Leadership selection in First Nations

The Government of Canada is committed to working in partnership with First Nations to support effective First Nation governance.

On this page

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:

  1. following the steps outlined in the Indian Act and the Indian Band Election Regulations
  2. using the new and optional First Nations Elections Act
  3. according to a community's constitution as part of a self-government agreement
  4. 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:

In an election held under the Indian Act, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC):

Candidates or eligible voters have 45 days following the election to file an appeal with INAC if:

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
  • at the discretion of the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs should they deem it advisable
  • a First Nation council can request to come under the act by adopting a band council resolution
  • the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs may bring the First Nation under the act following a leadership dispute or finding of corrupt practices
Term of office
  • 2 years
  • 4 years
Same election day for multiple First Nations
  • not included in the act
  • six or more First Nations can hold their elections on the same day and coordinate the same terms of office
Number of council members
  • one chief and one councillor for every 100 members of the First Nation
  • the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs can authorize a different number
  • one chief and one councillor for every 100 members of the First Nation  (a minimum of two and maximum of twelve councillors)
  • the band council can decide by resolution to reduce the number of councillor positions
Electoral officers
  • appointed by the First Nation council with the approval of the Minister
  • certified through a training program approved by the Minister
  • appointed by the First Nation council
  • appointed by the Minister only when the band council cannot form quorum to make binding decisions
Election period
  • minimum of 79 days
  • minimum of 65 days
Qualifications of candidates
  • only candidates nominated for councillor positions must be a member of the First Nation
  • candidates must be at least 18 years of age on the day of the nomination meeting
  • candidates nominated for all positions must be a member of the First Nation
  • candidates must be at least 18 years of age on the day of the nomination meeting
Rules and procedures for nominations
  • a voter can nominate a candidate in writing before the nomination meeting or in person at the meeting
  • a voter can nominate a candidate in writing prior to the nomination meeting or in person by speaking at the meeting
  • a person can be a candidate for only one position in the election
  • a person cannot nominate more candidates than there are positions to be filled at the election
  • a First Nation may impose a fee of up to $250 on each candidate that will be refunded if the candidate receives more than 5 per cent of the total votes cast
Acceptance of nominations
  • persons nominated automatically become candidates and their names are included on the ballot
  • candidates may withdraw in writing if they do not wish to accept the nomination
  • to be included on the ballot and become a candidate, persons nominated must submit a written declaration and acceptance of the nomination and if applicable, the candidacy fee
Voter eligibility
  • eligible voters must be a member of the First Nation and be at least 18 years of age on the election day
  • eligible voters must be a member of the First Nation and be at least 18 years of age on the election day
Mail-in ballots
  • the electoral officer sends a mail-in ballot to all off-reserve voters whose addresses appear on the list provided by the First Nation
  • the electoral responds to specific requests for mail-in ballot until the election day
  • members wishing to vote by mail-in ballot must provide a written request to the electoral officer along with a photocopy of an identification document
  • the electoral officer will send mail-in ballot packages to  all the voters whose request is received up to six days before the election
Advance polls
  • not included in the act
  • the electoral officer may hold advance polls between 5 and 10 days before the election, on and off reserve
Recount of ballots
  • not included in the act
  • if the number of votes between a winning candidate and one or more runners-up is five or fewer, the electoral officer must recount the ballots for these candidates
Offences and penalties
  • none
  • prohibits corrupt activities during the electoral process such as offering and accepting bribes, purchasing and selling mail-in ballots, obstructing the electoral process or breaching the secrecy of the vote
  • persons who breach these prohibitions are guilty of an offence that is punishable by fines and up to five years in prison
  • elected officials convicted of any of these offences are removed from office and candidates convicted of certain offences are not eligible to run again for five years
Removal from office
  • a person ceases to hold office when they die, resign or are convicted of an indictable offence
  • the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs may remove a person from office for having committed corrupt practices in connection with an election or for missing three consecutive meetings of council without authorization from the council
  • a person ceases to hold office when they die, resign or are convicted of an indictable offence (the conviction must be accompanied by a prison sentence of greater than 30 consecutive days for the person to lose their position)
  • the Minister has no power to remove elected officials
Appeals
  • are directed towards the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs who may conduct an investigation and report findings to the Governor in Council
  • the Governor in Council may set aside the election on the report of the Minister
  • are directed to provincial or federal courts, which can, after hearing evidence, set aside an election
How to opt out
  • not included in the act
  • the First Nation must develop a community election code which must be approved by the majority of votes cast through a secret ballot in which at least 50 per cent of all the voters of the First Nation participate

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:

  1. adopting a band council resolution
  2. asking the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to add the First Nation to the schedule of the act
  3. providing a date for the election
  4. sending it their regional office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada

Upon receiving a band council resolution, INAC 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 INAC'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 and Northern Affairs 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.

INAC 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, INAC 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.

Date modified: