Clashing visions at the First Nations summit -

Clashing visions at the First Nations summit

But maybe grounds for progress, too


The stark contrast between Stephen Harper’s defence of “incremental” change to the Indian Act and the demand of  key Aboriginal leaders for a much more dramatic new start looks likely to define today’s so-called Crown-First Nations Gathering.

“To be sure, our government has no grand scheme to repeal or to unilaterally re-write the Indian Act,” the Prime Minister said in a speech opening the summit in Ottawa. “After 136 years, that tree has deep roots. Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole.”

Of course, Harper didn’t advocate a shrugging acceptance of the status quo. Instead, he asked for cooperation from the gathered chiefs for replacing “elements of the Indian Act with more modern legislation and procedures, in partnership with provinces and First Nations.”

That’s the strategy the Conservatives are already applying. A key example: last month the government introduced the First Nations Elections Act. It aims to solve the problems that plague band council elections, particularly two-year terms dictated by the Indian Act, which don’t give councils enough time to enact reforms, and leave communities in permanent campaign mode. The new legislation would offer First Nations the chance to opt into an updated system with four-year terms and other sensible reforms.

Methodically fixing the Indian Act this way—one outmoded element at a time—holds obvious promise. But Jody Wilson-Raybould, Regional Chief of British Columbia, stood after Harper today to reject his approach. In a compelling speech,  the leader of We Wai Kai Nation called for more sweeping reform.

Wilson-Raybould proposed federal legislation that would created an efficient mechanism for First Nations communities that vote to no longer by governed by the Indian Act to make the shift to self-government. Under the current system, self-government is only possible after what she called  “interminable negotiations.”

“Unfortunately,” she said of Harper’s incremental approach, “this attempt to legislate aspects of self-government for us, to put it bluntly, and to say again with all due respect, is an exercise in neo-colonialism, and as history has shown will not work, however well-intentioned.”

That polite but firm refusal to accept the government’s approach won Wilson-Raybould applause from her fellow First Nations leaders. But the chiefs were silent when she made a point that must have hit closer to home—asserting that among many Aboriginals, distrust of Ottawa is rivaled by misgivings about their own local leadership.

“While our leaders have advocated and continue to advocate for change, back home on reserves many of our people are afraid and reluctant to vote ‘Yes’ to self-government,” she said. “Given the colonial legacy, they simply do not trust their band government.” She added, addressing the Prime Minister directly: “Nor, if we’re being frank, your government for that matter.”

It would be out of character for Harper, having committed himself to one course, to be deflected easily onto another. Still, Wilson-Raybould’s refreshing refusal to fall back on the tired, familiar, pointless blaming of Ottawa and Ottawa alone should have been enough to at least draw him a stride or two in her direction.

If there’s a breakthrough to be had, it will have to come from linking the acknowledgment that the Indian Act is horrible with an admission that the act has, over many decades, led to standard of on-reserve politics that is too often unacceptable. Somehow the two issues must be addressed in tandem.

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Clashing visions at the First Nations summit

  1. Good article JG. I think the lady nailed it too. I still recall a friend i truly respected on reserve telling me that he hoped his band didn’t get self govt; they weren’t ready or equiped for it yet, and it was no secret the band members had about as much [dis]respect for the band council as they did for the federal and provincial govt.
    I rarely if ever agree with this govt, but fixing governance on the reserve itself will help alot. Whether this govt can accomplish that without being tempted to introduce an element of neo-con idealogy into the pie or generally interfere is debateable?

  2. “…today’s so-called Crown-First Nations Gathering.”

    Is there a reason for the use of the word Crown? 

    • Yes.  Many First Nations treaties, maybe most or all, were negotiated before we became a country and had our own government and all that.  I believe the Indian Act was also enacted, perhaps in another form, prior to our Dominion.  So in order to a) talk about the law as historically affecting First Nations and b) not accidentally enter into a separate and/or additional agreement with the Government of Canada, it is helpful to deal with the Crown and not the Government, even though the Government represents the Crown.

      I think.

    • The oh so handy-dandy legal fiction we must employ as a constitutional-reform-opposed country.

      Plus, Government-of-Canada-First-Nations-Gathering would have resulted in a #GoCFNG hashtag.

    • First Nations own land, like the Royals.  Thus natives/indians are equal to the Crown.

    • First Nations are under agreements with the Federal Government which represented the English Crown. Back in the day, when the land was un-seeded and un-safe and the Canadians and Americans were in a race for land.  The Natives/Indians signed a Treaty with Canada to stand with them, allow safe passage and share the land with the Canadian settlers.  Treaties are signed between two equal Nations.  Imagine that once the Natives/Indians showed and taught the settlers on hand to survive and seed this great land.

  3. There are ‘clashing visions’ because there are clashing cultures.  We never seem to remember that.

    • Who’s we? 

      • Anyone who isn’t FN.

  4. 1. I don’t understand.  Wilson-Raybould proposes new federal legislation to parallel the Indian Act to let bands that are ready opt out of the Act and straight into self government, and challenges bands to be worthy of that responsibility in their governance.  Harper proposes to create parallel legislation to the Indian Act to let bands opt out of parts of it, because some bands are not yet ready to forego all of it.  Those sound like very close positions to me.

    2. The problem with a quick shift to self-government is that it bypasses treaty negotiations where there are existing land claims. That can’t be overlooked.  But the idea is interesting in the context of reserves that are ready and don’t have a land-claim roadblock (no pun intended).

    • 1. Nobody is certain how such a thing would look, but some of the opposition comes from the conceptual difference between opting in to the colonial framework and opting out of it. There is much to be considered when dealing with sovereignty and self-determination. After all, it does include the right to make decisions that may not be immediately beneficial.  

      2. This is a valid concern. However, given the sheer length of time that it takes to deal with land claims (the root of many are in the centuries), waiting for the day when all land entitlement, alienation, or loss of use claims to be dealt with could be a much longer wait. Politically, it’s not realistic for First Nations to be expected to wait for more centuries. 

    • 1. That’ not how i read JG’s piece. She didn’t advocate  parallel legislation, she appears to argue for opting out of the indian act all together for those who chose or are ready to make the leap into self govt. She explicitly rejects Harper’s proposal as another neo colonial attempt to legsislate or control self governace via the Indian act in cooperation with the provinces. My guess is many FNs will see this as trying to both let the boat go and keep a hand on the rudder at the same time. So, they’re not that close from a FN’s perspective.

      2. Landclaims are only going on in BC and parts of the North [ i think] and where no treaties are extant. I see no reason to insist on LC’s being resolved first.

  5. Can anyone point  me  to where I can find transcript of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s speech at CFNG today? I watched it on CPAC, but would like opportunity to re-read? Thank you

  6. Governing oneself by one’s own rules is always preferable to being compelled to follow someone else’s rules. The Indian Act sets out the rules for Band Councils to follow, rules based on a very bureaucratic notion of what democracy is, thus imposing a corrupt form of government in circumstances where its nuances were, in a word, foreign. 
    The freedom of self-government will allows First Nations and other aboriginal communities to manage themselves, with the result that people will stand against corruption and press for justice in the best interests of the community. 

  7. If Harper were to instantly say ”yes” to all our demands he would be out of a job.
    I really don’t think he wants that, now do we? for us to govern ourselves? why not? we did way before the coming of Christopher Columbus. As for the Indian Act it should be abolished nobody wants to be limited, regulated or refrained. that would be a form of repression.