MP Rob Clarke seeks amendments to Indian Act

by Phil Ambroziak

It’s time to bring the Indian Act into the 21st Century.

Rob Clarke, Conservative MP for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, firmly believes this to be the case, as evidenced by a private member’s bill he introduced to the House of Commons for first reading June 4.

“When I was an RCMP officer, I remember being stationed at First Nations communities and having to enforce the Indian Act,” Clarke explained.

“It’s something that dates back well over a hundred years and something I believe to be paternalistic, outdated and archaic. I find it to be a very frustrating piece of legislation that basically treats First Nations individuals as children.”

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

While Clarke’s bill does not call for the entire elimination of the Indian Act, if passed it would do exactly as its name implies – “amend the act and provide for its replacement.”

According to Clarke, the bill would remove many outdated and unused sections including the removal of all references to residential schools. It would also repeal the Wills and Estates sections, and return control over the publication of bylaws to First Nations governance bodies.

“I want to take out all of this archaic stuff, replace, amend or repeal it, and see what we’re left with,” Clarke noted. “When it comes to residential schools, we recognize the hardships that took place. It was not a good point in Canada’s history, but if it remains in the act, there’s a slight chance it could somehow come back – I don’t want that. Most people may not be aware, but First Nations people are born under the Indian Act and they die under the Indian Act. Any Canadian can put a will together, have it witnessed and it becomes legally binding. First Nations people do not have that opportunity. Their estates are administered by the minister. I also feel First Nations should be able to establish their own bylaws, much like any municipality.”

When interviewed earlier this year, 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 efforts to establish self-governance. “We won’t entirely be out from under the Indian Act until we put our own laws in place.”
Clarke believes his proposed changes could eventually lead to just that.

“We’re already seeing some communities coming forward, progressing and being very active contributors to the economy and to the workforce – there is a lot of potential out there right now that’s not being utilized,” he said. “Once we have economic development, you’re going to see communities begin to thrive. This isn’t about aboriginal against non-aboriginal – this is 2012, someone needs to bring this to the table.”

Clarke also expressed how the bill calls for the minister of aboriginal affairs to report annually to the House of Commons through the aboriginal affairs committee on progress made toward fully replacing the Indian Act. This process, he stated, would include a full consultation with First Nations in a true partnership.

“Everyone keeps talking about eventually getting rid of the Indian Act, but whenever someone brings the idea forward there are people out there who claim they were never consulted,” he said. “If they take the time to read this bill, they will understand there will be lots of time for consultation, as it allows an opportunity for everyone to come forward with their ideas. There are more than 600 First Nations in Canada – we’re not going to get a consensus.”

When news of Clarke’s private members bill initially broke earlier this year, Clearwater River Dene Nation Chief Roy Cheecham said the Indian Act is something he does not want to see any improvements made to.

“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.”

The private members bill is expected to receive second reading in September or October, at which time it will be open to debate.

“I’m hoping for an open, honest debate,” Clarke said. “This is a non-partisan issue we need to move forward with.”

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