The federal Liberals promised a new relationship with first nations peoples and attempted to demonstrate that commitment with historic investments of $8.2 billion. The sad reality is that more money is not the solution. First nations will not move beyond the status of second class citizens or achieve equality until the mechanism that diminishes them is removed, i.e., until the Indian Act is replaced with just measures.
Let there be no mistake. The Indian Act is legislation that is meant to destroy a culture. It is legislation that was imposed upon groups of people without their consultation. Its paternalistic origins can be traced to pre-confederation attitudes and statutes, namely the Gradual Civilization Act and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act, that sought to transform primitive savages into civilized British men.
The shortcomings of the Indian Act were recognized early on, and amendments have, from time to time, been passed to address some of the egregious aspects of the Act. Indians were given the right to vote in 1960. (Canadian women won that right in 1918.) The right of Indian women to retain their treaty status following their marriage to non-Indians was not recognized until 1985.
An attempt was made by the elder Trudeau to tear up the Indian Act when the White Paper was presented to parliament in 1969. The first nations communities, however, soundly rejected it. Why? Because it sought to free the federal government of it treaty obligations.
The political reality in Canada is that the crown has entered into treaties with other (first) nations, to provide and pay for such things as health services, education, and allow for the traditional use of the land. The White Paper sought to circumvent those responsibilities by transferring them to the provinces. Essentially, the elder Trudeau sought to assimilate Indians into Anglo/Franco culture.
The election of the younger Trudeau, despite the media hoopla, does not promise an era of reform for our First Nations. The Indian Act remains firmly in place. While it remains, the government remains the arbitrator of who is an Indian is and who is not.
In eyes of the Government of Canada, the first nations are unqualified to decide who an Indian is and who is not. Reserves continue to held by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of the respective bands for which they were set apart. Once again, the first nations are viewed as being incapable of managing their own affairs, and are not allowed to hold title to the land.. Any improvement to the land, the building of a school or health centre, or the start of a farming operation, or the provision of clean water and sanitation services, falls to crown and requires the approval of the Minister.
This level of paternalistic oversight is responsible for the decrepit conditions on many reserves. Ottawa is not known for its speed of decision making, and it is certainly not the place to make a decision on where to put a sewer line for a reserve in Manitoba.
Is this Liberal government more in-touch with or more concerned about first nations issues? No it is not. It simply panders to left wing guilt and assuages it by spending more money. The Prime Minister’s lack of interest is further made evident by his appointment of Carolyn Bennett as Minister, the member of parliament from Toronto-St. Paul, a riding with a negligible First Nations population, and that of two non-aboriginal professional civil servants as deputy ministers. None of these bureaucrats can bring any First Nations perspective to the table. What they can do is perpetuate a non-functioning government department. Regrettably, the issues that have plagued our First Nations since before Confederation will continue.