Scrap the Indian Act
Published On Sun Jul 25 2010
The Indian Act is a relic of the 19th century. Passed by Parliament in 1876 and administered by the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, it defines who is an “Indian” and sets out rules for governing reserves.
Past efforts to scrap the act — such as the “white paper” produced in 1969 when Jean Chrétien was minister of Indian affairs — have been fiercely resisted by Indian leaders as assimilationist in their intent.
But lately, Indian leaders themselves have talked about their desire to get out from under the act and the Indian affairs department. They want to build a new relationship with the federal government as equals, not vassals.
Last week, Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, delivered that message in an important speech to the AFN’s annual convention, which was reproduced in part on Saturday’s editorial page. “The Indian Act is a collapsing house, falling apart brick by brick and bashed by the courts,” said Atleo. “The reality is the government is already trying to replace the act, but not in a way that will work for us. If we don’t move on a better approach, then the government will.”
Atleo outlined several basic steps to be taken, starting with a comprehensive agreement with Ottawa that would affirm existing treaties, rights and aboriginal title and lay out the course for change in the relationship. Federal funding would be transferred directly to First Nations rather than filtered through the Indian affairs department. (The AFN says up to one-third of the department’s $7 billion budget never trickles down to them.) For their part, First Nations leaders would agree to be accountable for the spending of that money.
“I believe we are bold enough and brave enough to take on this challenge and create a real legacy for our children that is built on the vision of our elders,” concluded Atleo.
It was a compelling call for change, especially given that the status quo is not working. As Atleo pointed out, his people have the highest suicide and incarceration rates and the lowest education and income levels in the country.
Neither Prime Minister Stephen Harper nor Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl responded to Atleo in the days immediately following his speech. That is unfortunate, but hardly surprising. Indeed, Harper might seem an unlikely candidate to strike a new deal with Canada’s aboriginal peoples, given that one of his first moves upon taking power was to scrap the Kelowna Accord, an attempt by the Liberal government under Paul Martin to go down the path Atleo is advocating.
On the other hand, Harper has shown no reluctance to think outside the box on other issues. The Prime Minister would be well-advised to take Atleo up on his offer and begin a dialogue that could lead to fundamental change in relations between the government and aboriginal peoples.