North Bay Nipissing News
By Steve Pitt
NIPISSING – On Jan. 10, the Nipissing First Nation (NFN) became the first aboriginal government in Ontario to adopt its own constitution. Among other things, the constitution defines who the Nipissing First Nation are as a people, how they will govern themselves, how they will manage their land and finances and how they will protect and preserve their culture.
Chief Marianna Couchie of the NFN does not see the constitution as a challenge to existing Federal legislation.
“Nipissing First Nations is moving forward,” she says, “The constitution just helps further our movement toward our goal of self-government.”
The constitution, called the Nipissing Gichi-Naaknigewin, was tabled to NFN council by Chief Couchie November of 2013, but she says the planning process goes much farther back.
“When I joined council in 2003 as Deputy Chief, people had already been discussing a constitution for at least a year-and-a-half before,” she says.
The constitution went through many drafts and community consultations before being presented in its final form. Then the voting took more than a month because the council wanted every member of the off-reserve NFN community to have a fair chance to vote. Advance polls were opened on Dec. 5 and 6. Nipissing voters were also allowed to mail in ballots or vote electronically. By the time the polls closed and votes were counted on January 10, 319 had voted in favour of the constitution and 56 had voted against it.
“This constitution looks very promising to me,” says John Borrows, a University of Victoria law professor and one of the leading Indigenous Law experts in North America. “It is fairly conservative as most Indigenous constitutions go in hundreds of First Nations south of the border, in the United States. It also seems to be focused on good governance, checks and balances and providing greater accountability within the community.”
When asked whether the NFN constitution can take precedence over existing Canadian law, Borrows says “There is no doubt the federal government could challenge an exercise of First Nations authority under the Nipissing Constitution. Whether that challenge is successful depends on whether the Nipissing are acting within their constitutional rights in assuming these responsibilities for their own affairs. So far, the law from the Supreme Court is not clear on this point.”
There has been no response from either the federal or provincial governments to date. In the meantime, at least 31 other Ontario First Nations including the Atikameksheng and Wanapitae nations near Sudbury are in the process of drafting their own constitutions. According to Chief Couchie, many indigenous councils are using parts the Nipissing Gichi-Naaknigewin as a template for their own constitutions.
Chief Couchie does not think the constitution will affect relations with adjoining non-First nations communities in any way. “We’ve always been on good terms with our neighbours in North Bay and West Nipissing,” she says “Having our own constitution will not change that.”