“Making the Indian Act irrelevant”
Membertou’s journey towards self-government
“Moving beyond the Indian Act is a goal that’s been near and dear to us for a long time,” says Dan Christmas, Senior Advisor to Chief and Council of Membertou located in Sydney, Nova Scotia. “It’s part of our desire to be self-sufficient and to manage our own affairs independently of the federal government.”
First Nations communities have approached this ambitious goal in various ways. While some go the route prescribed under the Indian Act by seeking approval from the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs to develop their own laws, Membertou is choosing to exercise its inherent right to develop its own legislation that will define citizenship, land use and leadership succession.
Christmas explains that many factors have motivated the community to embark on this journey. Membertou’s remarkable financial success over the past 15 years (thanks to a well thought-out and strategic approach to economic development) has given the community confidence and the desire for self-government.
Other factors include frustration with existing laws. At least one-third of the Membertou community who are registered as Status Indians fall under section 6.2 of the Indian Act, making their children the first generation of non-status community members if the other parent is not a Status Indian. It’s clear from the demographics that this number will only increase over time. “The section 6.2 issue speaks to the need for the people of Membertou to come together to define who is a member of our community,” says Christmas.
An additional source of frustration stems from land use issues. “Our leadership finds it offensive that the Indian Act forces us to go through a land designation process. We need to give legal contracts to businesses, and we need to have the power to develop our own laws around land allocation and use.”
Christmas believes that unless these issues are resolved, “they will be a chokehold for our development and our future.”
But just how do you make the Indian Act irrelevant? Membertou is adopting the same methodical and disciplined approach that brought about its economic transformation over the past 15 years into a self-sufficient community with numerous revenue streams.
First and foremost is an emphasis on community consultation and involvement. In the fall of 2009, the National Centre for First Nations Governance (NCFNG) facilitated two workshops in Membertou on community engagement and citizenship code development. Building on that momentum, the Band’s Governance Committee held an Open House at the end of February to update the community on their work and to provide an overview of the process as a whole.
Jennifer Martin, the Band’s Policy Coordinator, says that they are now following up on the Open House with articles in the community newsletter and seeking new members for the Governance Committee. “We’re also communicating what’s happening on our website, and we’re even taking advantage of the power of social media through our Facebook group.”
In June, the Band plans to hire a full-time governance coordinator to oversee the process of drafting new laws and moving towards independence.
Beaver Paul, the NCFNG Regional Manager for the Atlantic, underlines the importance of addressing these issues sooner rather than later. “With the recent McIvor decision, the federal government is defining citizens in a way that may or may not be culturally relevant to a particular community.”
Christmas is convinced that communities must look within to find the resources for change. “If Membertou had looked solely to the Indian Act for guidance, we would never have gotten to where we are now. Looking to outside agencies isn’t the way. I firmly believe we can end our dependency on government if we trust that our people have the resources to make this happen. It’s much easier to work around any obstacles once you tap into that well of determination.”
Chief Terrance Paul echoes these statements when asked what factors have most strengthened the Membertou community as it continues the next stage of its journey to independence. As he says, “it’s believing in your people and keeping them on board. Include your people in the visioning process for your Nation. If you have your community working as a team, it makes success a lot easier to achieve.”