This past week, Chiefs and their representatives from across Canada gathered in Vancouver for a Policy and Dialogue forum to talk about Strengthening Governments and Economies to move beyond the Indian Act.
Last July, the National Chief announced that he planned to move the First Nations beyond the Indian Act in 3 to 4 years. I have looked for a resolution of the Chiefs that would guide that action but have not yet found one. So I am not sure what the direction of the Chiefs is in this regard or what the plan, timeline and objectives are.
Over the years, many First Nations have been taking steps to get out of the Indian Act. Make no mistake, the Act is archaic, regressive and is holding First Nations back from development and leaves far too much power in the Minister of Indian Affairs.
In BC, many communities have been negotiating treaties in an attempt to get out for under the Indian Act. There are many complex issues and so there are only a few treaties that have been concluded and implemented to date. There are other First Nations have negotiated Self Government Agreements or had their own legislation passed.
When talking about getting out from under the Indian Act, the biggest issue is reserve lands. If the Indian Act was to disappear in three years, what would be the status of reserve lands? They would disappear along with the Indian Act as well as the fiduciary obligations of the federal governments to First Nations people and our lands. If reserves were to disappear, would the lands simply become provincial privately owned lands by the nation or parceled up for those members who have property? What about those members who don’t have property yet, they would end up with nothing and how would that be addressed? Would the former reserve lands still be federal lands under section 91(24) where the federal government could still pass laws about them? This is one of the biggest challenges as the treaty tables is the status of lands once out of the Indian Act and would not be any different across the country.
Another big issues for First Nations is taxation. Reserves and transactions on reserves, salaries earned on reserve are not taxable. If the Indian Act is gone, lands would be taxable, salaries and all purchases on the lands that were once reserves. Many First Nations have refused to give up their freedom from taxation status as set out under s. 87 of the Indian Act. A large negotiation to have with the Federal government and judging by all the treaties negotiated to date, the federal government position is that all First Nations people need to pay tax as very other person in Canada.
The other large issue is determining citizenship. If First Nations determine their own citizenship as they should and as set out in the Declaration of Indigenous Rights, how does First Nations work with the Federal Government to recognize our citizens. It is on a per capita basis that the Federal Government provides funding to First Nations and their interests is in keeping the numbers down as much as possible and so their interest is to continue defining our citizenship. Another tough negotiation.
There are many more issues of course, but the complexity of getting rid of the Indian Act is not so simple as setting out a time line.
First Nations want jurisdiction over their own lands, resources, and law making powers and many are asserting these powers in different ways. First Nations also want to negotiate with the government for themselves to determine their own future within their right of self determination. Dialoguing and sharing information and best practices is a good first step but in the end, the huge legalities of dismantling the Indian Act will take time and care by each and every First Nation. There is no one approach or melting pot formula to do this. First Nations certainly have the drive to get out from under the Indian Act but getting the political will of the Federal government to let go of the paternalistic “big brother” approach is a bigger challenge.
On February 22 and 23 the First Nations Summit, BC AFN, and UBCIC and Nesika Cultural Society hosted a conference on Heritage Conservation. Approximately 150 delegates attended. Delegates were very happy to be discussing the issues as the last forum held on this topic was over 20 years ago and was sponsored by the Archaeology Branch and not First Nations themselves. It was indeed a historic gathering. The elders told us repeatedly how important the work we were talking about was and how serious we needed to be.
The purpose of the forum was to review an Action Plan for the First Nations in the province to use to guide their work, the Leadership and the work of the Joint Working Group on Heritage Conservation that works with the province on addressing issues. Much discussion took place over issues like site alteration permits-the ability of the province to issue permits to alter a heritage or cultural site, the disturbance of burial sites and First Nations that are refusing to move their ancestors any more. Issues with enforcement of the Heritage Conservation Act was explored as well as the huge need to educate the general public, land owners and developers, real estate agents and local governments on the interests of First Nations in Heritage Conservation. The purpose of the Heritage Act is to conserve and protect Heritage Sites pre 1846 but the Act is about how you go about damaging, desecrating and altering those sites through a provincial process.
A draft Action Plan has gone out to every First Nation community for your review. Comments, additions, deletions can be made and sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 1, 2011. Another draft will be produced and sent back out to the communities for another review. It is the hope that the paper will be ready to adopted by the Chiefs Assembly in June. If communities feel they need more time, the Action Plan can also be adopted in September. Take the time to review the Action plan so that we can have a strategy to move forward in our issues relating to Heritage Conservation.
JAPAN, earthquakes, tsunamis and Nuclear Power Issues
My heart goes out to Japan all the people there who have been part of such loss and devastation to lives, homes, businesses and the lands and resources. Watching the news and reading newspaper accounts can only give us an idea of what the people in Japan are going through. I was very young when the tsunami hit Port Alberni in 1964 yet the events of that night and the clean up is clear in my mind and that was minor. How much more amplified is it for the people in Japan who had an earthquake and a tsunami. The issues of the nuclear power plant and its possible meltdown are very scary and its implications immense. Makes me glad that it is this province's law and policy to not develop nuclear energy. This earthquake and tsunami is a continual reminder to us as people to be prepared ourselves for such an earthquake or for those of us who live along the coast, a tsunami. Personal preparedness is so important, but as First Nations, ensuring that all buildings and facilities that will be built in the future are earthquake proof will help save lives in the future.