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Chiefs’ Governance Committee Discusses Legislative Changes

Vivienne Beisel-McKay

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      SUMMER EDITION 1991      v20 n03 p05  
A dirty word to some, pie in-the-sky to others, Aboriginal self-government inspires confusion in most of us. To many Chiefs, however, self-government is concrete and attainable. On July 11 and 12, the Chiefs' Governance Committee (CGC) met in Saskatoon with Band and Tribal Council leaders and delegates from Indian Affairs to discuss legislative reforms that would enable First Nations to exercise their inherent right to self-government.

Through the treaties, First Nations ceded some of their rights but retained jurisdiction over their own autonomy. Many chiefs felt that the Indian Act and the Department of Indian Affairs are at odds with the treaties. "The Indian Act was a clear attempt to dismantle Indian self-government," declared Vice-Chief Dan Bellegarde.

The Chiefs attending the governance conference would ultimately like to replace the Indian Act with their own legislation at the Band and Tribal Council levels. Former AFN Chief David Ahenakew stressed that, "without Indian law we're lost." The Indian Act and self-government cannot occupy the same space. The Indian Act has to be replaced by law that is Indian developed and Indian controlled.

"As treaty Indians we view ourselves as Nations who entered treaty as equal Nations with Canada," explained Isadore Campbell, Vice-Chief of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC). "Fundamentally, Canada does not recognize and respect the treaties it made with Indian Nations ... While we look at life through treaty glasses, Canada looks at us through Indian Act glasses ... We see ourselves as equal partners with Canada with special rights negotiated under treaty. Canada sees us as wards of the state, dependent on Canada under the Indian Act."

Many bands in Saskatchewan are in the process of negotiating self-government from the initial research stage to the framework agreement stage. The MLTC is the furthest along the road to self-government, seeking maximum authority over their own constitution, band membership, health and education, and much more.

"Our initiative is being pursued under the federal government's community based self-government negotiations policy," said Campbell. "To reshape [the Indian Act] and to rewrite it is insufficient because the fundamental basis for it is wrong ... We will never accept the Indian Act."

The MLTC has been criticized for exercising delegated powers instead of their inherent right to self-government. Campbell disagrees. It is his opinion that the MLTC is "putting their rights on paper and making them real."

At least a few of the Indian intelligencia are not sold on the idea of replacing the Indian Act with Band or Tribal Council legislation. Harold Cardinal, author and former Indian leader, is concerned that to rewrite the Indian Act would be to release the federal government from its obligations to Indian people under the Indian Act.

Ovide Mercredi, AFN National Chief, admitted that the Indian Act should be abolished. He disagrees, however, with reforming the Indian Act by introducing legislation at the Band level, as the Chiefs' Governance Committee and the Department of Indian Affairs advocates.

Mercredi, on July 10, announced that the Chiefs' Governance Committee is neither representative of First Nations nor sanctioned by the AFN. "We do not need `Chiefs' Governance Committees'...to set agendas or write a new Indian Act," said Mercredi. "The Department of Indian Affairs ... must not interfere in the legitimate need of First Nations to control their own destiny."

If the Indian Act is to be replaced, Mercredi insists that the process should bean Indian one. "A good starting point would be a mandate for the Royal Commission to review the Indian Act [and] the role of the Department. [This] would ensure a full opportunity for Aboriginal participation."

Bellegarde, however, said that bands who are now undergoing self-government negotiations cannot be told to hold their work until the Royal Commission is finished its deliberations - which may be months. It's important, he emphasized, that there is "complimentary work at all levels, What we're doing is important...achievable...[and] will build the future of our communities."

Niel Sterrit, Chairman of the Chiefs' Governance Committee, denied that the CGC is working at odds with the AFN. He recognized that there is a difference between the national and community agendas. He stressed that though Mercredi's work at the constitutional level is important and that the CGC "must support the National Chief in his efforts," there is no need for the negotiations for self-government at the band and tribal council levels to wait for constitutional change.

Sterrit urged Chiefs to openly discuss self-government at all levels. Community based self-government initiatives and Indian Act alternatives are interrelated. Only through intense dialogue and much patience will progress be made.