Angela Wesley: A "Made in Huu-ay-aht" Constitution

Native Nations Institute

Angela Wesley, Chair of the Huu-ay-aht Constitution Committee, discusses the process that the Huu-ay-Aht First Nations followed in developing their own constitution and system of government. She describes how Huu-ay-aht's new governance system is fundamentally different from their old Indian Act form of government, and offers participants some lessons learned about constitutional change based on her own personal experiences.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Wesley, Angela. "A 'Made in Huu-ay-aht' Constitution." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 4, 2013. Presentation.

"Good afternoon, good morning, sorry. [Huu-ay-aht language] My name is Angela Wesley, I'm from the Huu-ay-aht First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I'm going to try to breeze through my presentation today. I'm known for being very long-winded when I get a talking stick in my hand. So I'm going to try to go through and honor my fellow panelist and make sure I try not to go into his time. I'm going to talk about a few things today. It's really hard to talk about our experience that we've gone through probably in the last 20 years and isolate it down to just one thing. So I do tend to wander around, so my PowerPoint slides are generally almost in a speech form so that you have something to take away and it keeps me on track as well. So I thank you in advance for your attention.

So these are the things I'm going to talk about today in terms of citizen engagement. I'm going to talk a little bit, as we do as aboriginal people, as First Nations people, we always start by talking about who we are and where we come from. I'm going to talk just a little bit about our 'Made in Huu-ay-aht' constitution. We're very proud that our constitution was very much citizen-based and we refer to it as that constantly with our citizens to remind us that this is our laws, this is what we have created for ourselves. I want to talk about what we communicated because that I think as much to do with community engagement and engaging our citizens as how we do that. I think how we communicate with our citizens was really pivotal to what we considered to be our success, and also talk just a little bit about how we communicated.

So 'Who We Are and Where We Come From': Those of you who know Canada I'll sort of narrow it down a bit. We're from British Columbia, the westernmost province in British Columbia. You see Vancouver Island down there on the bottom. This isn't going to work. Bamfield is where I am from, my community is from. And there is just zooming in a little bit on whereabouts we are. I always reflect on...some of the sizes of your communities and your nations here in the states -- we're just very small in comparison so one of my late chiefs used to tell me all the time, 'I don't know what Canada has got such a big problem within its treaty, I can put my little fingernail over our territory on this map. So why are they so concerned about giving it back to us.' Here's a couple of images. We are coastal people. We're very reliant on the resources. There's one of our little fish that we get out of the ocean, some of the logging trucks. That's one of our logging trucks, one of the enterprises we have and some of the trees that come out of the lands within our territories, coastal scenes. When we signed our treaty, we gained a lot more of our land and what you see up there is the survey posts, those long survey posts that go into the ground and we're very proud to say that along with the can see on there, you might be able to see on there very faintly our logo is actually within those survey posts now too, just showing very proudly that that's our lands. Again, we're coastal people. Some of our communities, that's the beach where I come from. My uncle always said, 'Why would you want to go to Hawaii when we've got this beautiful beach here?' It's a little colder where we come from though.

So 'Who We Are': Our traditional territories, the traditional territories of our nation amount to 78,500 hectares, which is just under 200,000 acres or 312 square miles. That's our traditional territory, where we come from and where our roots are. Our treaty lands that we recently gained through a treaty with Canada and British Columbia amount to about 8,000 hectares or about 20,000 acres. So we now own those lands as opposed to the way things used to be under the Indian Act where they were owned by Her Majesty, the Queen and right of Canada and who looked after us on those lands. Our nation is quite small in comparison probably to most of yours. We're about 700 citizens and it's significant for us in talking about governing ourselves to say that about 80 to 90 percent of our citizens live away from home. We are on the west coast of the island. You drive down a 60 mile logging road to get to our community and there's not a lot of opportunities there right now so that's resulted in a lot of our people living away from home. We're part of the Nuu-cha-nulth Nation and we're signatory to the Maa-nulth First Nations Treaty that came into effect on April 1st of 2011. So we're very happy and proud to say that as of April 1st of 2011 we are a self-governing nation, we operate under our own constitution, we have about 20 laws in place that were written by us that are in line with our constitution and we have additional lands and resources, governing powers that come to us through our treaty. So we operate under our own constitution and under our own laws.

I'll start by talking a little bit about our Made in Huu-ay-aht constitution and any presentation I give about our community and what we do and where we want to go always starts with our vision statement. How many in here have a vision statement for your community? Really, really important to develop a vision statement. It kept us...this vision statement has probably been in place for us for about 20 years and it has guided and supported our direction for 20 years so firmly and it is something that is grounded in our people, not just in a particular council or government. Our vision...and I do a lot of community planning, working with First Nations' communities and this vision isn't different probably from what your vision is for your communities. I find that almost every community I've been into shared some components of these visions. Our visions say that we envision a proud, independent self-governing nation. '[Huu-ay-aht language],' which is our word for respect -- respect for each other, respect for everything that's around us -- will guide us as we work together to establish a healthy, prosperous, self-reliant nation where our culture, language, spirituality and economy flourish for the benefit of all Huu-ay-aht. So that is the foundation of everything that we've done in our nation and this is our check and balance. Are we what we're doing leading us towards this vision? If it's not leading us there, we shouldn't be doing it.

So our 'Made in Huu-ay-aht' constitution at the very base of it, we've talked about a lot of the different components and the legalities of constitutions, but at the very base of it, the Huu-ay-aht constitution recognizes and affirms who we are. In our preamble, it talks about who we are and where we come from. It recognizes our hereditary system, where we come from and that system that governed us for thousands of years before any kind of contact. We did govern ourselves through our hereditary system. It provides for the protection of our lands and our resources including financial resources, which is a huge concern of our people. It establishes a trustworthy, accountable, transparent government system that people can understand, our own citizens as well as others who will do business in our territories. And it sets out rules and responsibilities at every level of our government. It also guarantees the individual rights of citizens, and one of the last pieces that we put into our constitution, it also talks about what the responsibilities of our citizens are back to our nation and I think that was the one thing we were trying to figure out what was missing in our constitution and that was the very last thing that we added where we felt, 'Okay, we've arrived.'

So in terms of the process, as I said, we were in treaty negotiations and part of what we were negotiating was self-government. We wanted self-government included in our treaty and protected by the Constitution of Canada so it couldn't be taken away from us. So in doing that, our treaty negotiations were requiring us to have a constitution, but we realized that we really needed it because unlike the tribes in the United States, tribes in Canada don't have constitutions, whether they're under the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] -- is that what you call it? Our constitution was really the Indian Act. So how we started was our elected council asked our citizens at an open meeting of our nation to select some of our citizens to serve on a constitution committee, and I was fortunate to be one of those people. So our citizens selected our hereditary leader, who was to always to be a standing member of that committee. The others of us could be changed, but our hereditary leader was to remain as a member of that committee. So there was three of us that were appointed to the committee. Our task was to develop a document that reflected how our people wanted to see ourselves governed in both the near future and into the future that lied ahead. Significantly, the council provided us with resources and they stepped back. They acknowledged that if they were seen to be driving the process of rewriting our constitution and how our government operated that the people would think that it was just politically motivated, that they were trying to protect their own jobs. So I give a huge amount of credit to our leadership who just stood back and said, "˜Okay, you go and talk to the people, you go and find out what it is that the people want in terms of government.' They really recognized that this constitution wasn't about them, it was about the government of our nation.

So our committee spent probably about seven years on and off researching, discussing, communicating with, and seeking input from our citizens. We'd talk about things, we'd learn things for ourselves, we'd go back, we'd talk about that with our citizens, share what we'd learned, and ask them for some feedback about what they were thinking about things. Our process really started with a questionnaire -- and I'll talk about that in a couple of minutes -- where we went out and ask questions of our citizens. The final draft of our constitution just coming to the end of that seven years very quickly was supported by our elected council, it was supported by our hereditary chiefs and it was ultimately ratified with 80 percent voter approval in our community. And that 80 percent was...I think 65 percent of our voters actually turned out, which is also a very high turnout for us and of those 80 percent voted in favor.

So it's also important to say that in terms of engaging our citizens, it wasn't just about the constitution we were talking about. We had some other really significant initiatives going on in our community that helped us to understand the context of why we were writing our constitution. We were negotiating a treaty, as I said, that would deal with our rights in title in our territories, it would provide us with additional lands and resources -- including financial resources -- and provide us with that self-rule, the governance piece. We also were doing some comprehensive community planning, talking to our citizens about what they saw for the community; not just the governance, but what their vision was for community. We had little kids sitting at tables and drawing, giving them crayons and telling them, "'Draw what your future looks like. What do you want to see in this community as you grow up?' They've got really amazing insights, children. We had land-use planning exercises going on. So we were talking to our people at many, many different levels and there were also other initiatives going on in our territories at the same time. We were trying to assert our rights throughout our territories through things like forestry agreements and just helping governments to understand that we still had a place within our territories.

So what we communicated, I always call this 'Indian Act 101' and 'Huu-ay-aht 101.' What we found when we started talking to our people was that so many people didn't understand our own history, they didn't understand our history that they had never seen terms of our traditional governing systems, that we had a system in place, that it worked for us for thousands of years, that we were able to sustain an economy and sustain our people for thousands of years before settlement ever occurred in our territory, but people had never seen that -- generations had passed. They also didn't understand that the system that we lived under was an Indian Act system. It was something that was imposed upon us and our council was getting blamed for everything that went on, but people didn't understand why council had to act the way they did and it was because we were operating under a system that was foreign to us.

So the context of our communications, first of all we talked about that vision, that's the very first thing that we went out with when we talked to our citizens. 'What do you see for the future of this nation? What do you want to see for your people, for your children, for your grandchildren and those that are yet to come?' Because we needed to ground all of our discussions in that, we couldn't just talk about what it was like today or enter into those discussions without thinking about where we wanted to go as a nation. So it was very empowering to bring that collective vision statement together. We also wanted to talk about what is good governance. Our people didn't understand what good governance was. They're out trying to feed their families, they're out trying to make sure their kids could get through school, they're out trying to deal with matters that are beyond their control. They're not thinking about governance except for how bad the Band council is. So we really needed to have a discussion about that.

Once again, I have to really credit the Native Nations Institute. It was around the time we were starting our constitution process when I met Steve Cornell and heard a presentation that he made and I thought, 'This makes so much sense when you hear the findings of what makes a nation successful.' And our people got that, they understood that if we had strategic vision, that if our government matched our culture, that if we were making decisions in a proper way that things would work better for us. It was really something that helped to ground people in where it was we were going in terms of governance. So when we also talked about how we were going to communicate, we wanted to talk about our past, our present and our future, the fact that we came from a rich history, the fact that we were living under a governance system and the fact that we wanted to change things into the future.

So our past, many of our people didn't know about our traditional form of government. We had a constitution; we heard that talked about yesterday. We had an unwritten constitution. As I'm sure happened in all of your communities, we had strict laws, strict laws. They weren't written down, but all of us knew, we knew what we were allowed to do and we knew what the consequences were and sometimes those were very, very severe in terms of what happened if you broke one of our laws. Everyone had a role and responsibility. We heard that in Steve's presentation yesterday. In my community, we had people who looked after beaches, who were responsible for getting halibut and bringing that into our community. We had people who were responsible for making sure that our elders were taken care of. All of those things were governing...those were our governance systems. So if people weren't fulfilling their responsibility, our system didn't work. So we did a lot of education about that. That system was interrupted by the imposition of the Indian Act.

So under the Indian Act, it's just a history of oppression within that system. I don't know how many of you know what was in the Indian Act, but it's a pretty disgusting piece of legislation that still exists today. It has been changed over the years, but fundamentally the Minister of Indian Affairs still controls every decision that's made in and about our community. It rules our lives from cradle to grave, from birth to death, everything that we do -- if we live on reserve -- is governed by the Indian Act and the Minister of Indian Affairs. It defines who our members are so we don't have control over our citizenship. It imposes a band council system. It tells us how long that band council is to stay in place. It tells us how the band council runs, what its authorities are and the minister makes all decisions. Any decision that's made by our council has got to somehow receive the approval of the Minister of Indian Affairs. It allows us only to administer not to govern, so we're administering federal dollars, federal programs based on their rules. We do have some bylaw making powers under the Indian Act and it's often referred to as just 'dogs and weeds.' We can make laws, bylaws about dogs, control of dogs on our reserves and noxious weeds and that's about the extent of the bylaw-making powers we have under the Indian Act. And the consequences have been devastating on our people and that's evidenced in well-known statistics. Sadly our constitution before April 2011 was that Indian Act. So it wasn't hard, once we started explaining that to our people, to realize that something had to change, something had to change and that's how we started talking about our constitution. So in our future governments, what did we want? We wanted to achieve our vision, bring together our values, our traditional governance principles and practices with the realities of today to provide good governance for our people of today and tomorrow. And a tag line that we came up with was, "˜A rich history, a bright future.' When we started to understand where we had come from and where we wanted to go, this became our tag line.

So how we communicated? First of all talking about why we engaged citizens. It would have been very easy just to go out and do some research and come up with a document, write it out and then bring it around to people and say, "˜What do you think? How does this work for you?' But we decided that we needed to start from the ground up. We needed to build this based on the knowledge and understanding of our people. We knew that if people didn't participate in the change that the changes wouldn't mean anything to them. At the end of the day, for those people who are struggling to get by every day, all it meant was that it moved...the power moves from the Minister of Indian Affairs to the band council. Nothing really changes for them, so we really wanted to make sure that we involved our people in the process. Their participation meant that our citizens understand and are a part of the change, that they understand the importance of using their voices in a positive way to help to find solutions to the things that have been pressing us and suppressing us for so long. And they can always say that they participated in a step towards achieving a vision for our nation. We wanted people to feel like they own it.

So our first step was the questionnaire I talked about. It had a number of questions in it and the questions weren't so important I think as the process that we went through in reaching out to our people. We went door to door, at home and away from home. As I said, we have about 85 percent of our people that live away from home and we sent one of our young citizens, she was probably about 20...actually I was looking at Nicole and I was thinking, "˜She's our Trudy.' That's what you're going to end up doing in your community. It was her involvement and her role, her passion, what became her passion for doing this I think was really pivotal in terms of what we did in our community engagement. A young woman went door to door with her questionnaire and she had a job to do and she stood on people's doorsteps who hadn't been home for 30 years, who had left with bad feelings because their house was taken away or they were sent to residential school or they didn't feel connected to their nation anymore and people vented at her. They told her what they thought about our nation and that young woman stood and she took it. And we told her, we told her as a committee that she would have our support and not to get defensive with people, let them do their venting, let them say what they had on their mind. The other part of it was she had a commitment from our chief councilor that if somebody wanted to talk to our chief councilor about something, he would follow up. That was huge. That was huge to the people who had somebody come to their doorstep to talk to them about what they wanted for their future government. So that was a huge part of a foundation for where we were going and that being the result of our constitution process. So just some examples of the kind of things that we asked; I've got five minutes and I've really got to talk fast.

What does it mean to us to be Huu-ay-aht? What are our traditional values and practices? How can we make things work for today and tomorrow based on our own values? How can we make things work better for today and for tomorrow? And then we asked sort of just the general questions to get people thinking that this is how we have a say in how we build our government. What do you see in terms of numbers, in terms of council for chief and council? How long should they be in place? What about gender equality, did we want to see balance of males and females, did we want to see youth on council? What about our hereditary chiefs' involvement? How are they going to be involved? What about decision makers and processes, elections, meeting frequencies, how often should our council be reporting to us as citizens? We asked questions about finances and budgets, approvals, reporting requirements. What kind of ethical conduct we expected out of our leadership, what our expectations were, what were the restrictions around the use and allocations of land and other assets and where did the decision points lie? We heard Miriam [Jorgensen] talking about that yesterday. At what point do you need to go back to your nation in order to ask to get that approval to move forward for those bigger things? Our people said, 'We're fighting to get our lands back under treaty. There is no way that any government should be allowed to be selling our lands once we get them back after a long struggle.' Our people were passionate about that, so our constitution reflects that in terms of the high level of approval that's required in order to do anything permanent with our lands in terms of letting them go. And actually asked them also about thoughts on amending the constitution. I think the most important question that we asked our members during that first round is, "˜Do you want us to come back and talk to you again?' And I think it caught people off guard, people who hadn't seen anyone from their nation for 30 years was all of a sudden being asked, "˜Do you want us to come back?' and people said, "˜Yeah, I'll talk about this some more. Yeah, I think you should come back.' So it really engaged people early on in our process. So when all those emotions and the venting were gone, what our citizens wanted -- and this is just a very brief list -- but they wanted a say in decisions that affect our people and our resources no matter where we lived. Because we lived away from home didn't mean we weren't connected to our tribe anymore. They wanted fairness and accountability, fair and strong leadership, good decision-making and working towards a vision for all of our people.

Our communications plan: it was really important for us that we made our communications relevant. The most common thought that we had when we talked to people is, "˜What does this mean for me? What does it mean for my family? How is this relevant? Why should I be interested in this process?' Using plain language and not legalese, talking about concepts not provisions or legal words that are going into the constitution was really, really important. "˜Remember that you are living this.' Those of you who are on the constitution committee, who are on your council, you think about this stuff all the time. You end up going to bed and you wake up and you're thinking about some provision in a constitution. Remember your people aren't doing that. They're out there putting food on their table, working in their jobs, doing what they do in their daily lives. So you need to bring it down a notch when you go and talk to your people because you can overwhelm people by starting to talk about these huge concepts; [it's] really important to keep it simple. And don't just communicate when you need something or when you want something. That turns people off right away. There are so many things that we need to communicate and where problems could be resolved in our community if we just kept up the communication. And that goes in waves. Communication is very expensive; it takes a lot of time. So we need to give ourselves a bit of slack, but we need to remember the importance of communicating. And be honest and sincere in our communications. That results in stronger unity and trust. I think we built a lot of trust in our community when we were going around talking about our constitution and our treaty negotiation process. The communication plan -- one of the things that we said especially when we got into our treaty negotiations cause people were so afraid that council was going to make a decision without them. We always went out and said to our people, 'Nothing is final without membership approval. Nothing is final without membership approval.' So when people started to get rid of that anxiety that they had, their ears would open a little more and they'd be willing to listen a little bit more about what we had to say and to participate in that discussion. Really important to involve the entire team in communication efforts, it's not just your communication worker that's responsible for communication; it's everyone. Everyone on the team needs to speak the same messages, everyone needs to involve themselves in communicating because we all have different people we can reach within our own networks and families.

We need to engage citizens in many different ways, especially in direct, two-way personal communications. People respond so much better when you're talking to them directly instead of sending them a piece of paper or something along those lines. So we had meetings, phone calls, we had our own newspaper for awhile, which we don't anymore and I have my own feelings about that -- not worth getting into discussion about here -- but newsletters, bulletins, frequently asked questions, responding to people, letting them know that you heard what it is that they said and that the questions they have other people have as well, so people sharing their stories and sharing their questions is really helpful to the process. We didn't use it so much because social media wasn't so big when we were doing it, but a lot of nations now are finding positive ways to use Facebook, Twitter, other kinds of social media. We did coffee houses, home visits, family meetings. The key was to respond, respond to people, let them know that their questions were valid questions. Follow up, meet your commitments that you make, respond to questions, put the right people in touch with the right people. Not everybody wanted to hear from me. I talk too much. They wanted to talk to somebody else. Make sure that you match people up with somebody that they feel comfortable with. Openness in leadership, our leadership being prepared to respond, allowing for informal discussions sometimes. Don't always use an agenda. We had a young man on our communications team and we had all sorts of scripts and PowerPoints and everything and he'd just come in the office and he'd grab a map and he'd go out and talk to people and our elders loved that or he'd grab pictures and those are really effective ways of communicating. Treat people well, incorporate our culture into meetings. We'd sing songs. We'd bring our songs and dances out to our people. We feed our people well. We provide daycare so that their children will be looked after so that they can focus on what's happening at meetings.

So final thoughts, our 'Made in Huu-ay-aht' constitution, community involvement and input, built from the ground up. We think that's why we were successful. We responded to the input and feedback of citizens. We incorporated what it was that people were telling us. That provides a solid government structure that people understand and what they wanted. Not everybody's concerns were met in the constitution, but we tried our best. It provides for accountability at all levels. It provides for the individual rights and equality of citizens. Why we think it worked? It was citizen based. They selected the committee, they were able to provide input throughout and it was based on our collective vision and thinking. Leadership was committed to the process and the outcome whether we achieved treaty or not, very important. Maybe not so much to you who have the ability to make your own constitutions, there were a lot of things in our constitution that we couldn't do unless we got a treaty, especially in relation to our lawmaking authority. But our council committed that they would do their best to improve government in our community. So whether we got a treaty or not, our leadership said, "˜This isn't a waste of time. We're not just coming out and asking you these questions and if you don't approve a treaty we won't have good governance.' They wanted to see good governance in our community. And it was built on what we were taught and what our people have always believed in. It incorporates our values, beliefs and thoughts. Treaty negotiations provided us with an opportunity to rebuild our nation starting with our constitution. We were determined whether or not we achieved treaty to have a constitution in place. Having a strategic plan and a vision in place, always knowing where you're headed to is so important, visible leadership support for initiatives, looking to your past to determine how to move forward in restructuring your own government, building your constitution from the ground up and seeking true engagement from your citizens. Use plain language, explain concepts and potential changes not legal provisions, demonstrate that change can be positive not scary. People are really afraid of change. Start to implement what you can during the constitution process. Refine your decision making processes, define and formalize what roles and responsibilities people have. Start to learn how to govern again by doing things in a different way. Restructure your organization. Involve the youth. Involve the youth. Where's Ruben [Santiesteban]? Involve the youth. Our youth came to life in these processes. Our youth got it. Our youth understood that we needed a new way to move into our future. They wanted to get rid of the Indian Act. It was our young mothers that stood up with their children and said, "˜I am so glad that my child will not know life under the Indian Act. I am so glad that we will be making decisions for ourselves.' So I'm not going to read them out but there's some statements, really profound statements that came from our youth when we achieved our constitution and our treaty.

So we've been self-governing, we're burning the Indian Act page by page the night before we signed in our own laws. It was a pretty awesome feeling. And this is the sign you see when you enter our territories. It says, 'Huu-ay-aht First Nations. Hish Uk Tsa Wak,' means everything is one, we're all connected, everything is connected. Welcome to our territory. Owners for 10,000 years. Stewards again after 150 years. Please treat our children's inheritance with respect.' [Huu-ay-aht language]."

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