INDIAN ACT COMMENTARY:
FIRST NATIONS FACE HISTORIC TURNING POINT.
The North Bay Nugget: Tuesday July 9, 2002Editor's Note: The North Bay Nugget invited Grand Council Chief Vernon Roote of the Anishinabek Nation to comment on the federal government's plans to renew the Indian Act.
Opinion: Guest Column by Vernon Roote
The governance of our First Nations is firmly rooted, not in the Indian Act, but in our own traditional systems.
For thousands of years, our people and communities were highly organized and self-sufficient, and thrived in populations much greater than today.
For thousands of years, Anishinabek communities have used their original governance institution, the Clan System, for the governance of their communities. Within the Clan System, they governed their communities based on the sacred instructions given to us by the Creator, the principles of the Seven Grandfather teachings of Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility and Truth.
During the last 150 years the Anishinabek way of governance -- the only way we knew -- was suddenly and forcefully replaced by a European governance system. The turning point was the implementation of the Indian Act.
As individuals, the Indian Act governs all aspects of our lives. From the day that we are born, a government official determines if we meet the definition of a "status Indian." As we go through life, the Indian Act is checked to determine if we are meeting its education requirements. As we reach adulthood, the Indian Act is checked to determine if we are entitled to build our homes on our land. When we pass into the Spirit World, the Indian Act is checked to determine if we are entitled to be buried on our land. It is all-encompassing.
As communities, the Indian Act governs all aspects of our society. It stipulates how we are to conduct the election of our leaders. It prescribes how our leaders are to govern our communities. The work our leaders do, including resolutions of council (Band Council Resolutions) and First Nation bylaws, must be reviewed by the Department of Justice and approved by the Minister of Indian Affairs. This high degree of regulation of community activities has been developed without involvement of our people, and without our consent.
Our communities have often attempted to maintain our self-sufficiency. For example, M'Chigeeng First Nation ran its own elections under laws that were developed and passed by its community members. Unfortunately, the Minister of Indian Affairs did not approve those laws and does not recognize the elected Chief and Council. In fact, the Minister has unilaterally decided to penalize the community by withholding funding.
Recently, the Minister of Indian Affairs has opted to renew the Indian Act by tabling the First Nations Governance Act (FNGA). This act will put the onus on individual First Nations to establish their own governance, financial and accountability codes. As a result, Canada could be inundated with over 630 mini-Indian Acts, all distinct from one another, with the same paternalistic top-down requirements imposed by the Minister. In fact, this legislation ensures control remains with the Minister of Indian Affairs' office.
Across the country, First Nations differ about the application of the proposed legislation. Some are dead-set against it, stating that the only acceptable measure is to repeal the Indian Act as a whole. Others feel the FNGA may be a positive step toward reforming the Indian Act. In my opinion, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to reconstruct our traditional forms of government and, at the same time, to update them to meet the challenges at hand. For too long, First Nations have been sidetracked by the enactment of federal laws and the imposition of government policies. For far too long, we have believed people who tell us that we need partnerships or agreements with outside governments to address our own community issues.
First Nations have to look beyond the Indian Act and the structures it has created and begin to look at our own structures that are entrenched in thousands of years of history and traditional knowledge.
In reality, we must begin doing these things for ourselves again. For the Anishinabek Nation, we have embarked on our own path -- a path of negotiation with Canada. We hope the self-government negotiation process will allow us to restore the recognition of our jurisdiction over our Nation in the eyes of Canada and enable First Nations to create our own laws with respect to education, definition of our membership, selection of leaders, provisions for appeal and redress, and accountability. Each First Nation should have a membership code, an election code and an accountability code that reflects its own customs, traditional forms of governance and unique needs. Ultimately, we hope this process will give us the tools for governance and economic self-sufficiency to determine our own future and to come out from under the oppression of the Indian Act.
The Anishinabek Nation will continue to negotiate with Canada for an acceptable alternative to the Indian Act in order to improve our governance, but ultimately, it is up to each First Nation community and its citizens to determine their own destiny. That is what self-government really is. Make no mistake. We stand at an historic turning point in our history. Change is in the air -- change that will put the tools of governance and economic self-sufficiency into the hands of First Nations. We can choose to develop and utilize the tools of change ourselves or, we can wait for the federal government to do this for us. We can choose our own path, or we can follow the one that Canada is setting out for us.
Grand Council Chief Vernon Roote is the elected leader of the Anishinabek Nation's 43 Chiefs in Ontario, for whom the Union of Ontario Indians serves as a political advocate and secretariat.