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Federal Government To Amend Indian Act

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      DECEMBER 1996      v26 n01 p07  
The Indian Act has long been described by First Nations people as, at best, colonial, paternalistic and archaic. In light of the fact that the Act has remained unaltered since 1951, 45 years ago, the federal government has recently developed a number of amendments to update some of the more antiquated sections.

In a recent interview, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Ron Irwin stated that his department began looking at the Act approximately two years ago. At that time, a number of changes were proposed.

The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) then polled the 608 First Nations Chiefs and the Tribal/Grand Councils across the country. Irwin says that it was always his intention to make the amendment process a partnership with Canadian First Nations.

A plain language version of the amendments was released in September 1996. The proposed amendments fall, generally, into four main categories. The first category would see the powers of the Minister and First Nations restructured, leading to more local control of revenues and land transfers. The second would see processes streamlined; Orders in Council would be needed less often and First Nations could set their own methods of elections.

The complete repeal of some sections is the third category and involves outdated ideas such as Ministerial approval of First Nations agricultural sales. The final category would see the validation of current practices. Among these, Band councillors would be simply required to sign BCRs instead of holding a formal meeting.

While a number of the proposed amendments are beneficial to First Nations people, Canadian Chiefs told Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi to reject the unilateral changes at a recent two-day conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Saskatchewan's Chiefs have also come out in opposition to the unilateral nature of the amendments. At a Special Session of the FSIN Legislative Assembly, Saskatchewan Chiefs passed a resolution that rejects the proposed amendments. The Chiefs also established a task force to review the amendments at their Fall Assembly. "If there are issues that we want to stop, if there are sections of the Indian Act that we want to stop, then we have to do it collectively," said FSIN Chief Blaine Favel.

In light of First Nations opposition, Irwin has stated, "Nothing is written in stone." At the FSIN Fall Assembly, he assured the Chiefs that there will be an "opting-out" clause for Bands to whom certain amendments do not apply and that any amendments that are considered offensive will be deleted. Irwin points to the lease-hold amendment that was removed from consideration after First Nations registered their concerns about its potential repercussions.

Irwin has also stated that "the federal government will continue to respect its fiduciary relationship with First Nations. It is my clear intention that Aboriginal and treaty rights will not be affected."

The amendments are expected to begin the Parliamentary process in the House of Commons by the end of the year.