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First Nations ally with federal opposition

Treaty Indians

A brief history of the Indian Act

Enacted in 1876, the Indian Act was meant to solve the ‘Indian problem’ but has become an outdated and paternalistic piece of legislation.  Under the Indian Act, First Nations are essentially wards of Canada’s federal government.  Many believe the solution is to abolish the Act – meaning there would be no difference between First Nations and Canadian individuals under the law.  But 1969’s White Paper, put forward by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretien and meant to repeal the Act, was rejected by the Indian People.  First Nations want to preserve their special rights under the law, after all, Canada is composed of conquered First Nations territory.  First Nations leader Harold Cardinal said at the time:

“We do not want the Indian Act retained because it is a good piece of legislation. It isn’t. It is discriminatory from start to finish … but we would rather continue to live in bondage under the inequitable Indian Act than surrender our sacred rights. Any time the government wants to honour its obligations to us we are more than ready to devise new Indian legislation.”

Recent developments

The Supreme Court has attached a ‘Duty to Consult’ obligation should the federal government attempt to change the act.  Having grown used to majority control, Stephen Harper has eliminated the opposition’s ability to make legitimate amendments by passing all-encompassing Omnibus budgets.  December’s whopping Omnibus Bill including 64 changes to Canadian acts and regulations, incorporated are changes to the Indian Act and environmental protection laws.  This is all without consulting the Indian people.

Spence and Teepee

Spence on strike.

First Nations people have protested in huge numbers in response to this action.  “Idle No More” is a movement sparked by the Harper government’s Omnibus legislative changes to Indian affairs.  Its grassroots support and use of social media has prompted some to compare it to the Arab Spring.  Most prominent is Chief of Attawapiskat First Nation Theresa Spence’s hunger-strike which she has taken up in a teepee near Parliament Hill.  This hunger-strike has had two main effects.  First, it has caused National Chief Shawn Atleo and a delegation of other chiefs to make eight demands including having a seat at talks, greater opportunities for resource-revenue sharing, and the ability to change legislation that negatively affect Indian communities.  Second, by signalling yesterday she is ending the hunger-strike on the condition that Bob Rae and Thomas Mulcair press Harper on Atelo’s demands, the First Nations and the Idle No More movement have effectively allied themselves with institutions within Canadian parliament.  Increased democratic participation and cooperation have resulted in a unified Canadian opposition.  Harper is thus forced to consider the recommendations.

Harper, Johnston, and Atleo meet one year ago.

Harper, Johnston, and Atleo meet one year ago.

The bigger picture

Something historic is happening here.  The First Nations have historically appealed to the Queen through the Governor General in an attempt to go over the head of the feds.  Since refusing solid food, Spence demanded talks with Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston.   She didn’t get her wish but she has greased the wheels of progress.  Harper has refused to speak to her, but has spoken to a First Nations delegation.  The Queen had indicated to Spence to direct her complaints to federal ministers, and the opposition has taken up her cause.  Therefore the grassroots protest has been connected Canadian political parties.  Even if it takes an election to see serious progress, the First Nations concerns are being addressed in government.  One can only hope the outdated Indian Act is repealed soon.

Much of Stephen Harper’s popularity is based on his effort to exploit Canada’s resources for economic benefit. The conflict with First Nations may prove to limit Harper’s ability to do this. BC natives have been protesting the Northern Gateway pipeline. Unless Harper can find a way to effectively negotiate with First Nations, he may lose the political capital for not delivering.

In working to find a dignified resolution to Spence’s strike, Bob Rae has proven himself an effective negotiator when dealing with First Nations issues.  He has had experience working with First Nations in the past.  Potentially this could result in an upswing of Liberal votes in the election, and a cabinet position for Rae should the Liberals form a government.

by Dylan F


About Dylan Finlay

I studied History and Political Science at the University of Toronto. Since graduating I began writing/blogging.

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2013 by in Politics and tagged , , , , , , .

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