In many aboriginal societies leaders were viewed as the servants of the people and where expected to uphold the views of the community. Being accountable to the community was very important. Within families, clans and nations leadership could be earned, learned and inherited. In many cases elders were viewed as community leaders. Councils met, made-up of men and women making decisions, which were expected to be implemented by leaders of the community.

In some nations leaders were expected to take on a number of roles and had to possess a wide range of personal qualities. Traditional Dene leadership needed to have the functions of spokesperson, and advisor economic leader (hunter and trapper), spiritual advisor, prophet and role model.

Among certain Aboriginal people, one clan was given the responsibility for leadership and its members were expected to cultivate the relevant skills. In other cases, clan mothers had the responsibility of choosing leaders from the members of the families holding leadership titles. The clan mothers also had the duty to remove those leaders not performing their duties. In these types of societies the women of the clan identified children as potential leaders.

Traditional Inuit societies recognized two types of leadership. The first type was a person to be listened to and obeyed, and the second type was a person who thinks. Both types of leadership were earned. The first type of leadership depended on a person having a certain position in an organized system, while in the second case leadership depended more on merit and the ability to attract and maintain a group of followers and most good leaders combined qualities of both.

Many aboriginal people emphasize that their leaders were originally chosen and supported by the entire community. This was especially true in non-hierarchical societies where leaders were equal to all others and held little authority beyond that earned through respect. In these societies, support for the leaders could be withdrawn by the community as a whole or by those with specific responsibilities in the matter.
First nations leaders feel that the Indian Act has eroded traditional leadership roles and leadership has become a popularity contest with the introduction of the first past the post system. With the move to self-government certain communities are in a transitional period, with band councils operating side by side with traditional leaders.

Consensus in Decision Making

Whatever the system of government, many Aboriginal people have spoken of the principal of consensus as a fundamental part of their traditions. Under the principal, all members of the community should be involved with the process of reaching agreement on matters of common interest. Among some cultures discussions began at the family level. In this way, the views of women, children could also play a part in the final decisions made. In some cases all members of the community met as an assembly. Through the process of discussion, consensus gradually emerges, representing a blend of all people's views.

In the consensus -based political systems, the concept of the loyal opposition, as in parliamentary systems, does not exist. Decision making by consensus, is gradual, and the resolution of issues is gradually built piece by piece, without confrontation. In many communities, the family based consensus process has been displaced by majority-based electoral systems. These systems have altered the roles of women, elders and other members of the community. These electoral systems have had the affect of splintering viewpoints, alienating the community from decision making, and causing the distrust of leaders and officials. Electoral systems have also been susceptible to the domination of families on the reserve who have considerable numerical numbers.

It is felt that to gain legitimacy and credibility, First nations governments and leaders must reflect the entire group they represent. The decision making process must be accessible and responsive to the views of communities, families and individuals

Source: People to People, Nation to Nation: Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services