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 Universitys 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
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 ministers 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 havent had a chance to look at the FNGA, and my
best recommendation would be dont look at it, because theres
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 didnt 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, its a human struggle.
Students of the School of Community and Public Affairs organized the