Indian Act: Time for a New Memory
Authored by Satsan (Herb George), this article appeared in the Toronto Star on January 25, 2012, a day after the Crown-First Nations Gathering. Satsan is the president of the National Centre for First Nations Governance,
The government of Canada and First Nations leadership have met and agreed on some immediate steps for action. It is admirable that removing the barriers that hinder First Nations governance and unlocking the economic potential of First Nations are on the list.
Like summits before this meeting, phasing out the Indian Act is not on the list. Again, it is left to First Nations citizens to remove this most important obstacle to effective, prosperous governance.
Canadians recently discovered the crushing poverty in Attawapiskat. This is not the first time Attawapiskat has struggled; and Attawapiskat is not alone. Every three years or so, these problems are discovered and agonized over. There is often a quick fix — new homes, an emergency relocation, a temporary water supply. And two or three years later, another set of headlines starts the cycle again.
Why is that? Why are First Nations and the government locked in a seemingly unbreakable dance of failure and recrimination?
It is because we are reacting to crises. But these crises are symptoms of a deep-rooted, systemic problem. Shingling a roof may stop the rain for a season — but it won’t help if the foundation is rotten.
Canada has attempted to seize management control of Attawapiskat and call in third party managers, sending a message that aboriginal people cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs. Their quick fix solution is “accountability.”
The problem is one of accountability. The question is — whose?
Former auditor general Sheila Fraser repeatedly pointed out the widening gap between living conditions on reserves and in the rest of Canada. Much of this is due to critical structural, legislative and funding barriers that do not provide First Nations with the legislative authority to change things. Federal policy rests on a foundation that is deeply flawed — the Indian Act.
Passed in 1876, nine years after Confederation, the Indian Act is a legal fossil that still defines the link between our nations. It has created a relationship that is punitive, restrictive and regulatory. It created a system of councils and reserves accountable, not to their communities or the people who choose them, but to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development — councils with neither the authority nor the resources to act as effective “governments.” And of course, it leaves no space for new ideas or innovations in governance.
Politicians frequently claim that the Indian Act is “failing.” In fact, it’s a resounding success. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. It was not introduced to promote aboriginal self-determination, or support the growth of healthy, prosperous communities; it was created to take our people off the land and away from the economy.
The consequences of the Indian Act — the assault on our language and culture, our children and families, our freedom and our rights, has been chronicled, and even apologized for. But the act remains in place.
How can our nations find a new way to coexist, an approach based on mutual recognition, respect and commitment to reconciliation? The first step requires recognition that First Nations are, in fact, nations, diverse in their needs and culture, each with its own history and relationship with the Crown.
Canada must affirm historic responsibilities and obligations, first defined in our treaties and reiterated in Supreme Court decisions such as Delgamuukw, Haida and Mikisew — legal landmarks that affirm our aboriginal and treaty rights and title. Simple recognition of our nationhood and of our mutual obligations will begin to transform the relationship between First Nations and Canada.
But the onus does not lie on government alone. The greater challenge lies with First Nation citizens. Our political existence has for the last century been defined for us in the Indian Act; we must now organize and develop our own vision or remain trapped in this upside-down world where we call ourselves “nations” but depend on and answer to the Crown. Many of our people fear the consequences of abandoning this familiar prison to embrace the uncertainty of a future in which we control our own destinies. But to restore our link with the land, govern ourselves and participate in the broader national and global economy, we must extricate ourselves from the stagnant security of the Indian Act and set a new course ourselves. No one else can pull us free.
Once we make a decision to move beyond the Indian Act, we can start the real work of rebuilding our nations and establishing responsible and accountable governments. Our legislative authority must reflect our own traditions and laws, for we were certainly self-governing peoples before the arrival of colonizers in our homelands.
I firmly believe that the issues of infrastructure, employment, housing, health and education — the problems that erupt into headlines — can only be met once the fundamental issues of governance have been addressed. Only then will our leadership be truly accountable to our people. Our future as nations together does not lie in another century of litigation and confrontation, but in establishing a spirit of partnership that looks to the future.
And that is what this is all about. We want this generation to tell different stories than the ones we have been telling for the past seven generations. Stories of pride and resilience, stories in our languages about our cultures and ways of life, stories of self-government and prosperity. We will create a new memory in the minds of our children, a memory without the Indian Act.