Rob Clarke, Special to National Post
On Oct. 18, I was proud to open debate on my private member’s bill, C-428, the Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act.
As the MP for the Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, I represent 23 First Nations reserves. It is the riding with the second-largest First Nations population in Canada.
I myself am a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree First Nation. I am also a former RCMP officer who served most of my 18 years with the force working and living on First Nations reserves. I personally live under the Indian Act today, and have had to enforce it as part of my duties as an RCMP officer.
As a result, I am quite familiar with the effect of the Act on the day-to-day life of First Nations people; the social, cultural and economic barriers it has created; and the cycle of dependency it fosters. It is my goal that Bill C-428 serves as a catalyst to open the kind of respectful collaborative consultation that will be required in order to close this sad chapter of Canadian history.
The Indian Act has deprived First Nations of their historical tradition of self-governance. Many of the changes in Bill C-428 are aimed at restoring control to the grassroots, band councils and chiefs.
In particular, Bill C-428 would repeal the following sections of the Indian Act:
The power of the Aboriginal Affairs Minister to declare the validity of the will of a First Nations person;
The power of the Aboriginal Affairs Minister to disallow by-laws created by First Nations bands;
Restrictions on the sale of produce grown on reserves;
Restrictions on trade with certain groups of individuals; and
Provisions that allow for the establishment of residential schools.
Each of these sections reflects the paternalism of the Indian Act. In the case of wills, unbelievable as it may seem, a First Nations person must have his or her will approved by the minister of aboriginal affairs. As a First Nations man, I was born under the Indian Act, have lived under it — and not only will die under it, but will have it follow me into the grave! No other group in Canada is subjected to this kind of differential treatment by the government.
In this same vein, the minister of aboriginal affairs must approve all by-laws passed by band councils. These councils should instead function like any rural municipality, with the simple requirement that all by-law changes be published in a manner that is accessible to band members. The bureaucratic red tape that ties up the by-law process makes it difficult for First Nations councils to govern efficiently.
As an RCMP officer, I learned about the need of band councils to act quickly to address problems on their reserves. In one typical episode, for instance, I was called in by a council member to apprehend a drug dealer loitering by a reserve school with large quantities of drugs on his person. As an MP, I’ve been called on to deal with similar problems. Recently, for instance, I was approached by chiefs on some of the reserves in my riding who expressed grave concerns about what happens on “cheque days,” when band cheques are distributed to members, and drug dealers and pill pushers suddenly materialize.
In both cases, the chiefs felt that that they did not have adequate by-law-making power to deal with these issues, because the process for creating by-laws was both paternalistic and cumbersome. The bands wanted the power to apprehend and deal with the perpetrators in their traditional ways. But any by-law would have to be sent to Ottawa for review and approval. In some cases, the process takes years.
The Indian Act likewise has produced constraints on economic development. For example, representatives from one of the reserves in Saskatchewan came to me to discuss their plan to create a special farming program for youth. The purpose would be to provide economic opportunity for the band and offer a program that would connect youth to their land in the historical tradition, as well as teach them the basics of agricultural marketing. But because of restrictions in the Indian Act, the produce grown on the reserve cannot legally be sold off reserve.
Another reserve was approached by business people to set up a potato farm on their land. Because it took so long to get ministry approval to sell their produce on the open market, the investors took their money elsewhere.
We are all aware of the great shame of the residential schools. An apology was given to the survivors by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 11, 2008. Residential schools no longer exist, thankfully, but the mandate for them still exists in the Indian Act. My grandparents attended residential schools, so I am aware of the lasting effect they have had on my people. I feel strongly that all enabling references to residential schools should be removed from Canadian law.
These are just a few examples of the debilitating effects of the Indian Act on the lives of First Nations people and the development of their communities. The time has come for Canada and First Nations to sit down together to find a respectful and viable path to the future.
Bill C-428 would require the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development to report to the House of Commons annually on progress made in collaboration with First Nations toward new legislation to replace the Indian Act. I believe that as a First Nations man and as an elected MP from a riding with a large First Nations community, I am fulfilling my responsibility to my constituents, to myself and my family, and to Canada, in putting this legislation forward. It is unseemly that in 2012, 136 years after the Indian Act became law, it still controls the lives and well-being of so many people.
Such a process, I believe, will ultimately transform the relationship between Canada and First Nations. I do not see this as a partisan exercise, but rather as an effort that will lead First Nations to a life of dignity, respect, prosperity and good health.
Rob Clarke, MP, Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, is chair of the Conservative Aboriginal Caucus.