Fact Sheet - Understanding First Nation Elections

First Nations governments are formed by a chief and councillors who are responsible for making decisions on behalf of the First Nation and its members.

The election of a chief and councillors can be held in one of four ways:

  • by following the steps outlined in the Indian Act and the Indian Band Election Regulations
  • under a community leadership selection process (often called "band custom")
  • pursuant to a community's constitution contained in a self-government agreement
  • under the new and optional First Nations Elections Act

Approximately 235 First Nations in Canada hold elections under the Indian Act and the Indian Band Election Regulations, 38 are self-governing, while the remaining First Nations select their leaders according to their own community or custom leadership selection process. As the First Nations Elections Act has only recently come into force, First Nations are just now beginning to have the conversation about whether this new election system suits their needs.

Elections under the Indian Act

All First Nations who hold their elections under the Indian Act are subject to the same rules and eligibility requirements, and hold elections every two years.

Some highlights of a typical election under the Indian Act include:

  • the appointment of an electoral officer (which must be approved by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development) to manage the overall election process and all related activities;
  • the holding of a meeting where electors can nominate candidates for the chief and councillor positions
  • voting in person on reserve and by mail-in ballot
  • counting of the votes and declaration of elected candidates

Unlike a community leadership selection process, where Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) has no role in the process, the department carries out the following responsibilities in elections under the Indian Act and the Indian Band Election Regulations:

  • training and supporting electoral officers throughout the election to ensure compliance with the election rules
  • approving the First Nation council's choice of electoral officer or appointing the electoral officer when there is no First Nation council in place
  • receiving, investigating and deciding on election appeals

Candidates or eligible voters have 45 days following the election to file an election appeal with AANDC if they feel that there were:

  • corrupt practices in connection with the election
  • a violation of the Indian Act or the Indian Band Election Regulations that might have affected the results of the election
  • a person running who was not eligible to be a candidate

Community or Custom Leadership Selection Process

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.

AANDC is never involved in the election processes 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 transmitted by the First Nation.

When a dispute arises concerning a community or custom election process, it must be resolved in accordance with the related provisions in a community's election code, or by the courts.

For information on the community or custom leadership selection process of a specific First Nation, please consult the First Nation directly.

Self-Governing First Nations

Self-governing First Nations do not fall under the purview of the Indian Act. They establish their own laws and policies in a broad range of matters internal to their communities and integral 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, AANDC 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 transmitted by the First Nation.

For specific information concerning the election processes of a self-governing First Nation, please consult the First Nation directly.

A Fourth Option: The First Nations Elections Act

The First Nations Elections Act came into force on April 2, 2015. The Act was developed collaboratively with First Nations organizations to bring about real improvements to the election processes of First Nations across the country.

This legislation provides a fourth option to First Nations for leadership selection offering an alternative opt-in legislated election system that improves upon and fills the gaps in the Indian Act system. For more information on this new Act, go to the First Nations Election Act module on AANDC's website.

Conversion to Community Election System Policy

A First Nation that holds its elections under the Indian Act election system may develop its own community election code and ask the Minister 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.

Date modified: