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November 7, 2002 First Nations Act draws fire from SCPA panel



by Sylvain Comeau

Aboriginal speakers blasted the First Nations Governance Act at a panel discussion on March 11.

The FNGA (also known as Bill C-7), a piece of legislation now before the House of Commons standing committee on aborigi-nal affairs, is a bill aimed at providing a framework for native self-governance. But the proposed legislation has met with opposition from native groups, and speakers at the debate outlined some of the reasons for that.

David Newhouse, an associate professor at Trent University’s Department of Native Studies, said that the FNGA is a continuation of old colonial policies toward natives in this country.

“The conclusion of the FNGA was that natives have a right to self-government, but with an important caveat; self-government within the Canadian federation,” said Newhouse. He then provided a brief history of Canadian legislation relating to aboriginals, and the attitudes which underlie them.

“We have to remember that aboriginal issues within Canada are generally framed within the ideological discourse of ‘problems’. ‘The Indian problem’ has been part of the discourse, even before confederation in 1867. So to understand the logic of the FNGA, we have to go back to the mid-point of the 19th century, and take a look at the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869.”

Those two acts provided the philosophy behind the Indian Act of 1876, according to Newhouse.

“The 1857 Act was based upon an assumption about the inherent superiority of British ways, and the need for Indians to become Christians and farmers. The Act called for the segregation of Indian lands into individual pieces of property.”

Newhouse noted that aboriginal leaders of the time petitioned for the repeal of the 1857 Act.

“In the 1860s, Indians had developed their own definition of civilization: a continuation of traditional culture within an agricultural context. They would have civilization, but would not submit to assimilation.”

Newhouse argued that not much has changed since that time, except that the language of assimilation has been tempered.

“The way forward is to begin a different kind of discussion; one that focuses on the type of civil society, political culture and aboriginal governments that we want to develop.”

Patrick Brazeau, coordinator of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Governance Legislative Initiative Secretariat, argued that participating in the FNGA legislation represents an opportunity for aboriginals.

“A question we often ask ourselves is, ‘Why are we continuously being exposed to outdated, colonial ways of thinking and oppressed by federal legislation in the 21st century? But this broader issue is not part of the minister’s mandate at this time, and we understand that.

“However, our participation in FNGA has opened the door to discussing other issues, such as citizenship and membership, nation recognition, models of self-government in urban settings, and new band creation.”

Brazeau, who sat on the committee which tabled recommendations on changes to the Indian Act, was the sole dissenter saw some advantages to natives in the FNGA. Advisor to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Patrick Apikan was scathing in his attack on the FNGA.

“Most of you haven’t had a chance to look at the FNGA, and my best recommendation would be don’t look at it, because there’s not much there. Bill C-7 is the latest amendment to the Indian Act.”

The Indian Act “is an anachronism; it belongs somewhere, but not in the 21st century, not the 20th either, and maybe not even the 19th,” he said, waving his hand dismissively.
Apikan said the Council was actually uninterested in influencing the content of Bill C-7.

In consultation with the minister, “we came up with a way to shield ourselves. Gradually, it found itself into the legislation as it now stands: Clause 34, which says that the governor-in-council can exempt communities from the application of that bill. Exactly what we needed. As for the content of the bill, we didn’t care what was in it. We just wanted to be exempted from it.”

During question-and-answer period, Newhouse did sound a conciliatory note. He referred to the title of the 1997 book We Are Not You.

“If you say ‘We are not you’ long enough, people will cease to care. Why should you join the struggle if you are so different from us? We have to help people understand that this is not just an Indian struggle, it’s a human struggle.”

Students of the School of Community and Public Affairs organized the panel.