The debate about the Indian Act and how to reconcile the elected councils and the traditionals over the past 40 years has been shaped by the sweeping intent of the White Paper of 1969, issued as Pierre Trudeau began his career as prime minister. It set out a liberal, multicultural challenge, an attempt to supersede the Indian Act by eliminating any special status for Natives altogether. This galvanized the Natives toward a defence of their special status, above and prior to the colonial settlers. It is a nice historical touch that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made native issues a priority, perhaps putting in place a new dispensation that has been germinating ever since. Some landmarks in the movement to replace the 1876 Indian Act include:
1. In 1973, the federal government commenced talks with the Yukon Native Brotherhood (later the Council for Yukon First Nations). In 1995, the Umbrella Final Agreement and the Final and Self-Government Agreements for four Yukon First Nations became law. Other Yukon First Nations subsequently signed final agreements, bringing most of the Yukon’s First Nations into a radically different relationship with the government of Canada. Reserves were replaced by settlement lands. First Nations governments operating under settlement agreements, with much wider scope than those regulated by the Indian Act, had to design and implement financial management regimes, and continue negotiations with federal and territorial authorities on financial/tax arrangements and transfers of programs and services. In the Yukon First Nations Land Claims Settlement Act (1994), the legislation noted, “When a final agreement is given effect, the Indian Act ceases to apply in respect of any reserve identified in the agreement as settlement land.”
2. The creation of Nunavut in 1999, an Inuit-controlled jurisdiction with the same range of powers as the other two territories, has raised even further the bar on Aboriginal governance.
3. An agreement with the Nisga’a and the governments of Canada and British Columbia was reached in 2000, eventually leading to a British Columbia referendum on treaty process in the province. The Nisga’a approach to self-government is markedly different from that laid out in the Yukon, where each of the 14 First Nations has a First Nations government operating under the Umbrella Final Agreement. The old Indian Act administration has been removed, and replaced with the Lisims Government. Wilp Si’ayuukhl is the principle lawmaking authority for the Nisga’a, established along traditional lines, with the Council of Elders, made up of Hereditary Chiefs (Simgigat), Hereditary Matriarchs (Sigidimhaanak) and other key Nisga’a elders providing crucial cultural leadership. Local matters are administered by the Village Governments established for the four main Nisga’a communities. In addition, the Nisga’a made permanent provision for Nisga’a living off the settlement lands, establishing Urban Locals in Terrace, Prince Rupert, and Vancouver.
The Nisga’a moved quickly to convert their settlement into an active and productive Nisga’a-led government, defining the contours of fisheries regulation, creating and amending electoral procedures, and otherwise handling the business of government and administration for the Nisga’a First Nation. As Kevin McKay, Nisga’a Lisims Government Chairperson commented,
The Indian Act was in our lives for approximately 131 years. Compare that to the history of the Nisga’a Nation: our oral stories tell us that we’ve been here since the beginning of time. The Indian Act was here for 131 years and it did a lot of damage. The demand of our people, especially our hereditary chiefs, matriarchs and respected elders, was that we achieve recognition of the land question in a just and honourable way. The agreement, by removing the authority of the Indian Act (save for the role it plays in defining whether an individual is an Indian under the terms of the Act), represented a major shift away from the long-standing system of external control.
4. Since the passage of the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act in 1984, nine Cree communities are not subject to the Indian Act or the band system. Instead they are represented by the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee), which signed an agreement in 2012 with the province of Quebec that would abolish the municipalities in the region and merge them with the Cree Regional Authority in a new regional government called the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Territory.
Many of these Aboriginal governments have reconstituted themselves along traditional lines, re-establishing the control of clans, recognizing the authority of elders and hereditary leaders, and/or permitting the exercise of Aboriginal customary law. As of 2016, 22 comprehensive self-government agreements had been signed by the federal government. Of those, 18 were part of a comprehensive land claim agreement or modern treaty.
Land is now controlled locally, under the terms of the settlement agreements. There has been a gradual reduction and eventual elimination of the First Nations tax exemption. The current push to finalize modern treaties in British Columbia and treaty negotiations in the Maritimes will, over time, result in even more status Indian communities agreeing to come out from under the Indian Act.
Ontario lags behind. In January 2014, the Nipissing First Nation adopted what is believed to be the first constitution for a First Nation in Ontario. It is supposed to replace the Indian Act as the supreme law that regulates the governance of the First Nation, but has not been tested in court.
The government of Canada has finally begun to address Canada as a Métis civilization, moving in other ways beyond the Indian Act, working with Métis communities and urban Aboriginal populations, groups ignored under the Indian Act. “Put simply, the Indian Act no longer dominates Aboriginal-government relations and no longer provides a singular focus for the management of status Indian affairs.”
An important nongovernmental organization helping to facilitate the transition is the Centre for First Nations Governance, a non-profit organization that supports First Nations as they develop effective self-governance after the demise of the Indian Act. It was founded as the National Centre for First Nations Governance in 2005 with federal government support, but was defunded in 2012 by the Harper government and reconstituted as a self-financing consultancy group.
The writing is on the wall for the Six Nations elected council and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The century-old legitimacy of the elected council vies with the millennia-old legitimacy of the confederacy. Government policy to support one side against the other undermines the search for an acceptable compromise. Understandably, there is no strong movement to overthrow the elected council, which carries out the important work of maintaining day-to-day life on the reserve. The unfunded Haudenosaunee Confederacy has the prestige of tradition on its side (David Suzuki paid a visit to them in 2014), but is in no position to usurp the elected council.
The HCCC and the SNEBC have parallel structures to govern and promote development, the SNEBC holding government funding and legitimacy as their trump card. The HCCC authorized the Haudenosaunee Development Institute to set up a corporation, the NewCo, to negotiate contracts with external economic corporations, as part of the next phase of development for the Haudenosaunee. The Joint Stewardship Board (JSB) is an agreement between the HCCC and the City of Hamilton for shared responsibilities and environmental guardianship of the Red Hill Valley. The HCCC worked to restore the Burtch Lands after its use and abandonment by the official government, but the Ontario government is determined to put the lands in its own control under the corporation it set up with SNEBC participation.
The SNEBC works directly with the official Canadian government on housing, education, and infrastructure. They hosted the North American Indigenous Games, Champion of Champions Pow Wow and the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in 2016–2017. Both are present at international fora such as UNDRIP. The dual authority weakens the overall authority of the natives in dealing with the Canadian government, but things still get done.
The number one priority for both SNEBC Chief Ava Hill and the HCCC is recovering some of the land stolen over the past two-and-a-half centuries. Second is recovering some of the revenue that all of the Haldiman Treaty lands are producing for Canada every day. Third, these resources must be used to build or rather rebuild native life. Outreach to the broader society is also a priority. Natives traditionally have been generous and trusting, which accounts for how easily they were conned into giving everything away to a European money- and private property-oriented society.
The SNEB have a tourism program, offering participation in traditional ceremonies, art and sports events, canoeing by moonlight. An innovative example of this outreach is the program of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation (MNCFN), which brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth together to learn about the history, people and ecology of the Credit River. Indigenous elders and leaders lead workshops run by the environmental group Ecosource. Carolyn King, who led a workshop about the history of the MNCFN, told the Toronto Star it is important to give youth “a more intimate look at, and relationship with, the First Nations community, a first step to creating and building relationships. The Indigenous youth who participated were a very important contribution.” Joseph Pitawanakwat, from Manitoulin Island, a member of the Wikwemikong First Nation, and founder of Creator’s Garden, ran the workshop about the significance of plants along the Credit River.
This initiative is a hint of how a real Métis civilization can come about. It relies on a deconstruction of the “colonial syndrome” as outlined in Part 1, a renewal of human-based civilizational thinking that arose at the same time as the native civilizations were being destroyed: the radical rejection of imperialism and racism proclaimed for the first time in 1917 in Russia. Communism became imperialism’s mortal enemy, much more worrisome at the time than the defeated native resistance. Not surprisingly, communists were hounded and vilified much as natives were through the 20th century, even as they fought for fundamental human rights.
But it was not only communism that was anti-imperialist and anti-racist. Islam promoted this from the 7th century onward, and Muslims suffered the same travails as did Canada’s native peoples in the 19th–20th centuries. Now that communism has been defeated, it is possible — necessary — to go back to the drawing board to fashion a new Canadian identity, incorporating the anti-racism of the communists, Islam and the native traditions as embodied in the Great Law of Peace. We are beginning this very haltingly, though pipelines, resource exploitation, and dams still have the upper hand, and our cousin Israel continues to remind us of our past and present sins toward natives, both Canadian and Palestinian.
Already one-third of Canadian native peoples are Métis, that is, intermarrying and assimilating naturally to the dominant colonial, immigrant culture. The new popularity of all things native, the rediscovery of culture, languages, ethos, is encouraged by new immigrants, especially Muslim, as Aalia Khan, the leader of the nature walk through Mississauga’s Creditview Wetland underlines.
Islam is now the second largest religion in Canada. There is much in common between Islam and native cultures. Perennialism is a perspective in modern spirituality that views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth from which all doctrine has grown. The Swiss Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998) was first attracted to Hinduism before converting to Islam in Algeria in 1932. He lived with and wrote about the Plains Indians in the US, emphasizing the commonalities between native religions and Islam.
Canada’s special place in world culture will come, not through its colonial past, which created a rich but exploitive “civilization,” but through its multiculturalism, tempered by the precious heritage of our native peoples. The Great Law of Peace is the foundation of renewal, and is very much in line with Islamic teachings on governance and relations with nature. Muslim Canadians can find common ground with Canada’s native peoples; for Torontonians, that means working with the Six Nations as the people whose land became Toronto.