“Where there is no vision the people perish,” notes the author in Proverbs, an aphorism quite evident for ill or good with Canada’s First Nation peoples.
Recently, Canadians were shocked to discover how bad things had become on many Native reserves with recent events on Shamattawa First Nation in Manitoba. There, an 11-year-old boy died in a house fire treated by police as an arson-related homicide. The boy was under the care of Child and Family Services and left unattended in the home as the owners had left when the home ran out of fuel. It took three days for officials with the agency to discover the boy was dead.
The band’s fire department was not immediately available to respond to the emergency, as officials with the department were nowhere to be found when the fire occurred.
That was obviously a tragedy, and clearly, the vision of governance and shared community life is not working. Moreover, simply increasing funding for programs and services will not change conditions as the government already pumps billions of dollars into services for on-reserve Natives every year with little effect. Most of these service dollars are channelled through band councils, so they bear the primary responsibility for ensuring they are well-spent.
That’s problematic enough. But in addition, it’s difficult to create jobs as private enterprise is shackled by not only opposition from some reserve governments but also the Indian Act, so government dependency becomes a lifestyle. The lack of opportunity contributes to idleness and eventually dysfunction as individuals with great potential languish without goals to strive for.
Evidently, some indigenous communities won’t wait for Ottawa to provide another vision. Late last year, the Gitxsan people of northwest British Columbia asked federal Indian Affairs minister Chuck Strahl to revoke its Indian status, including its claim to tax exemption and guaranteed benefits that other Canadians do not enjoy.
In exchange, the community of 13,000 seeks more secure access to its natural resources. (B.C. is not covered by historic treaties so the Gixtsan must negotiate one.)
The Gixstan are not interested in a “parallel society” or as they put it, “We come to the table as committed Canadians, paying our taxes and contributing to the country. We seek no special status nor any parallel society. We want to live as ordinary Canadians in our own way in a multicultural society." In other words, the Gixtsan want to be treated as Canadians while retaining the right to be governed by their traditions.
Smartly, the Gixtsan prefer to avoid problems that come with delivery of services through on-reserve agencies. Rather than deal with politicized service delivery, they are willing to allow members to receive services through federal and provincial agencies, like other British Columbians.
The Gixtsan statement, called the Alternative Governance Model, breaks taboos and inspires thinking outside the box.
Much of the Gixtsan statement is similar to the failed 1969 White Paper. That document by the then-governing Liberal Party called for an end to special status and for the phasing out of Indian Affairs.
The problem with the White Paper, however, was that it was top-down and sought to impose change on First Nations without their input.
The Gixtsan proposal, however, comes directly from a Native community and represents the start of a conversation between government and the Gixtsan. In rejecting the politics of difference, the Gixtsan embrace a spirit of mutual understanding and shared values between themselves and Canadian society.
In Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State, political scientist Alan Cairns wrote of how it is important for communities within a nation-state to share common values as this reinforces bonds of mutual obligation between citizens. Otherwise, we become a society of strangers and suspicions grow.
The Gixtsan get this, and at the same time, desire to retain what makes them distinct, including their culture and form of governance. They want to be left alone, yet assume the common Canadian citizenship, or as they put it: “The Gitxsan do not want to be a burden on the Crown, we want to live free as Gitxsan people in Gitxsan territory. We want to participate fully in Canadian society.”
This is not a “left wing” or “right wing” proposal. Instead, it represents an indigenous desire to seek policy that works, whatever its source. What brings together indigenous leaders and much of the Aboriginal policy community is the desire to replace the Indian Act system with something better.
The Gixtsan deserve credit for articulating a different—and necessary, vision.