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Canadian Indian policy a dismal failure and should be changed to focus on individuals, not traditional bands

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Release Date: January 13, 2009

VANCOUVER, BC- Canada's current Indian policy is deeply flawed and will be unable to change and progress until the country moves away from the concept of Indians as a collective and parallel society and embraces the idea of Indians as individuals, argues Gordon Gibson in a new book published by the Fraser Institute.

"Our current policy presumes and enforces a relationship between the Indian individual and relevant collectives, a relationship that is biased against individual freedom and choice," says Gibson, a former B.C. MLA, noted author and public policy expert, and Fraser Institute senior fellow.

"It costs a ton of money and yields disappointment in return. This relationship has produced adverse social outcomes in health, education, life span, incomes, employment, substance abuse, violence, imprisonment, and so on, that are universally criticized."

The book, A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy, provides a dramatic new perspective on a continuing and seemingly insoluble problem. It goes to the very core of the most important moral question in Canadian politics.

Gibson provides a comprehensive overview of the history and applicable law relating to Indian policy.

"Mainstream law deals with the rest of us as individuals. Indian laws deal with Indians as members of a collective and have done since the "nation to nation" basis was established after contact by the British," he says.

Gibson uses the word "Indian" rather that the more politically correct "aboriginal," or "First Nation" because legal Indians are a much smaller group than "aboriginals" and have a different constitutional standing.

"We Canadians do not like to offend, but I would argue that reform will come sooner if the words we use necessarily confront us with the problems we would rather overlook," Gibson says.

Throughout A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy , Gibson returns again and again to the notion of Indians as individuals versus the existing policy treatment of Indians as part of a "collective."

"The people our Constitutions calls 'Indians' are ordinary human beings like the rest of us, with some additional rights. The standard model for thinking about Indian policy is fundamentally wrong, giving too much weight to the collective and too little to the individual," he writes.

At the same time, Gibson points out that opposition to basic change is immense, though he speaks respectfully of the many people doing their best in a tangled system, with existing incentives that can be perverse.

"For example, education poses a threat to the system because that provides an incentive for Indian youth to leave the reserve," Gibson says.

He suggests the current treaty process is designed to meet the institutional needs of elites and collectives, and does not necessarily accommodate the interests of individual Indians.

Gibson concludes that eliminating the poverty, despair and lack of education and employment opportunities facing Indians living on reserves will only come about by helping individual Indians make the most out of their individual lives.

This will not mean eliminating the choice of the parallel reserve system, but rather by adding new choices for individuals such as:

  • Providing a voucher system in education to be administered by parents, not the collective, allowing children to be educated at any school in the province chosen by the parents;
  • Making welfare funding available for income support according to local provincial standards and free from local politics, and administered by each province;
  • Providing funding for complete health care service delivery with on-reserve locations as negotiated with Band governments or accessible external facilities;
  • Reforming the current politically correct, parallel child-care system; and
  • Bringing accountability to Indian governments by sending much of current federal government funding to individuals instead, subject to a "tax back" by Chief and Council as approved by the local on-reserve voters.

"The new approach is simple: the touchstone is the individual, not the collective. The Indian tribe is not of paramount importance; that status is reserved for the Indian individual. The tribe is merely an instrument that individuals may employ more, or less, or not at all," Gibson says.