Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Everybody agrees Indian Act must go

Moves to repeal and replace it afoot in House

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OTTAWA -- If there is one thing First Nations and the federal political parties agree on, it's that the archaic, paternalistic and repressive legislation commonly known as the Indian Act has got to go.

First Nations have asked for the act to be replaced for decades.

The government last week backed a private member's bill from one of its own MPs, Saskatchewan's Rob Clarke, calling for the methodical abolition of the act.

Today, Liberal Leader Bob Rae will introduce a motion in the House of Commons also calling for the act to be replaced.

So one might think it should not be hard to actually do something about it.

As usual in politics, nothing is that simple.

The problem, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper put it so succinctly during the Crown-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa last January, is that the act has deep roots and cannot simply be blown up.

The Indian Act is more than 136 years old and touches every aspect of life on First Nations.

Created by a government determined to stamp out aboriginal culture, the act governs everything from education and housing to band governance and operations.

Under the act, First Nations cannot pass bylaws for their communities without the approval of the minister. The act limits how they can use and develop reserve land, often putting so much red tape around economic development it simply doesn't happen. It is so intrusive on the individual lives of First Nations people. A reserve resident cannot even write a will without getting it approved by the minister.

In other areas, it is vague and laden with loopholes. On education, for example, the act lays out the premise for First Nations education but includes no standards of education, not even a minimum number of school days or basic education requirements of teachers.

The poverty, addiction and violence that plague reserves today can be largely traced back to governance under the act. The residential schools the act created ruined lives and destroyed communities. The act now often prevents First Nations from having any chance of recovery.

Clarke's bill begins by deleting all references in the Indian Act to residential schools and repeals or amends sections addressing wills, education and band bylaws. It also requires the minister of aboriginal affairs to report every year what work has been done to replace the Indian Act with new legislation.

In his speech in defence of his bill last Thursday, Clarke referred to the Indian Act as an "outdated, racist, colonial statute."

"The problems created by this archaic piece of legislation are far-reaching, extending to every aspect of the lives of every First Nations person and the root cause of the Attawapiskats of our country," he said.

Today, Rae will propose a similar but not entirely identical approach. In his motion, Rae calls the act the "embodiment of failed colonial and paternalistic policies."

Rae's motion calls for a nation-to-nation process, to begin within three months of the motion passing, to replace the Indian Act with new agreements based on constitutional and treaty rights, the government's fiduciary responsibility to First Nations, United Nations standards and stability and safety of First Nations.

The Liberal leader's motion calls for a two-year time frame for the work to be completed.

Many First Nations leaders have balked at Clarke's bill because they feel it was introduced without consultation and isn't clear on how much consultation will take place.

Clarke said his bill is based on a principle he calls ARRC -- amend, repeal, replace and consult -- but it is a sign of just how much mistrust there is between First Nations and the federal government when there needs to be a specific consultation process spelled out in detail before many will believe consultation will actually take place.

Rae's motion appears to have the backing of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.

It won't be easy to replace a piece of legislation that is so complex and diverse. It won't be easy to develop a consultation process that will appease all parties involved.

But perhaps now, more than at any previous time, all the parties at the very least have the same goal and are all on the playing field ready to start kicking the ball.

If they succeed, the impact on Canada and its First Nations will be almost immeasurable.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2012 A7

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