution. It took six years to come up with a complete constitution.
Under the Indian Act, all power is with the chief and council and Sawridge didn’t want this anymore.
Sawridge also developed an election act with four-year terms.
Under the Indian Act only chief and council are elected. Under the Sawridge election act, there are three levels of government: chief and council, an Elders’ commission, and an audit and compensation board.
The audit and compensation board dictates how much the chief and council can make, which is unique in Canada, Twinn says.
The constitution also cannot be changed by a new chief and council, without a referendum. Under the Indian Act, there was no continuity. A new chief and council could change anything they wanted. For example, they could pass a motion which allowed them to be paid whatever they wanted.
In late fall of 2009, the Sawridge Nation adopted the constitution and elections act and informed the Canadian government that they were going to hold an election in February 2010.
Sawridge was approached by an official from the Canadian government.
“Chief Twinn, we don’t know what to do with you,” the official said.
“I didn’t ask you to do anything with us,” Twinn replied.
The Canadian government liked the act, but it wasn’t the same as the Indian Act, so it didn’t work for them. The issues were having election every four year instead of two and three levels of government instead of one.
Twinn pointed out two things. First that under to the Indian Act, unless a First Nation has a constitution or codes of governance, federal law or on occasion provincial law apply. Also, any part of the Indian Act can be removed, except the issue of status.
The Canadian government suggested that Sawridge hold a second election in two years and just say everyone got back in.
“You want me to break my law to appease your law?” Twinn asked.
After the Christmas break, Twinn received a call from a government office asking him to check his email.
Twinn found an email stating that Sawridge First Nation was removed from the elections part of the Indian Act.
The constitution, election act, and self-government are “bold steps, but the best is yet to come,” said Chief Twinn. “In itself, it’s (writing and having a constitution) a bit of a healing exercise. Thank you people for paving the trail.”