Measuring well-being in the context of modern treaties: Challenges and opportunities

Karen Bouchard, Adam Perry, Bobby Clark,& Thierry Rodon


Modern treaties are tripartite agreements between Canada, an Indigenous Nation or people, and a province or territory. These agreements can be negotiated wherever Aboriginal title has not already been ceded through historic treaties or addressed by other legal means. Once signed, they provide for the transfer of financial resources from the state to the Indigenous signatories, the entrenchment of specific rights, including surface and mineral rights, as well as self-government arrangements in certain cases. While the content of modern treaties varies according to diverse historical and contextual factors, they consistently aim to secure the political and legal recognition of the rights and title of Indigenous Peoples by clarifying uncertainties surrounding land ownership (Helis, 2019). To date, 26 modern treaties have been concluded, yet very few studies have studied their impacts on the lives of Indigenous people.

Academics have scrutinized the impacts of modern treaties on income, as well as on land and resource governance. However, we have yet to develop a suitable method for systematically evaluating and reporting on the ways in which modern treaties reduce socio-economic disparities and enhance the lives of Indigenous Peoples across Canada (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2018a).

In 2013, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC)1 used the Community Well-Being Index2 (CWB) to explore the impacts of treaties on First Nations. Research by Guimond et al. (2013) revealed that, on average, both modern treaty and non-treaty First Nations displayed higher well-being scores than historic treaty First Nations3. While causality was not established, their analysis highlighted difficulties in distinguishing the impact of treaties from the impact of regional factors and the likelihood of First Nations with greater resources to engage in and successfully conclude modern treaty negotiations. Another study conducted by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada4 with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in 2013 found that the inadequate implementation of modern treaty obligations appeared to compromise the ability of Indigenous signatories to fully benefit from the socio-economic opportunities these treaties were intended to provide (AANDC, 2013). This echoed the conclusions of Martin Papillon (2008) who studied the impacts of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and argued that modern treaties “do not change the socioeconomic conditions and overall well-being of communities,” but with proactive leadership and collaboration between parties “can become the instruments whereby Aboriginal Peoples establish a governance relationship that better reflects their social, economic and political aspirations” (p. 5).

While the CWB provides a straightforward methodology founded on consistent socio-economic indicators and compatible with other types of community-level data, this measure was not designed or intended to fully represent the complex interactions and connections of social, economic, cultural, environmental, and political factors that impact the health of Indigenous Peoples (O’Sullivan & McHardy, 2004). Due to significant data limitations, it excludes important well-being dimensions, including health, land-based relationships, language (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2018b). Well-being scores cannot, additionally, be disaggregated by identity, age and sex, and do not account for Indigenous people living off reserve. The CWB cannot, therefore, comprehensively measure the impacts of modern treaties, or fully represent their impacts on Indigenous quality of life.

Conceptualizing Indigenous well-being
There have been increasing efforts to develop well-being measures that reflect the commonalities and differences of Indigenous Peoples. Much of the literature associates Indigenous well-being with the capabilities required for people to lead healthy and meaningful lives (Sen, 1999), as well as the numerous interdependent factors that positively or negatively influence these capabilities, called determinants of health. While there is no definitive list of determinants, there is a general consensus that colonialism is an active and ongoing force impacting the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples and communities (Greenwood, De Leeuw, & Lindsay, 2018).

Self-determination, too, is considered a critical determinant of Indigenous well-being. Self-determination is often conceptualized as a strength-based, counteracting force or capability that diminishes the ongoing impacts of colonialism, including Indigenous Peoples’ lack of social, economic and political sovereignty (Auger, Howell, & Gomes, 2016). For Yap and Yu (2016), self-determination encompasses “autonomy over one’s life and how individuals choose to live their life, but also about people’s autonomy over the decisions and responsibility to care for and manage their country and land as part of their existing and enduring well-being” (p. 317).

In Canada, Indigenous well-being has been described as holistic, multidimensional, and based on community-centred experiences (Denis, Duhaime, & Newhouse, 2017). It underlies the medicine wheel approach used in the First Nations Holistic Policy and Planning Model, the Integrated Life Course and Social Determinants Model of Aboriginal Health, as well as the Misipawistik Cree notion of “E-Opinitowak,” meaning the act of “lifting ourselves up, empowering the community and promoting self-reliance” (Assembly of First Nations, 2013; Reading & Wien, 2013; Wien et al., 2019, p. 19).

Applying the well-being concept, particularly through the lens of capabilities, draws the focus on the conditions and circumstances that enable people to live the kinds of lives they value, and ultimately how Indigenous Peoples are able to pursue and realize self-determination through the signing and implementation of modern treaties (Bockstael & Watene, 2016).

The Nisga’a Nation
The Nisga’a Nation of northwestern British Columbia, as represented by the Nisga’a Lisims Government (NLG), launched the Quality of Life Strategy to enhance the living conditions of Nisga’a citizens. The strategy consists of a framework outlining a holistic understanding of sustainability and quality of life for the development and implementation of effective government programs and services. It also includes a survey designed to gather relevant baseline data on “how well a person is living their daily life.” The strategy provides a case study of a culturally adapted way for acquiring baseline data which assists governments in evaluating the impacts of the Nisga’a Final Agreement, a comprehensive land claims agreement and British Columbia’s first modern treaty.
The Quality of Life Strategy was initiated to reflect how NLG defines successful governance and public policy, considered as the degree to which government actions produce demonstrable improvements in the quality of life of Nisga’a citizens. The strategy includes key performance indicators (either quantitative or qualitative) that reflect how Nisga’a citizens view and describe the relationships among governance, public policy, and quality of life. Ultimately, by measuring indicators over time, engaging Nisga’a citizens, and aligning governance and public policy-making to improve quality of life for individuals, families and communities, the NLG aims to develop a long-term approach to understanding the quality of life for Nisga’a citizens.

The Quality of Life Framework (QoLF) was developed under a participatory research process that convened a Nisga’a working group. The resulting framework encompasses eight quality of life themes and 35 subthemes. The QoLF was presented to Nisga’a citizens at a Special Assembly of the Nisga’a Nation held in 2014. In their feedback to the NLG administration, attendees requested meaningful and tangible quality of life improvements based on the expansion and implementation of the QoLF. The NLG​ adjusted the QoL strategy accordingly and undertook a comprehensive household survey in the fall and spring of 2018/2019, respectively. The survey, known as the Nisga’a Nation Household Survey (NNHS), linked the QoLF themes to measurable indicators, as well as culturally adapted and contextually relevant questions.

The survey is a practical way of monitoring the social and economic changes over time affecting the various subgroups of the Nation’s population, such as Elders, children, urban dwellers and women. As such, it provides a means of establishing baseline criteria and data to support NLG’s understanding of and responses to the impact of the Nisga’a Final Agreement on the living conditions and quality of life of Nisga’a citizens.

With fieldwork complete and the analysis of findings from the NNHS underway, the QoL departmental staff have been holding community engagement sessions to share certain key preliminary results and findings, such as those regarding food security, housing and transportation challenges.5 The conclusions of the NNHS are intended to provide Nisga’a individuals and communities with factual information and data to raise funds for programs and local initiatives, to help determine critical areas that require attention, as well as to disseminate knowledge that can foster constructive dialogues and positive change. Nisga’a Village Governments, Urban Locals, and Nisga’a citizens can use the NNHS process and results to engage in meaningful conversations among themselves and with public officials about the factors, conditions and situations that define their well-being, and thus highlight ways of uplifting and empowering their communities.

Effective governance, whether for small or large nations, means being capable of “future-oriented planning, problem solving, evaluating outcomes, developing strategies and taking remedial action” (Smith, 2016, p. 124). This requires demographic facts and contextual knowledge of the strengths, assets, resources, and expertise a nation, community, or organization already has and can bring to bear (ibid.). It also means knowing a community’s existing infrastructure, technology, funding sources and base, among other things.

The development of a transparent, consistent, and contextual measurement of well-being relevant to the cultural realities of modern treaty citizens could offer a holistic way of evaluating whether, and under what conditions, such agreements can effectively reduce socio-economic disparities and improve the quality of life of Indigenous communities.

NLG’s example offers a hybrid approach to survey collection and methods that highlights how different epistemologies can be shared, particularly when engaging with Indigenous ways of knowing, to develop “relevant, reciprocal, respectful, and responsible research” by, with, and for Indigenous Peoples (Peltier 2018, p.1). NLG’s administrators also stress the importance of developing primary data collection strategies and methods that reflect the context and culture of the people under study.

Several challenges remain. We must consider how well-being indicators can be used for longitudinal and inter-cultural comparisons (between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations), but also at what scale and frequency data should be gathered and analyzed. These decisions will necessarily depend on the objectives served by the data collection process, as well as the peoples and functions ultimately targeted by their use. Well-being indicators should not only be culturally relevant, but also provide Indigenous governments with the capacity to efficiently respond to local priorities and concerns (Smith, 2016).

Moving forward, as argued by Smylie and Firestone (2015, p. 84), we should encourage and actively work towards meaningful partnerships to govern and manage data with modern treaty holders to support their self-governance. At the heart of public service and governance is the need to collect data that captures the values, priorities and beliefs that determine people’s well-being experiences, and which explain how government policies and programs can enhance quality of life and effectively respond to the needs, aspirations and interests of its constituents.

The measurement of the impact of modern treaties and self-government on Indigenous Peoples through longitudinal studies based on mixed-method surveys can significantly benefit from a participatory approach that incorporates and builds on Indigenous knowledge. The engagement of a nation’s citizenry in developing culturally adapted and contextually relevant methodologies, as well as in analyzing preliminary results offers a productive way of accounting for the factors (determinants) that contribute to a person or people’s ability to lead meaningful lives. Ultimately, this approach may help to reduce socio-economic disparities and improve the quality of life of Indigenous Nations and Peoples with modern treaties. ◉


Karen Bouchard is a PhD candidate in political science at Université Laval. She holds a three-year Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship (SSHRC) and works as research affiliate for ISC-CIRNAC. Her research examines the impacts of modern treaties on Indigenous well-being in Northern Canada. The opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily represent the official view of ISC-CIRNAC.

Adam Perry has a PhD in social anthropology and works for the Nisga’a Lisims Government as a data analyst. His academic interests include understanding societal and cultural change, aspects of rural social and economic development, and the political and social processes that exist in and between formal institutions.

Bobby Clark is the Director of Communications and Intergovernmental Relations with Nisga’a Lisims Government. He is the Chair for the Nisg̱a’a Museum Advisory Committee and is a board member representing his home community of Lax̱g̱alts’ap on the Wilp Wilx̱o’oskwhl Nisg̱a’a Institute (WWNI). He has a Bachelor of Arts in First Nations Studies from WWNI and the University of Northern British Columbia.

Thierry Rodon is Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at Université Laval, the chairholder of the Northern Sustainable Development Research Chair and the director of the Interuniversity Centre for Aboriginal Studies and Research (CIERA). Professor Rodon specializes in Northern policy and Arctic governance.


1. On July 15, 2019, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada was dissolved and two new departments, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (CIRNAC) were established to replace it.
2. The CWB is a numerical score ranging from 0 to 100, which is calculated by adding four equally-weighted components and a total of seven indicators: 1) total income per capita, 2) education (high school and post-secondary graduation), 3) housing (overcrowding and need for major repairs), and 4) labour force (participation and employment)(Cooke & O’Sullivan, 2015).
3. Historic treaties refer to the 70 treaties signed between 1701 and 1923 by the British Crown and Indigenous groups, which were intended to support peaceful economic and military relations. These involve 364 First Nations, representing over 600,000 First Nation peoples (CIRNAC, 2008).
4. Currently ISC-CIRNAC.
5. The survey was test-piloted by several Nisga’a citizens of varying ages and experiences, literacy ranges, and genders in order to gain feedback on the grouping, wording and content of its questions. The verification of the data is an important part of participatory research undertaken by the NLG.

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