The challenge of abolishing the hated Indian Act


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My kids have a hard time understanding the analogy of "What happens to the dog when it finally catches the car?" They didn't grow up on the farm like I did, where you had to plan your every bicycle ride or car outing around which dogs you could outrun.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/12/2015 (2440 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

My kids have a hard time understanding the analogy of “What happens to the dog when it finally catches the car?” They didn’t grow up on the farm like I did, where you had to plan your every bicycle ride or car outing around which dogs you could outrun.

The old analogy of the dog and car came to mind as I read the significant response I received to my last column on the Indian Act. No doubt it touched a nerve, as for too many decades First Nations in Canada have been arguing for a new system, removed from this archaic act.

So, when newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Government of Canada will deal with First Nations on a “nation-to-nation” basis, I had to ask myself: “Did we just catch the car we’ve been chasing for so long or was his language meant to keep up chasing phantoms even longer?”

MIKE.DEAL@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations talks at the assembly's annual meeting in 2010, calling for an end to the Indian Act within five years.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett recently expanded on the concept by saying if First Nations go to her with a plan, she will support it. The problem is, do we actually have one that we can all agree to? It was a brilliant way to put the ball back in our court.

There appears to be a consensus in Canada that we need to get rid of the Indian Act. Even those on the far right and far left of the discussion are aligned believing the act is a racist piece of outdated, colonial legislation.

Its introduction in 1876 marked a sharp turn away from the mutually obligatory relationship of the treaties negotiated across Canada and, if its intent was assimilation and dependence, unfortunately, it did its work well.

There’s a spectrum of opinion on what to do after we rid ourselves of this archaic beast. One stream of thought is an incremental approach toward ‘self-government’ where, over time, First Nations build their internal capacity and move through a series of stepped-up funding agreements, all with definitive self-governing milestones, until 100 per cent of the money is transferred from the federal government into First Nations territories under their control.

Incrementally moving toward self-government agreements could take First Nations a long way toward killing the Indian Act but, equally, it could take a long time to get there.

Another option is to renegotiate our treaties, but that’s pretty much a non-starter as these historic agreements are considered sacred by many First Nations. That said, it is worth noting that during modern-day treaty negotiations in B.C., the First Nations involved have removed themselves from the Indian Act and its pan-Canadian approach to rights, and negotiated natural resource and property rights in return. So, negotiating new and modern treaties is definitely something worth discussing.

Following in the footsteps of former U.S. president Richard Nixon, another option is for the federal government to introduce a self-determination act to allow First Nations to generate their own sources of revenue, as they do in the U.S., which, in turn, allows them to fund their own governments.

One final thought is the example set by the Charlottetown accord, in which a third order of government for First Nations was negotiated, granting them side-by-side standing with other levels of government in Canada.

In the end, whether First Nations eventually become nations-within-a-nation, nation states in their own right, a third order of government, or self-governing entities, the rubber will hit the road when it comes to money. This includes who collects which taxes, how much education funding flows to students, who controls natural resources, and so on.

The flowery language of post-Indian Act Canada may not differ much if the federal government still holds the purse strings and the belief they have all the answers to the most desperate questions and needs of our First Nations communities.

I’m not sure who is chasing whom in this scenario, but I think everyone agrees it’s time to stop, talk and get on with building stronger, more harmonious and independent First Nations communities.


James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Twitter: @JamesBWilson_

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