True self-government for aboriginal Canadians is impossible as long as the Indian Act reigns supreme. The promise of Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to work to get rid of the act in five years is a refreshing statement, and it shows a new relationship may, with political will, be within reach.
Mr. Atleo described the Indian Act as "a collapsing house, falling apart brick by brick and bashed by the courts," called on first nations leaders to propose alternatives within two years, and proposed a new "Ministry of First Nation-Crown Relations."
The relationship has changed in the 42 years since Jean Chrétien first proposed abolishing the act. Residential schools have closed; aboriginal peoples are more likely to be partners in, and beneficiaries, rather than opponents, of resource development.
But the essential governing framework for Canada's one million-plus Indians, even for many of those living off-reserve, is the Indian Act. It defines who is an Indian and gives the Indian Affairs minister great latitude in local decision-making. Canada's $7-billion-plus Indian Affairs budget is still controlled in Ottawa.
Replacing the Indian Act could mean an end to colonial land-ownership rules, which limit the ability of Indians to own private property on reserves. A new relationship could help first nations create partnerships and develop their own institutions to solve lingering problems with poor health, insufficient education and unemployment. Reform could also equalize relations between on- and off-reserve Indians.
Change will not come easily. Many more new treaties will have to be signed, and 594 specific claims, dealing with obligations under past treaties, are still under dispute. Most band councils are ill-equipped, by themselves, to take on all the responsibilities of government.
First nations will need to recognize that some of the benefits of the current relationship - exemption from certain forms of taxation, for instance - carry the ring of dependency and must be shed or reduced. (Mr. Atleo's commitment to look for more corporate sponsorship, weaning AFN off federal government grants, is a small indication of what might be possible.)
Successive governments have removed the worst excesses of the Indian Act. But the act remains. Mr. Atleo's challenge is one that political parties and first nations of all stripes should take up.
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