Saying goodbye to ‘Indian’ affairs

Posted on May 20, 2011 in Equality Debates

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May 20, 2011.    Lorne Gunter

The federal government’s move to change the name of the Department of Indian Affairs to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs is a good idea. The new name is more accurate, more modern and more inclusive.

There are nearly 1.2 million Canadians who claim aboriginal heritage, but only 53% are registered Indians. Another 30% are Métis, the descendants of fur traders and aboriginals who, over the centuries, have become their own distinct people. Eleven percent are non-status Indians, while 4% are Inuit.

So the old name — Indian Affairs — overlooked 47% of aboriginal Canadians. It was also outdated to the point of being racist.

Many Indians don’t like being called Indians. They think (with justification) the name reflects a mistake made five centuries ago by Columbus. What’s more, it has become almost a racial slur. No one would wonder why the United States Interior department has no Bureau of Negro Affairs; racial nomenclature has moved on. So it is a puzzle how the Canadian government has managed to carry on so long with “Indian” Affairs.

The parallel with the United States is not entirely valid, I’ll admit. Many Canadian Indians do not mind the name, particularly because it carries with it an elevated legal status among aboriginals — a status that brings better benefits and services than other aboriginals are granted. Indeed, what criticism there has been of the change has come largely from status Indians concerned that the new title might signal a lessening of their entitlements and special treatment.

It’s a good thing, though, that the government didn’t choose to use “First Nations Affairs” for the new name.

The term First Nations is historically inaccurate in the first place. Few, if any, of the aboriginals whom Europeans encountered 500 years ago were the “first” settlers of the areas they occupied. Just as Europeans would displace aboriginals, those aboriginals had displaced others they’d encountered who had occupied their lands before them. Often, the “first” nations Europeans had contact with were actually the third or forth aboriginal “nations” in a given region.

Moreover, the term First Nations implies that Ottawa’s relationship should be with tiny collectives that aspire to be treated as nations, rather than with aboriginals as individuals and with reserves as municipalities. “Aboriginal Affairs” does not pander to these unrealistic presumptions.

The big problem with federal-aboriginal relations in recent years has been the way all three branches of the federal government — judicial, as well as legislative and executive — have given in to myths about self-government, myths that insist some day it will be possible for aboriginal Canadians to govern themselves in a self-sufficient manner, even if today the federal government underwrites the vast majority of aboriginal income and social services. Such myths also feed the fantasy that chiefs of a few hundred people are really heads of state of sovereign independent lands.

If changing Indian Affairs’ name to Aboriginal Affairs ups Ottawa’s sensitivity factor, while also nudging aboriginal governance a little toward a more practical future, that’s a good thing.

The proof that this is more than just a rose-by-any-other-name shift will come in the actions of the “new” department, not in its letterhead and office-door logos. For starters, the department already has begun cross-country consultations on who should qualify for Indian status and what kind of “citizenship” rights and responsibilities that status should confer. It would be best if this vital definition shifted from Indian to aboriginal, too. The definition is the driver of who gets official recognition, of course, but also who gets benefits.

In addition, ways must be found for individual aboriginals on reserves to own their own homes and property and for more of Ottawa’s transfers to be paid directly to individuals, instead of being filtered through band councils that overpay themselves and play favourites in the distribution of housing, on-reserve jobs and social benefits.

Just changing the name of the department will not accomplish such goals, but if the name change changes attitudes, too, our aboriginal citizens might slowly see an improvement in their conditions.

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