Reconciliation and reality
Brief treatise on Indian Act makes our difficult history accessible
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/04/2018 (1633 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Scan the online comments section of any major media outlet following an article about Indigenous issues and you will inevitably encounter some variation of “Why don’t they just get over it?”
Bob Joseph has the definitive response to that racially charged rhetorical question — and, more importantly, to the ignorance behind it — that the Indian Act has made “getting over” colonialism impossible.
In his slim but powerful new book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, Joseph documents the harsh discrimination, controls, humiliations, political dysfunctions and “catch-22s” successive Canadian governments have imposed on Indigenous peoples for the purpose of subjugating and assimilating them.
Joseph is a member of the Gwawaenuk Nation in the Queen Charlotte Strait region of British Columbia. A certified trainer, Joseph is the CEO and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., which he founded in 2002. His father is Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, who is the Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council.
Yet like his father and many others in the Gwawaenuk Nation, “Bob Joseph” owes his legal name to the assimilationist requirements of the Act and an unknown Indian agent who travelled through Joseph’s ancestral region decades ago, imposing Christian names on the band and thereby erasing their traditional hereditary and clan names.
Joseph shows how this was just one of the many ways the Indian Act controlled and harmed the lives of generations of Indigenous people. Since its passage in 1876, the act (with its various amendments) was responsible for creating the reserve system and residential schools, stripping women of their Indian status if they married a non-status man and denying Indigenous people the vote — or granting them the vote at the cost of their status.
The Indian Act imposed European-style farming practices on reserves, but made it impossible for bands to sell their produce to non-Indian customers. Even if these sales had been permitted, it would have required leaving the reserve by obtaining written permission of the Indian agent, which was rarely granted.
Joseph makes this difficult history quite accessible, methodically describing these and other human rights violations in a highly readable prose over a brief 160 pages. Following the main text is a glossary of terms, a chronology of the history of residential schools and the text of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book also includes discussion questions and suggested further reading, making it ideal for book club or classroom use.
In the book’s closing pages, Joseph offers a selection of damning quotes from former prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald and Duncan Campbell Scott (who oversaw the cruelties of the residential school system between 1913 and 1932 and made attendance compulsory), including the latter’s fervent wish that “Indians… finally disappear as a separate and distinct people” through their assimilation.
The book’s final chapter sets out what Canada must do next: dismantle the act and instead work with Indigenous people on forms of self-government and self-determination, allowing First Nations to generate their own revenues through development royalties and taxes and thereby become self-reliant.
We may not as Canadians ever be able to “get over” our colonial past — nor should we — but in the future, Joseph prescribes, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians will be able to transcend it and build true nation-to-nations relationships in the spirit of reconciliation.
Michael Dudley is the librarian for Indigenous Studies at the University of Winnipeg.