Monday, October 22, 2012

The Indian Act - Finally, we're doing something

Many Canadians know the sordid history of our First Nations peoples here in Canada - and most of it we rarely hear or read from our history teachers and textbooks. Sorry to say, but the emphasis on First Nations peoples like Joseph Brant (who essentially founded my current hometown), or Tecumseh, or any of the other leaders who served closely with Great Britain during the various wars we had against the US, French, or other First Nations groups, kind of whitewashes over the fact that the first European settlers on the continent, including in Canada, wiped the vast majority of First Nations peoples out and then put most of the remainder into reserves. The attitude back then from the government was that, while maybe we can't kill the rest of them off, we can certainly segregate them from the rest of us and give them their own little world to live in, just not ours. Not exactly something to be proud of, but its history and today we've moved past such attitudes, right?

In 1876, John A. Macdonald's government passed, probably with the support of the Opposition Liberals, the Indian Act, which laid out the rights of First Nations and the policies that the federal government would follow when interacting with them. Suffice to say, it was not a very enlightened document when it originally came out, but there have been quite a few amendments over the years as attitudes changed in Canadian society at large. The document is still fairly archaic, but its a lot better than it was. However, as we saw with Attawapiskat and other incidents recently and in the last decades - the Oka Crisis is the one most people remember, though the ongoing Caledonia issues are possibly the most relevant - it still isn't exactly suitable to the needs of First Nations peoples, or those of other Canadians who are being affected by their issues.

This month we've seen two private members bills - one from Conservative MP and First Nations member himself Rob Clarke, and one from Liberal Leader Bob Rae - come to light, the first being debated last week and the latter being debated today. While both call for the same thing, it shows two different attitudes at work.

Clarke's motion, and indeed the entire Conservative government's attitude towards First Nations issues, is simple: change the laws outright. Don't sit and wait, just delete the offending parts and fix it. First Nations peoples will be better off with unilateral action on the part of the federal government.

Attawapiskat, as Bob Rae and other opposition members have noted, is a prime example of this. While the decision to put in the auditor was probably the right one, it was done with zero consultation and held up the process of fixing the serious crisis there.

Bob Rae's motion also leads to a very similar conclusion: changing the Act for the better. The main difference is that Rae has emphasized the need for consultation with the communities being affected - the First Nations communities mainly, though personally I'd like a push for consultation with communities like the people of Caledonia, who are affected greatly by the Act as well.

What this means, however, is that change will be very incremental. Consulting communities means finding out what these changes will also mean for these communities. Are they good ideas, or not? Instead of moving to unilaterally changing the laws, you need to figure out if its the right move first.

Clarke has said that he's consulted with communities, though he's been contradicted by First Nations and the Opposition. But I get the sense that he wants to do what is right for First Nations, and he wants it done quickly. Rae wants the same thing, but he wants it done right. You can guess which side I support on this issue.

But I'm happy to see both the government and the Opposition agreeing on the fact that it needs to change. Not just another amendment, but proper steps towards changing the Indian Act, legislation which through its very name alone is discriminatory. Rights for our Inuit peoples in northern Canada have progressed much farther than those in the south - and this is mostly because of the Indian Act. It has retarded rights so much for citizens of Canada so much that I'm surprised its taken until 2012 for us to start working on changing it - even then, I feel that this is mostly the government working ahead of the public. Most people don't think about First Nations communities until its right in their faces.

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