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by Sarena Johnson

Yellowhead Institute (YI) is a dynamic new organization set to become a national leader in First Nations policy analysis. It was founded this past June by Dr. Hayden King and Dr. Shiri Pasternak, and is currently located within the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson University. Yellowhead “generates critical policy perspectives in support of First Nation jurisdiction,” focusing on three major objectives: research, community engagement and academics.

As a grad student, I look forward to learning from Yellowhead’s critical policy research, considering it a vital new voice in the Indigenous academic landscape. As a student affairs professional, I’m eager to watch YI become a degree granting institution. And as a First Nations woman, I’m thrilled to witness the rise of an independent organization that centres  First Nations critical analysis of the policies that directly impact us.

Yellowhead’s opening June 6th coincided with the release of their first research brief – the rich and timely Canada’s Emerging Indigenous Rights Framework: A Critical Analysis. This initial report provides much needed clarity on the new Indigenous Rights, Reconciliation and Implementation Framework, aka the ‘Rights Framework’.

Proposed by the Trudeau government, The Rights Framework is an enormous transformation of the federal government’s relationship with First Nations. It proposes a splitting of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into two separate ministries and provides a process to transition Indian Act registered bands into a model of self-government. While self-government sounds beneficial, Yellowhead Institute’s months of rigorous research have found several problematic aspects of the proposed method of delivery. For example, they highlight the limited consultation with First Nations on what this new self-governance would look like. This neglects self determination – a key factor in self governance. The new model of self-government also distances the federal government from their responsibility to honour the Treaties.

Here are some key points from a conversation I had with Dr. Hayden King on Yellowhead Institute and the Rights Framework:

SJ: So why did you start Yellowhead Institute?

HK: There’s been an ongoing call from community for an organization that looks at First Nations policy and independent from government funding.

SJ: I was glad you wrote about the Rights Framework since people don’t seem to be talking about it enough, considering how serious it is. Maybe I’m drawing the Trudeau family connection but it reminds me of the 1969 White Paper. To me it feels like the TRC has been all encompassing, while this is kind of sneaking by.

HK: The consequence of reconciliation work at the universities is that there’s a lot of work required. Indigenous academics get overburdened with administrative work as opposed to community work. The Rights Framework is written in techno-bureaucratic language that isn’t accessible to most people. I wouldn’t compare it directly to the White Paper, since that had a clear five point plan and aimed to turn reserve lands into private property, however this does attempt to remove financial responsibility.

SJ: Your report on the Rights Framework is a great example of the high quality of YI research. Where do you see YI in a few years?

HK: As a sustainable organization, in itself a community, working with a network of First Nation communities. It performs ethically sound research and creates academic programming. It has a research arm, a community engagement arm, and an academic arm. And it has the capacity to grant degrees.

Yellowhead Institute now occupies a key position as a much needed independent First Nation policy watchdog. We can look forward to learning more about YI through the website,, on Twitter @Yellowhead_ and in person on their official launch during Ryerson’s 8th annual Social Justice Week this October 22-26.

Hayden King

Hayden King is Potawatomi and Ojibwe from Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi’mnissing (Christian Island) in Huronia, Ontario. Hayden’s teaching career began in 2007 at McMaster University’s Indigenous Studies Program and in 2012 he accepted an appointment in the department of Politics at Ryerson University, eventually serving as the Academic Director of the Public Administration partnership with the First Nations Technical Institute.

His teaching focus has been on the political and legal history of Indigenous-state relations in Canada and contemporary First Nations policy. Hayden’s research revolves around land and resource management, often in the Canadian north, and Anishinaabe political economy, diplomacy and international relations. He is the co-author of Canada’s North: What’s the Plan? (2011) and the co-editor of The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future and the Idle No More Movement (2015). Hayden is also among the noted Indigenous public intellectuals in Canada, frequently contributing to the national conversation on Indigenous issues.

In addition to work in the academy, Hayden has served as governance consultant to First Nations in Ontario, the Senior Policy Adviser to the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Aboriginal Affairs, Director of Research at the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, and Scholar-in-Residence at the Conference Board of Canada. He is also the co-founder of the Anishinaabemowin language and arts collective The Ogimaa Mikana Project.


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