The Reactionary Entrenchment and Expansion of the Existing Indigenous System

Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary

While the Prime Minister is a sincere man who honestly believes that he is doing the right thing by introducing legislation that will permanently entrench the system of indigenous separateness that the chiefs are insistent on both maintaining and expanding. He has promised Indigenous leaders that once his government uses its majority to get this legislation passed, it will be virtually impossible for succeeding governments to change it. Canada will have an expanded set of separate laws for Indigenous people for all time.

We have not yet seen what the legislation will look like, but if the Prime Minister is true to his word, the legislation will move this country well along the path toward changing our federal system. Instead of having two houses – provincial governments and the federal government – there will be a third: an Indigenous Parliament. We have no idea how this radical new concept will work. The legislation is also likely to advance the current push to have virtually all of Canada regarded as “treaty land” – the subject of competing claims, endless litigation, and all the business uncertainty this will entail.

What the Prime Minister and the chiefs consider progress is, in fact, the reactionary entrenchment and expansion of the existing Indigenous system – the same system that has failed both Indigenous people, and Canada as a whole, so spectacularly over the last 100 plus years. If the Prime Minister and the chiefs are allowed to succeed in this plan, Canada will be saddled with a new, and even more cumbersome and expensive version of the albatross that is The Indian Act. This is the same Indian Act that hampers Canada’s economic progress, while failing to solve the problem of chronic Indigenous poverty.

The changes introduced by the federal government will inevitably give the chiefs even more power and more money, despite the fact that it is the chiefs who are mainly responsible for keeping the stagnant Indian Act and system firmly in place. It is almost certain that under the new legislation Indigenous people will continue to be treated as property belonging to a tribe, as opposed to the way all other Canadians are treated – namely, as individuals. The Prime Minister will believe he has done a good thing by pleasing the chiefs but it will be a step backwards for Canada.

The historical irony about these radical changes that the current Prime Minister is proposing to inflict on the country are polar opposites of what his father wanted to do. In fact, Pierre Trudeau would have been horrified by the idea that a permanent apartheid system – based on race – would be considered progress. Pierre Trudeau was witness to the second world war, and had seen what ethnic and racial divisions did to the countries of the bloodlands of Europe. He was no fan of those divisions, and strongly believed that a country should have one set of laws for all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnic origins, and regardless how long their ancestors had lived in the country. His plan was to abolish The Indian Act, compensate people for lost rights, and move towards a country that had one set of laws for all of its citizens.

When it became clear that the chiefs had defeated his plan to abolish The Indian Act, he bitterly told the chiefs, (who insisted that the Act must remain in place, and their positions of power not be changed in any way): “If you insist on staying in the ghetto forever, then stay there”.

Since the Pierre Trudeau’s plan to finally end the disastrous indigenous apartheid system failed, right through to the present time, an unholy alliance between the chiefs and Ottawa has kept the The Indian Act, with its reserve system – a proven failure – in place. Ottawa writes the checks to the chiefs, and asks few questions.

Now, the Prime Minister wants to expand this shameful alliance and cement it in place forever.

The chiefs have found a Prime Minister who is prepared to make that place in the ghetto permanent and irrevocable. He is a well-meaning man, but he “knoweth not what he dost” on the Indigenous file. Instead of expanding and entrenching this apartheid system, he should complete the job his visionary father tried to do, and begin the long, hard job of dismantling it. True reconciliation means breaking down the barriers that divide people, and not building new ones. The separate system, with its separate laws, is the barrier.

Pierre Trudeau was wrong about one thing: it will not be the chiefs who will occupy the ghetto that he spoke of. They will do fine, with the increased power and money this extension and the expansion of the indigenous apartheid system will bring. It will be the chronically unemployed indigenous people who now live hopeless lives on reserves, or in the rough parts of cities, like Winnipeg and Regina, who will stay in that ghetto. And Canada will watch as its competitive position continues to slide.

The federal government’s plan will be a giant step backwards. Is it time to heed the words of Pierre Trudeau, and begin moving towards a country with one set of laws for everyone?

His son might choose not to listen, but we should.