Understanding Traditional Governance for Today

This piece is written by Jon Cada, a collaborator and YSI member from Mississauga First Nation near Blind River, ON. Over the next few months, Jon will be leading an effort to integrate Anishinaabemowin Traditional Governance teachings into YSI's work. Here he offers up a bit of his story that brings him to this point.


YSI is currently undergoing a shift in how we relate to each other. We are together seeking new forms of structure that will allow us to serve our core purpose of building stronger and more resilient communities of support for youth organizers across Ontario.

In recent years, the YSI collaborative has worked quite loosely, wanting to respect the fluid interests and capacities of our volunteers. As the YSI goes through these changes, I have begun to realize that I am on a parallel learning journey around how modern group structures can be infused with deeper and more inclusive leadership practices. During my involvement with YSI, I’ve also learned about the traditional clan teachings that form Anishinaabemowin Traditional Governance. Working together, YSI is coming up with strategies for integrating these teachings into our work. 

Deeper and more inclusive leadership

I have always aimed to apply my learned experiences in other contexts. In my young career, I've been involved in a number of groups that rely on resilient structures and dynamics: student council, a board of directors, committees, a provincial territorial organization, and several workshops focused on empowering youth and community. Through the experiences of taking on challenges in groups, I’ve learned how different roles are needed to make a team work. Being mindful of the challenge today as a youth, learning what you have to offer is not always an easy process. It can take many years to fully appreciate the gifts you possess. For me, I always wished to be a story-teller and have worked at that trade for years. Coincidently, I learned from the traditional Anishinaabe teachings that this story-telling journey of mine is a very real gift that I will continue to own.  

While working with the Union of Ontario Indians in 2013, I received many teachings from an elder who spent much of his learning journey engaged in the clan system teachings. This journey brought him to an understanding of how communities worked together in a more traditional time. He shared with me how families in a First Nations community were often role players with a specific responsibility to maintain the health and well-being of not only their own family, but also their entire community.

The different roles for maintaining balance and harmony

The clan teachings are agreements and structures set in place to govern how families within a community play a role in maintaining balance and harmony for one another. A family’s clan is represented by a spirit or animal, each holding key responsibilities and inherent roles that are integral to the sustainability of their people. These responsibilities include internal governance, external governance, law making/law keeping, philosophy, stewardship, teaching, building, inventing, hunting, gathering, fishing, harvesting, medicine keeping, caretaking, traveling, trading, defense and more.

Inclusive leadership is the mindset which stitches these responsibilities together. This has always been the preferred model of governance for First Nations. No clan is bigger than the next. All are equal in importance for their community. The roles are shared with each family member from children to elders to provide inclusive learning experiences for everyone involved.

Finding the role we have to play

As I learned about the important roles required to maintain and sustain a community, I have realized that these roles and responsibilities are parallel to the group-work environment. This is especially the case for groups that aim to address social challenges and community issues through self-empowerment and youth participation.

The Anishinaabe clan system teachings encourage us to honour the roles each of us has to play, especially towards youth seeking guidance on their journey. These teachings remind us of the opportunity we have to learn about our gifts and share it with others. It’s also a way to acknowledge the gifts that we see in each other as collaborators and members of a shared community.

I would like to make one final important distinction. The role you play on your learning journey is not set in stone. The clan teachings encourage us to take on new roles and responsibilities as a new call emerges, either from within ourselves or through others. It is also natural that each person will grow as they inherit life experience, new skills and venture to new communities.

These are teachings that I have received on my learning journey and am happy to share them with the YSI community. As we continue to inherit new experiences as a group, new and inclusive ways of learning become available to us so that we can do our work in more resilient and holistic ways.