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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