Unconditional – MP recalls his early understanding of the Indian Act

by Derek Cornet

Nine years after three British colonies merged to become the Dominion of Canada, the Indian Act was drawn up to guide the newly formed government’s relationship with First Nation communities across the land. Arguably one of the country’s most controversial acts, amendments have been made to it for more than 100 years leading up to the latest changes in December 2014. The following article is the first part of a series focusing on Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River MP Rob Clarke’s private member’s bill, its three-year process to become law and the reaction it provoked from First Nations leaders in the North.

MP Rob Clarke speaking in the House of Commons in Ottawa.

MP Rob Clarke speaking in the House of Commons in Ottawa.

An act respecting Indians, the lives of more than 900,000 federally registered individuals in Canada are affected by the statute on a daily basis. It’s the primary document in which the Crown interacts with 617 First Nation communities and its members and also served as the federal government’s tool to assimilate them into a Euro-Canadian state.

Passed in 1876 and still in force today, the Indian Act has been a controversial piece of legislation since becoming law. It recognizes who an Indian is and also delegates how reserves and bands can operate. The act has been changed dozens of times throughout the last 139 years – typically amended to serve the needs of the government at the time – and was last amended nearly three months ago.

Bill C-428 – also known as An Act to amend the Indian Act and to provide for its replacement – became law Dec. 16, 2014. The private member’s bill was drafted by Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River Conservative MP Rob Clarke who first sat down in the House of Commons after winning a by-election in March 2008. In December, he became the first aboriginal person to have a private member’s bill passed.

Clarke – the son of residential school survivors – was born March 2, 1967 in Kitimat, B.C. A member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, he grew up off-reserve in communities in British Columbia. He described being the only native student at school while growing up in Slocan and once again at a school in Quesnel.

Despite the fact he was among very few people of his racial group, Clarke said he adjusted  and worked hard to maintain his education through his early years. He noted he enjoyed being involved and was elected as the student vice-president at Quesnel Secondary School.

“You’re in charge of your own destiny,” Clarke remarked. “Going through the process and being integrated into the school system, there were no barriers. The barriers are yourself and I became actively involved in student council.”

It was only when Clarke was 18, however, he discovered the special nature of his identity. He needed a treaty card and, in the process of applying, he learned about the Indian Act and how it governed him.

But, the Indian Act only became more apparent in his day-to-day life once he began his career as a Mountie with the RCMP. Throughout 18 years of service with the force, Clarke was stationed at detachments across the province and lived on and off-reserve throughout that time. In his line of work he was compelled to uphold the Indian Act and charge individuals under its authority.

Among the the issues Clarke found bizarre was the need to seek approval to grow crops, charging individuals who were found to be intoxicated on-reserve and the leniency of punishment for those dumping toxic waste. It was issues Clarke encountered during his career which compelled his to strive for change.

“It was something I had in mind when I was running for the initial nomination,” Clarke said. “You had First Nations across the country wanting to get rid of the Indian Act, but no one had a solution. It’s old, outdated and its the oldest piece of legislation in Canada.”

Clarke reiterated Bill C-428 was of his own doing and stressed nobody on the Conservative party or otherwise asked him to introduce it. He also called it his greatest achievement since holding public office.

“Hopefully I can go down in history as the first brick in the foundation to start building First Nations self-governance,” Clarke declared.

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