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The staying power of the Indian Act

The Indian Act forced First Nations to abandon their traditional governance structures.

Having read this column for several months, you know that the Indian Act forced First Nations to abandon their traditional governance structures and created an array of political problems. These include the dissolution of direct democracy and the fact that band councils are not legally required to be accountable to the nation’s electorate. Considering the volume of grievances that First Nations have with the Indian Act, you would assume they would be eager to part with this racist colonial law and move onto enhanced governance systems based on their inherent right. Moving away from the Indian Act, however, is easier said than done. First Nations realize that the Indian Act is problematic and does not support sound democratic governance. While they cherish their inherent right and want to be self-governing, many First Nations have become dependent on the Indian Act. Having lived under it for almost 150 years, its all that many First Nations know and its hard to look beyond it. For many First Nations, the Indian Act has become institutionalized.

Over the years, the federal government has made several attempts to rescind or revise the Indian Act. The most infamous attempt was the 1969 White Paper. The backdrop to this policy was the Hawthorne Report of 1966-67 which emphasized that First Nations were the most disadvantaged people in Canada and recommended that government discontinue its assimilation policies, settle land claims and allow greater self-government for First Nations.

Incredibly, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government ignored the Hawthorne Report and put forward the White Paper in 1969. In the name of equality, the White Paper called for the rescindment of the Indian Act, elimination of Indian and treaty rights, privatization of Indian reserves, the permanent closure of the Department of Indian Affairs, and for Indigenous people to become the exclusive jurisdiction of provinces. In other words, full assimilation! The 1969 White Paper sparked outrage among First Nations people across the country. One of the strongest voices against the White Paper was a young, dynamic and educated First Nation leader from Alberta named Harold Cardinal. Mr. Cardinal was the president of the Indian Association of Alberta and emerged as the spokesperson for First Nations’ resistance against the White Paper and champion of First Nations’ rights. In his book, The Unjust Society, Mr. Cardinal branded the White Paper as a “thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation” and that First Nations would not walk down the path of cultural genocide. First Nations resistance led government to withdraw the White Paper.

Since then, the federal government has made several more attempts to eliminate the Indian Act. All attempts to rescind or revise the Indian Act have failed, largely due to First Nations resistance. They resist not because they like the Indian Act. First Nations resist because the federal government’s attempts to rescind or revise the Indian Act have been done unilaterally. They resist because the Indian Act protects Indian status rights and forces the federal government to uphold its fiduciary obligations. First Nations also believe that rescinding the Indian Act threatens Aboriginal and treaty rights as they remember all too well Pierre Trudeau’s attempt to abolish the Indian Act and fully assimilate them with the 1969 White Paper.

Terry Poucette is a member of the Wesley First Nation and PhD graduate in public administration (UVic). She is now an assistant teaching professor at UVic.