Wednesday, July 18, 2001 Back The Halifax Herald Limited
Chiefs urged to stand firm on right to govern selves
Indian Act changes aimed at political, fiscal accountability
Tim Krochak / Herald Photo
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come talks to native leaders in Halifax on Tuesday.
By Michael Lightstone
Amid calls for unity and firm resolve, Canada's native leaders appear unsure on how best to fight Ottawa's plans to legislate the way First Nations should govern themselves.
Delegates at a national aboriginal convention in Halifax on Tuesday heard proposed changes to the Indian Act, dealing with the political and fiscal accountability of native bands, are misguided and hurtful.
But forming a united front of chiefs attending the Assembly of First Nations annual conference is proving to be difficult. Some native leaders are already talking to the federal government about the controversial proposals, while others say a native-run agenda is needed to set the tone of future negotiations on any changes to the law.
The Indian Act has remained largely unchanged since it was passed in 1876. Ottawa is holding public consultations on planned amendments this summer, but many bands - including those in Atlantic Canada - have refused to participate.
National Chief Matthew Coon Come said natives must stand together if they hope to determine their own destiny.
The assembly's executive committee presented a proposal for a strategy dealing with Indian Act amendments. A separate proposal was submitted by elders, though it closely resembles that of the executive committee.
"We will need to mobilize as never before," Chief Coon Come told delegates. "We will have to become a political force to be reckoned with."
Aboriginal governments have been taken to task for stories of fiscal mismanagement and serious election problems. Critics have charged the Chretien Liberals are pushing for change simply to placate stinging attacks from the Canadian Alliance.
Motion calls for ouster of Coon Come
Chief Coon Come said the only legislation Parliament needs to pass "are laws that recognize our rights to govern ourselves."
He said most First Nations have rejected Ottawa's process to overhaul the Indian Act but acknowledged some are taking part in talks, "allowing the (Indian affairs) minister the opportunity to say his act is based on consultations with First Nations."
Among the assembly's governance proposals:
- revise the timeline so the process is slowed down;
- form a joint planning committee with the federal government;
- appoint a council of experts made up of native and non-native advisers; and
- set up a joint legal team with Ottawa to draft legislation and assess legal implications.
Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault was invited to address the conference but declined.
In a July 16 letter to chiefs, he said "no item is off the agenda" and called on native leaders to work with the government.
"There are a variety of opportunities now before us to improve the process to accommodate the differing interests involved," Mr. Nault said in his letter.
Ottawa hopes to introduce new legislation in the House of Commons this fall.
Assembly Vice-Chief Ghislain Picard, who represents Quebec and Labrador, urged his colleagues to boycott public consultation meetings.
He said chiefs should have a plan B, should the organization's governance proposals be rejected.
Delegates are to vote on the Indian Act issue before the conference ends Thursday.
One native observer who is not a delegate said it's almost impossible to reach a consensus on what to do about Ottawa's plans for the Indian Act.
Dwight Dorey, who heads a national group of off-reserve aboriginals, said regionalism and community interests will probably always come into play.
"That's pretty evident in the debate here," he said in an interview. "And the extent of that debate is only within the Assembly of First Nations."
President of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Mr. Dorey leads about 800,000 off-reserve natives and Metis. He said his organization has discussed Ottawa's proposals and is preparing a response.
"I'm currently in the process of working out the final details of a consultative process with the minister regarding the whole governance initiative," he said.