14 Indigenous Leadership


Indigenous leadership and the imposed Chief and Council system are not synonymous; in fact, traditional forms of leadership were actively suppressed, made illegal, and otherwise devalued by Canadian governments in the past. Today, it is commonly understood that non-Indigenous people cannot and should not seek out positions of leadership in Indigenous communities, nor lead Indigenous political struggles. (However, the role of allies is crucial and is discussed here). Arthur Manuel, a highly regarded Indigenous leader who passed away in 2017, was both an elected First Nations chief (Neskonlith Indian Band) and a member of a tribal council, as well as a political activist and author. In his last book, completed shortly before his passing, he wrote:

[the youth] see the band administration or establishment as part of the problem and not the solution… That is why we the people have to step outside the government system and demand real change from grassroots, anti-colonial organizations that do not accept any funding from the government. That is where our leadership must come from today. It cannot come from inside the system… (Manuel, 2017, p. 137)

Indigenous leaders stress the importance of leadership working to amplify the voices of the people in the community. Although many strong, ethical, and respected leaders work within the government’s Chief and Council system to achieve positive results for their communities, this can be challenging. The hierarchical structure of the system does not give community members an official/legal say (vote) in community decision-making, which is at odds with pre-colonial cultural practices. In some communities, innovative leadership models exist. Some have had their hereditary chiefs or clan mothers (who follow traditional leadership styles) take part in the Chief and Council system. Others have found ways to blend the two systems by electing chiefs who come from hereditary chief families, thus drawing on both contemporary and traditional leadership practices.

Interactive 3.2 An Indigenous Journey to Leadership by Eddy Robinson, TEDxStMaryCSSchool

In the Indigenous narrative of Canada, most people tend to think Indigenous Peoples are a people of the past. As an urban Indigenous person growing up in Toronto, Robinson shares his narrative and process of self-actualization to becoming the person he is today, through the spaces created by unexpected allies.

Titles and Honorifics in Indigenous Communities

There are many terms, titles, and honorifics used in Indigenous communities. Note that the English titles discussed here are rough translations of the original terms in Indigenous languages.


Elders are people recognized in their community as having gained in-depth, expert knowledge of the traditions, culture, teachings, ceremonies, language, or other aspects of their Nation, AND, by the consensus of the community, are allowed to pass on that knowledge (as they see fit, and according to traditional protocols). Some communities prefer not to use this English term and have returned to using Nokomis and Mishomis (Grandmother and Grandfather), the original Indigenous words (in the Algonquian languages).

Interactive 3.3 National Gathering of Elders, 2017

Hosted on Treaty 6 territory, the National Gathering of Elders brought First Nation, Métis, and Inuit elders from across the land together for the first time. Over a period of four days, Indigenous people from many Nations shared their culture, ceremonies, and wisdom.


Traditional Teachers

Traditional teachers are community members with specific knowledge of how to conduct a ceremony (e.g., naming ceremony, full-moon ceremony, sweat lodge ceremony, etc.), how to make a traditional art or food (e.g., tanning, quillwork, beading, etc.), or other important cultural practices, and are able to share these with others.

Knowledge Keepers

Generally, knowledge keepers differ from traditional teachers insofar as their knowledge includes stories, spiritual or traditional teachings, and other significant aspects of cultural traditions. Some knowledge keepers (for example, medicine people) occupy specific roles that have existed in their Nations since time immemorial.

Interactive 3.4 Constance Simmonds, Métis Senator

Métis Senator Constance Simmonds discusses her Métis history and the changing ways Métis think about their identities.

Métis Senators

Highly valued and respected in Métis communities, these elders provide their Nations with a direct link to traditional knowledge and cultural practices. They are part of the formal governance structure of national Métis organizations, and they include both men and women.

Interactive 3.5 Len Fortune, Indigenous Consultant to Centennial College

Len Fortune discusses his grandmother, and his Indigenous community roots.

Other Titles

There are many other titles that may be used to honour and recognize Indigenous leaders in their communities. There are hundreds of Indigenous languages, and many communities are returning to the use of titles in their original languages because their meanings are not easily translated into Western languages.


Manuel, A. (2017). The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the land, rebuilding the economy. Toronto, ON: James Lorimer and Company.

Media (in order of appearance)

Robinson, E. (2017, June 5). An Indigenous journey to leadership [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xxg5pJdxUY

Centennial College. (2018). Constance Simmonds, Métis Senator [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/atzfjF8LnR8

Centennial College. (2018). Len Fortune, Indigenous Consultant to Centennial College [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/wWw_71jivH8



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