An Act That Disrespects First Nations


By Bruce Clark

The sad yet cliché pictures from the Attawapiskat First Nation have renewed the inevitable finger pointing and recriminations when ignorance meets unfettered political opportunism.

Photos of degrading conditions on First Nations communities (there’s plenty to choose from) produce benign  “tsk tsks” from shocked and sympathetic Canadians. And on the other hand racist condemnations from those who know nothing about the Indian Act, the treaties or the history of this apartheid, cripple the progress of the few Chiefs who have their peoples’ best interests at heart.

Other than passing through on the way to their cottages, most Canadians have never been on an Indian reserve or, for that matter, can say they are intimately acquainted with someone who lives on one of these colonial gulags.

Even though there are more and more First Nations people in college, the workforce and in positions of authority, many Canadians still buy into the stereotypes that are reinforced by the images of the fetid conditions of the reserves and the growing city slums.

Anyone unfamiliar with the facts hasn’t a clue about how an entire nation of people that thrived for centuries was transmogrified into a powerless class that invokes the unneeded pity of the liberal and the enmity of the bigot.

For thousands of years, societies of indigenous tribes inhabited the continent. They built communities, fought wars, developed medicine, farmed and fished. Some were peaceful and others even participated in the slave trade.  (The Haida were known to raid other tribes, enslave the men and woman and sell their fellow human beings to Europeans.)

When Canada was being settled, treaties were signed with First Nations to avoid a war that would certainly have been a one-sided slaughter. Treaties, that have rarely been honoured, and the Indian Act are major factors that have kept thousands of people living in deplorable conditions. In a supposedly “free and native land” known for its equanimity, the reserve system is Canada’s shame, and it has to change.

Billions of dollars have been wasted to prop up this continuing apartheid. So, who or what is to blame and why has there been so little reform?

The Indian Act, the racist legislation written by the Canadian government that impoverished and oppressed First Nations people, continues to restrict any economic growth that could improve the social conditions on reservations.

The Act dictated every aspect of Indian life.  The Christians didn’t like the pagan rituals the “savages” engaged in so the government simply outlawed dancing (there must have been Calvinists working on the Act) and other religious ceremonies. It was the first installment of a series of moves that attempted to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

The Act forced Indians to get permission from their government-appointed Indian agent to do almost anything including something as benign as leaving the reserve. It also made Indians “wards of the state” playing a huge part in the spiritual demise of a people.

The Act has been changed many times over the decades and it wasn’t until 1951 that an amendment was passed in the First Nations’ favour, finally making it legal for First Nations to pursue land claims. It wasn’t until 1960 that a First Nation person could vote in a federal government election without renouncing their status. (A clever ploy by the government to try and eliminate First Nations populations.)

The paternalistic government controlled every move the Indian made including their leisure time.  In 1930 the act was amended to:

…prevent a pool hall owner from allowing entrance to an Indian who “by inordinate frequenting of a pool room either on or off an Indian reserve misspends or wastes his time or means to the detriment of himself, his family or household.”

Because there’s nothing more frightening than a snooker-playing Indian.

What is, arguably, the most salient factor in the devolution of Canadian First Nations is the drastic change in the way community leaders were chosen.

The Indian agent, that pesky government toady, would pick a leader through the electoral system. Usually, those who converted to Christianity and scorned the traditional Chiefs became the new boss. Kiss enough ass and you get a portfolio, just the way it works in the Harper government.

Instead of following Big Bear or Sitting Bull because they were great medicine men or Tecumseh because of his prowess in battle, Indians were forced to participate in a faux democracy created by and controlled by their oppressors.

Before these changes were jammed into the lives of First Nations, leaders who earned the respect of their people were rewarded with loyalty. Now, a Chief pays for that loyalty in the form of empty declarations (like their white counterparts) or with the promise of a new washing machine.

(A friend of mine from Peguis used to joke that he knew when an election was approaching because he’d see a truck delivering appliances all over the reserve.)

There is no democracy on the reserve in the true sense of the word (power of the people.)  Since there is only a Chief and council and no official political opposition, residents of the reserve have little or no avenue of dissent when it comes to policies and decisions made by the “elected” office. Instead, those who disagree with the Chief or want to know how the reserve is spending its money are often shunned, cut off from any benefits they may be receiving or, in many cases, threatened.

The Indian Act has helped create autocratic fiefdoms that are more closely related to a despotically ruled Afghani village than the rest of Canada.

To further depress any subversive thoughts a Chief may have regarding the government, the unique financial relationship between colonialist and the oppressed inhibits conversation about change.

Money is transferred from the federal government and administered by the respective bands’ Chief and council.  There is little government oversight and remedial action is only taken when things really get out of control.

The Chiefs are being paid by the very government that is oppressing them, making them the Quislings of the First Nations world. It’s easier for the Chiefs to blame the government and ask for more money than it is to try and implement any type of change.  The government has the power to wrest control from the reserve leaving the Chief and council with no access to the money. Reservation politicians understand who butters their bannock.

The perverse financial relationship is tantamount to the British government underwriting Gandhi’s campaign against the Raj or the FBI financing Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement.

(Make no mistake. Those with cushy federal government jobs working for Aboriginal Affairs don’t want to see any change either.)

To quote Yogi Berra, “Unless things change, they’re going to stay the same.” The Canadian government must do away with the Indian Act and selfless, incorruptible First Nations leaders must step up to earn the respect of their people.

Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders would have been powerless without the support of poor African Americans and without his people’s loyalty, Gandhi would have just been an Indian walking around in a diaper.

One Comment

  1. John Kruizenga
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    Unless all of us are idiots , there comes a time when all of history has been reviewed and all the players have been convicted and all past remedies have been proven utterly useless , that we should be able to extrapolate the identities of underlying problems that CAN be solved…one at a time. This will take courage, integrity and ethics, all of them attributes that seem virtually non-existent among native leaders, politicians, bureaucrats and unconscionable contractors. These comprise the hordes that rob the women and children on Canadian reserves. No amount of money will sate the dragon that is devouring this people. Only radical change from within can save our natives .
    The parasites must be identified and eradicated before our First Nations can prosper.

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Stand Up Guy

Bruce Clark

Bruce Clark is a comic and playwright. He splits his time between Winnipeg and Palm Springs, CA.