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Is Simply Repealing Canada’s Indian Act Really The Magic Bullet?

Let’s start with the assumption that Canada’s Indian Act is a bad, outdated and paternalistic piece of legislation. Even if some don’t agree, just for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that we do agree that it should be scrapped.

Here’s the first question that comes to mind.

How does keeping or scrapping it change the culture of mismanagement, cronyism and outright corruption that are one of the primary root causes of poverty and lack of economic opportunity on some bands?

I think the Indian Act needs to be repealed and to hear what many news commentators are saying, you’d be led to believe that the First Nations are unanimously in favour of it being repealed as well.

You would be wrong.

The Indian Act does impose restrictions on reserves that are not imposed on other Canadian communities and those restrictions interfere with bands making economic decisions that will advance their communities. But it also provides benefits that many in the First Nations are reluctant to give up and therein lays the great challenge and conflict for all sides.

There is a demand in many quarters for independence and sovereignty but a reluctance to let go of the entitlements that come with the protected status offered by the Act.

Better minds than mine on both sides of the issue have tried and failed to resolve those contradictory positions. It is starting to be recognized in Ottawa and with some within the First Nations that pragmatism and vision are not necessarily comfortable partners.

I read a piece in the National Post recently that suggested that simply doing away with the Indian Act and allowing private land ownership on reserves was the magic bullet that would resolve all of the problems.

Personally, if that’s what members of First Nations’ bands want, I’m all for it. But most First Nations come from a culture of communal living and sharing. Individual ownership is not part of their heritage. Imposing that significant a change on a people may end up being, as some fear, the destruction of the reserve and the assimilation of its members into regular Canadian society.

There is also the fear that once those living on reserves can own their own property, the land could be sold to non-natives which would undermine the unique identity of the band itself. First Nations do not want their communities turned into just one more Canadian town.

It is a conflict that is not easily resolved within the First Nations itself let alone a broader Canadian context and that is merely one of the issues that prevents the Indian Act from being quickly swept away and retired to history.

There are also fears that many of the benefits that accrue to aboriginal peoples including free prescription medication, post-secondary educational support, tax-free exempt status and direct funding to reserves would be lost if the Indian Act is scrapped.

And so the debate continues as it has for decades.

It will take years of focused discussion on all sides to come to a resolution of the Indian Act and clearly that isn’t going to happen any time soon. But, even if it did, how does that end corruption and mismanagement by some leaders at the band level?

Theresa Spence has been on a diet, masquerading as a hunger strike for almost four weeks. There are some, including former Prime Minister Paul Martin who called her “an inspiration to Canadians”, who have put aside her role in the poverty in which her people live in order to embrace the romantic notion of her action.

It is a disgrace.

Last winter, while the people of Attawapiskat were living in conditions that are shameful for a country as rich as Canada, Chief Spence and her live-in boyfriend were hauling down the better part of $250,000/year in tax-free income from the band’s annual operating budget. This is the equivalent of almost a half a million per year which is a pretty decent income anywhere, let alone in a community of 1500, most of whom were living in shacks.

When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) did a follow-up story on the living conditions in Attawapiskat, the good chief squired them around in her Cadillac Escalade.

Now she’s dieting and in her last interview with the CBC, Theresa Spence indicated why in no uncertain terms. While it is widely reported that she wanted a meeting with the Prime Minister, the Governor General and the provincial premiers, less reported was her other demand – more funding from all levels of government.

In other words, none of the issues on her reserve were her fault. None of the abysmal living conditions had anything to do with mismanagement, lack of proper priorities or even integrity in the use of band funds. All that was required was more cash from everyone else.

Opposition politicians have been dishonest with Canadians in their support of this failed First Nations leader. They have blamed the government, avoided any discussion of her role in what led to the poverty on her reserve and, in effect, thrown people living on reserves like Attawapiskat under the bus for their own political agenda.

It isn’t any better on the First Nations’ side of the table.

The leadership constantly claims it is not being consulted by government but often it is that same leadership that storms from and boycotts meetings as it did in November 2011 during discussions about the government’s proposed First Nations’ education bill.

The simple reality is that they, like too many politicians, are less concerned with ‘the people’ than they are with the politics.

You would think all of that would bring me to supporting Idle No More because it is, or at least it started as, a grassroots movement by those same people whom I believe need a more effective voice – but I don’t.

Idle No More, like Occupy before it, is long on grand vision statements and accusations but short on solutions or even specific ideas on how to achieve strong, viable and healthy aboriginal communities. Like Occupy, it has quickly descended into more and more pointless confrontational demonstrations that target every day Canadians, most of whom have been more than a little sympathetic to their cause and the plight of people living on reserves.

How pointless?

Last Friday, the Prime Minister announced that he had agreed to meet with leaders from the First Nations on January 11th. Clearly this is a sign of goodwill but it had no effect of generating any goodwill by anyone else.

Instead, Theresa Spence continued her grandstanding diet, opposition MPs continued rushing for photo ops and making statement criticizing the government while skillfully avoiding any questions about Chief Spence’s economic mismanagement and Idle No More Protesters near Deseronto not only blockaded the Via railway line but are now being investigated for tampering with signal switches.

I wonder how opposition MPs would deal with a rail accident resulting in death and serious injury of many as a result of signal switch tampering. Would they finally start asking some serious questions about more than just the government’s role in perpetuating the Indian Act or would they continue to bob and weave in an attempt to avoid having to give an answer? Would any of those from government to opposition politicians to the AFN or Idle No More recognize their role in creating the circumstance that would lead to a tragedy of that magnitude?

Probably not.

When it comes to First Nations issues, it isn’t just arguments over the Indian Act that are seriously devoid of common sense.

Ethics, the law and people on all sides, aboriginal Canadians and Canadian taxpayers are thrown under the bus by those with a special interest agenda. In London, Ontario Mayor Joe Fontana has been charged with fraud for misuse of taxpayer money while he was a Liberal Cabinet Minister. In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford was removed from office pending court appeal because he solicited donations in support of a football team for under-privileged youth.

Clearly, Canadians take adherence to the law fairly seriously but and it is a big but. When it comes to aboriginal protest and malfeasance, the law is not enforced. What is not acceptable to a broader Canadian society becomes somehow acceptable in these circumstances.

That inconsistency has led to thousands of dollars in damages by protesters over the years, threats and violent assaults at Caledonia, the death of a member of the Quebec Provincial Police at Oka, the death of a young First Nations’ teenager at Ipperwash and the development of an activist culture that has no respect for the law or for the rights of others.

We saw that evolve quickly during Occupy’s short stint in the parks of our cities where illegal drug use, rape, child abuse and a wide range of lesser crimes resulted in hundreds of criminal charges and 8 deaths.

Whatever the solutions are to the status quo for First Nations, they won’t be found in repeating the mistakes of the past or in following in the steps of Occupy. It will take true leadership on all sides to put aside the mistrust, the gamesmanship, the greed and the misconceptions if progress is ever to be made.

It will also take a lot of goodwill on all sides but considering the lack of it these days, I can’t see that happening any time soon.



Where Is The Money Going On First Nations Reserves?


Some First Nations’ Financial Statements Generate More Questions Than Answers


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  • http://gogreygirl.wordpress.com/ Margie

    Is there anything to be gained by posting respectful links on Idle No More pages (like their Facebook site)- posts that show there is another side to this story?

    I would have more hope of there being some forward progress on this whole thing if the militants were saying they plan on running in their next Band election. If they actually had to do something other than complain… but complaining is easier, isn’t it?

  • Gordon

    You’re right of course the simply repealing the Bill wouldn’t even come close to fixing the problem.
    Oddly enough and in Ontario at least I could easily replace “First Nations” in your post with teacher unions and their call to repeal Bill 115 and it would read similarly:-)

    • http://abearsrant.com thebear

      You could apply it to many issues today. People have an unrealistic demand for simplistic solutions to highly complex issues. Often the complexity is found in the fact that there is seldom unanimity among people on the same side as just what should be done. Until you know what you want to achieve, you can’t even begin to discuss how you are going to achieve it.

      In the case of the First Nations, there is no universal agreement as to just what indigenous people want or need. Further complicating it is the fact that it is always a moving target. Theresa Spence, for example, has repositioned her demands from meeting with the Prime Minister, to a meeting with the Prime Minister, The Governor General, all provincial premiers and all First Nations Chiefs, to more funding and now she has moved it again to demanding real outcomes from the January 11 meeting. Those outcomes, of course, are not defined and won’t be until after the meeting when she meets with the media again.

      You can’t make progress like this and progress is what people in the First Nations desperately need and what most Canadians actually want.