October 17, 1997 Halifax Herald

Beneath the Indian Act, many problems fester

Legislation designed to drastically revise the 1876 Indian Act, which was introduced last year by former Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin, died on the order paper. The present Minister, Jane Stewart, said she won't revive the proposed legislation because she doesn't want to impose changes on First Nations Peoples when they've made it clear that they oppose the legislation.

She declared: "I'm not going to introduce that; I'm not going to do anything until I know I've got the support. That's the nuts and bolts of it."

Thus, a thinly veiled attempt by the federal government to greatly reduce its constitutional responsibilities for Indians and Indian land was dropped. This latest attempt was one of many made since Confederation. The most blatant of these was the introduction in 1969 of a White Paper designed to quickly assimilate Native Peoples into the mainstream. The government of the day called it reform: I called it a flagrant attempt at cultural genocide. It was dropped after a storm of protest.

No knowledgeable person can deny that there is a need to u-date certain sections of the Indian Act. However, this can be done by reforming a few sections at a time; it isn't necessary to go all-inclusive. Attempts at massive changes will, because of the complex nature of the law, make the effort incomprehensible to all but the most enlightened.

As a former administrator of the Act, I can state that many of it's Sections are contradictory and thus are in need of clarification. Other sections are paternalistic and dated. For instance, the Sections governing band elections and band council procedures are so dated they have been described as having been imported in 1620 on the Mayflower.

Then there are the financial management Sections. These provide for very little financial accountability to band members from band councils, but they do provide that government can require minute accountability from Councils for itself, which it rarely does.

In the matter of recourse for Band members, this is how their complaints are handled. When a complaint alleging financial wrongdoing is lodged by a member against a band council or the Indian Affairs Department, Indian Affairs is the investigator.

When Indian Affairs undertakes an investigation into a council's alleged abuse of financial authority, it retains the right to deem weather monies spent for matters not provided for in annual budgets are criminal misappropriation or not. Needless to say, it rarely deems these occurrences to be such. The main reason for this is that most of the contracts the department has with band councils and their organizations are worded in such a manner that they are virtually unenforceable.

Many departmental officials recite that this practice is an attempt by them to implement self-government. However, after 30 years of trying, the only things the policy has accomplished are perpetuating the existence of Indian Affairs, and created in First Nation communities across Canada a pervading atmosphere of profound mistrust of band leadership.

To help keep a lid on the financial messes created by this policy, Canada's Auditor General has been barred from tracking funds allotted to band councils. Thus, those expenditures of public funds are not subject to public scrutiny. Personally, I would love to see the Auditor General get up in Parliament and expose the financial messes allowed to develop at the band level by the department. I think the general public would be shocked out of their socks by the revelations.

The financial messes are widespread. In the Atlantic area, many such events have made headlines. In many cases, the messes are still festering. In all cases, band members have received very little satisfaction or redress for their legitimate complaints.

This leads to mentioning the current headlines involving the situation on the Stoney Nation Indian Reserve in Alberta. In this instance, a provincial Judge, John Reilly, became so frustrated by the apparent disinterest shown by Indian Affairs towards the personal hardship of the band members he was dealing with, when adjudicating the criminal charges lodged against them by the Crown, that he ordered an inquiry into the band's social conditions and into allegations of political corruption and financial mismanagement. He stated: "I think there's been a lot of injustice on the Stoney Reserve for a long time, and that it's been allowed to happen because it's been kept hidden."

The Alberta government went to court to try to overturn the order, claiming the judge exceeded his authority. To my knowledge, no resolution of the matter has yet been issued. In the meantime, guess who steps in to investigate the matter? If you didn't say the Department of Indian Affairs, you’re a dullard!

If allegations of misuse of federal funds were made against a non-Indian entity, the Auditor General's office would be involved in the investigation. Why not the same in cases involving band councils?

Requiring a lower level of accountability from Native communities and individuals is very insulting to the intellect of our Peoples. The practice implies that white, elected, federal officials and their white federal bureaucrats have determined that First Nations Peoples are not capable of performing intellectually at the same level as whites. This is called racism, not self-government assistance!

Daniel N. Paul


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