Changes to the Indian Act are a Step Forward

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Appeared in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal

In this light, the response of Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come of the Assembly of First Nations to the proposed changes to the Indian Act is immensely disappointing. He calls the bill a “racist document” and an attempt “to entrench Euro-Canadian models, principles and standards on our people.”

What does the legislation do? It expands powers given to native bands but requires that bands democratically elect their leaders through rules the bands themselves choose. Already self-governing bands are exempt. Bands with hereditary leadership may maintain it so long as band members agree and selection rules are put in writing. This prevents the intimidation that often occurs when rules are murky and the most corrupt and violent can bend the process to their ends.

The legislation extends the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to natives, something native women have long demanded. It requires band councils be accountable to band members, open up their finances, and face discipline from their own people.

The bill is supported by many native bands, by groups representing urban natives, and by the National Aboriginal Women’s Association. They find nothing racist or culturally imperialist about it. Support from women is hardly surprising since they are often the victims of discrimination and repression on reserves.

Chief Coon Come’s complaint is really that the bill will extend native sovereignty to all natives, not just the undemocratic councils, found on some reserves, that pay themselves immense salaries and benefit from graft, while their people rot in substandard housing, despite the billions Ottawa pumps into reserves.

But, just as no foreign dictator is likely to speak fondly of repression and brutality, Chief Coon Come is hardly likely to call for continued corruption and undemocratic leadership. Much better to label a bill – which promotes native rights and democracy – as racist.

This somehow hinges on the belief that democracy is a European idea that should not be imposed on other peoples. This view itself is racist – the idea that non-Europeans should not be trusted with freedom or the right to manage their own affairs. When the rhetoric is stripped away, that is precisely the view expressed by dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and ruling cliques such as Laos’s Communist party.

Democracy is hardly a European idea given that European dictators have used the same noxious argument. Hitler could expound at length on how degenerate democracy was foreign to German culture and its “leadership” tradition. Stalin could explain the evils of democracy and the need for a “dictatorship of the people.” Germans and Russians eagerly embraced democracy and freedom when liberated from their dictators.

Many native bands are already fighting corruption, which is hardly unique to natives, given the shenanigans in Ottawa, which would do well to increase its own transparency and accountability.

Chief Come Coon’s moral bankruptcy shows in his bizarre claim that native groups were inadequately consulted. He did everything in his power to prevent such consultation, ordering bands not to cooperate with the federal review.

Yet, over 200 chiefs and communities ignored Coon Come and participated. They want out from under an out-moded, colonial, truly racist 126-year-old Indian Act. They want reserve Indians to have real and full rights, including the right to replace undemocratic band councils. They want band resources used for the good of band members, rather than a few corrupt, rich band officials.

This, in part, the new legislation will achieve. It is far from perfect, but a good step in bringing rights and freedoms to Canada’s Indians and in opening up hope for a better future.

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