Indian Act to be modernized: PM

by Phil Ambroziak

“It’s antiquated, outdated and non-relevant.”

That’s only some of the reasons Clearwater River Dene Nation Chief Roy Cheecham would like to see the federal government repeal the 136-year-old Indian Act. That may not happen, however, at least not any time soon. During a special Crown-First Nations gathering in Ottawa Jan. 24, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed the Indian Act would remain in place although there could be room for some “modernization.” This, he said, would improve relations between native communities and Parliament Hill, as well as First Nations’ social and economic participation in Canadian society.

While he does encourage a brighter future, Cheecham does not wholeheartedly agree with Harper’s outlook.
“I think doing away with the Indian Act is the way to go,” he said. “It is a document that was originally drafted to do away with the ‘Indian problem,’ as it was called at the time. As a modern Indian leader, I cannot support it.”

The Indian Act is legislation concerning registered Indians, their bands and the system of native reserves. It was enacted in 1876 and contains certain legal rights and legal disabilities for registered Indians. Certain aspects of the act have been amended various times over the years, but to people like Cheecham that is not enough.

“Within our local community, a regular topic of discussion is how we need to get out from under the Indian Act,” he continued.

According to reports, Harper said co-operation between the government and First Nations is necessary if First Nations are to adequately enter into Canada’s economy. The prime minister also believes replacing elements of the act with modern legislation would prove beneficial.

Cheecham said he encourages First Nations to approach the Indian Act one page at a time and to begin by taking the lead on practical matters they can address now. This, he said, will allow First Nations to move forward and encourage new initiatives.

Meadow Lake Tribal Council Chief Eric Sylvestre pointed out the Indian Act is a government-imposed piece of legislation that First Nations really have no say in.

“They’ve made changes to it over time, but as far as replacing it – that’s what we’ve essentially been working toward the last 20 years,” Sylvestre said in reference to self-governing efforts. “We won’t entirely be out from under the Indian Act until we put our own laws in place.”

In the meantime, Sylvestre said it is best to leave the act as is.

“We will have to wait and see if this (summit) was just a photo op or if the government is truly committed to First Nations issues across the country,” he said.

Cheecham, meanwhile, reiterated his desire to someday see the act abolished.

“I don’t want to see it improved upon, I want to see it done away with,” he said. “How can you improve on a document that was created as a way of leading to your extinction as a people? This is something that shouldn’t be dragged out to another generation.”

Efforts to modernize the act could be in the works, as Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River MP Rob Clarke plans to bring forth a private member’s bill in the near future entitled “An Act to Repeal the Indian Act.”

Clarke said the bill would serve as a means of opening the act up for further discussion.

“I can’t get into the details of the bill, but it will allow for further discussion on the matter,” Clarke said. “The prime minister said the Indian Act’s roots were deeply entrenched, but we also realize it is an outdated document that needs to be modernized, especially in terms of First Nations elections.”

Clarke added the Conservative government understands the act is broken, stating it dates back seven generations to the original definition of the word Indian. His private member’s bill is expected to come forward in May or June.

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