Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Indian Act encourages acts of defiance

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CALGARY -- It has become very fashionable to engage in character attacks on hunger striker Theresa Spence, chief of the chaotic Attawapiskat community, a bleak Cree settlement in northern Ontario.

She is, after all, an easy target. Her community is a textbook example of outrageous financial mismanagement and waste by the very people who are mandated to care for their people. National Post columnists like Christie Blatchford and Jonathan Kay have fulminated with indignation over the abuse.

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A report that appeared on CBC television back in 2011, and gleefully cited by Kay, suggests, among other things, that there is no evidence to support the accusation Ottawa is to blame for the desperate status of some communities and Attawapiskat's troubles may in fact be the result of Spence's own incompetence.

Not everyone is knocking her; former prime minister Paul Martin visited her teepee on Victoria Island this month and declared her "an inspiration to all Canadians." Not sure where he gets that, but Martin, at least inadvertently, has a point.

The point is that this hunger strike and the First Nations protests it has triggered should not be judged by Spence's personal flaws, as egregious as they may be. These acts are instead rooted in century-old frustrations with the way Canada has dealt with its Aboriginal Peoples, and are a reminder that half-baked attempts to appease these disheartened people by throwing money at their communities will resolve absolutely nothing, only further entrenching a corrupt and dysfunctional system.

First Nations people are not so different from the rest of Canadians in one important sense -- they want real personal freedom; a freedom that gives them equal status to everyone else. Our successive governments have responded instead by giving them "special" status -- letting them live on Crown-owned reserves and setting them up with cookie-cutter homes -- thereby sapping them of the personal incentives that drive people to their full potential.

In a 2008 research paper prepared for the National Centre for First Nations Governance, historian Ken Coates argues: "The Indian Act is no longer an uncontestable part of the Aboriginal landscape in Canada... (It) was simply a tool used by the Government of Canada to exercise near-total control over First Nations people."

The Indian Act -- its name is even racist by today's standards -- was written with the view that First Nations people are wards of the state, incapable of managing their own finances. It then set out conditions that would fulfill its own definition. It encouraged dependency, robbed natives of their culture and their spirit and disconnected them from the political process. It gave them fewer political privileges and personal rights than other Canadians.

Now, try to imagine for a moment how you would feel if you were born into a world where, by law, you have fewer rights than others, where you were told that another group's culture was the one to embrace -- not your own -- and where your basic material needs were to be supplied by this dominant culture. How would you feel?

I imagine you would feel a lot like today's First Nations people feel -- showing no regard for the homes that were built "for" you, squandering the money that was "given" to you and showing no regard for the Indian chiefs and councils mandated by federal legislation. In that context, should other Canadians really be so shocked about the tales of abuse and squalor emanating from these remote communities?

Real reform has been discussed for decades. In fact, Coates reported that the White Paper on Indian Affairs in 1969 proposed "elimination of Indian reserves, the end of the unique legal position of status Indians, the shift of services for Indians from the federal to provincial governments... the replacement of the collective rights of status Indians with greater integration with the individualistic Canadian mainstream."

But when the Indian establishment rose up against the White Paper, the federal Liberals lost their nerve and backed down.

Today, the need to eliminate the Indian Act is as great as ever, but the First Nations people resist because the federal government would also eliminate all special provisions and rights for status Indians. Harold Cardinal, who led the opposition in 1969, wrote: "We would rather continue to live in bondage under the inequitable Indian Act than surrender our sacred rights."

Self-government is on its way, but incrementally and through the back door, as with the Harper government's contentious "budget" Bill C-45, which also changes legislation affecting matters such as reserve lands, waterways, the environment, the fishery and the Indian Act.

Although critics rue the deceitful tactic inherent in an omnibus bill, if it moves us closer to the goal of removing the Indian Act and establishing legitimate indigenous governments, then it's not a bad thing.

Until then, we must endure the theatrics of Theresa Spence, and other similar leaders who feed on the sense of entitlement fostered by this obsolete and perverse legislation.

 

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief of Troy Media and national affairs columnist.

 

--Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 J11

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