Canada’s outdated Indian Act is a ‘painful obstacle’ to co-operation with First Nations


This past week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and over 400 aboriginal chiefs met in Ottawa at the Crown-First Nations Gathering.

Since the general public was made aware of living conditions in Attawapiskat nearly two months ago, the Canadians watched eagerly as the summit unfolded.

By the end of the day, an agreement on a five-point plan had been reached. This plan includes five “pledges” ranging from education reform to steps to encourage improved governance, accountability and financial self-sufficiency.

While the summit and the five-point plan presented an important symbolic gesture between the two sides, I am hesitant to believe that this summit will bring about any tangible changes in the relationship between aboriginal people and the Canadian government.

This skepticism was echoed by a number of chiefs, including Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy, who was quoted by Postmedia News stating, “A lot of beautiful words were spoken, but in terms of addressing the immediate needs of my people, there was nothing.”

The most significant proposal for addressing issues of substance on native lands was the Kelowna Accord — an agreement negotiated in 2005 between the Paul Martin’s Liberal government and indigenous leaders that would have allotted $5.1 billion to improve the living conditions on reserves over the span of ten years.

Yet as Paul Martin was replaced by Stephen Harper in 2006, the Kelowna Accord as unilaterally cancelled with no explanation or apology.

Since the Gathering, Harper has stated that his government’s approach will be to “replace elements of the Indian Act with more modern legislation and procedures, in partnership with the provinces and the First Nations.”

However, Harper also noted that his government has no plans to repeal or re-write the Act, leaving many questions as to exactly how his government intends to re-vamp the Act. A point that was raised by Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was that the Act is a “painful obstacle to re-establishing any form of meaningful relationship.”

The Indian Act, first passed in all of its discriminatory glory in 1876, is a fossil of a document that prevents legitimate reconciliation between the Canadian government and the First Nations.

The fact that a discussion on the significant reform and/or gradual elimination of the Indian Act remained off the agenda yet again speaks to a lack of legitimate interest in recognizing the culture, history and diverse needs of each nation.

Through this omission, Harper missed a valuable opportunity to speak to chiefs themselves and simply ask them about their needs and their perspectives in relation to the Indian Act.

While I applaud the fact that the five-point plan was developed as a result of collaboration between the two sides, without concrete strategies and solutions, it is nothing more than a platitude.

To say that the relationship between the Canadian government and the First Nations has been riddled with problems is, without a doubt, an understatement.

Last week’s Gathering was called “an important first step” in renewing the relationship between the First Nations and their leaders with the Canadian government.

This is despite the fact that the Indian Act was implemented over a hundred years ago — seemingly plenty of time for the Canadian government to take these first steps.

According to Statistics Canada, aboriginal adults accounted for 22 per cent of the prison population in 2006 while only representing three per cent of the total Canadian population.

The high rates of domestic violence, and sometimes abhorrent living conditions should serve as enough of an indication that action is necessary, rather than vague rhetoric.

Speaking as a non-aboriginal, I cannot pretend to know what the needs of First Nations people are. But surely it is time to engage in a real dialogue and listen to the voices of aboriginal people in order to cultivate a relationship of respect and trust on both sides.

Thank you to Melissa Ireland at the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives for her feedback and kind advice on this piece.

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