First Nations Governance Act: Same Old Indian Agent Mentality

Posted 2002-10-16 by Terri Brown | Jurisfemme Publications – Volume 21, No. 3, Fall 2002

The Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) strongly believes that the perspectives of Aboriginal women must be taken into account when proposed changes to the Indian Act and the proposed First Nations Governance Act are considered, particularly because Aboriginal women have been "multiply disadvantaged" and discriminated against based on race, class and gender for too long. Understanding the contemporary life circumstances of Aboriginal women plays an important role in guiding the work of NWAC. We urge the Federal government to include our perspective in any further consultations, discussions, and debates regarding the Indian Act and proposed First Nations Governance Act. As the national body, duly mandated by all our member groups to represent the issues and concerns of Aboriginal women, NWAC should be involved in consultations between First Nations and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).

NWAC has been in existence since 1974 and is mandated by its national membership to be the national voice for Aboriginal women. NWAC has been active for many years in representing the issues and concerns of Aboriginal women in Canada. We have fought hard for the inclusion of our perspective on national issues of importance. It is essential that government continue to recognize NWAC for the important and necessary role that we play in bringing forward the unique perspective of Aboriginal women.

NWAC is therefore concerned that the Honorable Robert D. Nault, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, has not appointed a member of NWAC to the Joint Ministerial Advisory Committee for the First Nations Governance Initiative (FNGI). Minister Nault's position too closely reflects the position taken by the government during the Charlottetown Accord debates, when NWAC was required to fight in court for recognition of the importance of our involvement on issues of national importance to Aboriginal peoples. Yet again, we find ourselves in the position of forcing government to recognize the importance of our involvement on issues of national importance to Aboriginal peoples.

Minister Nault established an agenda on the First Nations Governance Initiative without adequate consultation with NWAC and money was offered to NWAC to proceed in keeping with a pre-established agenda. The agenda was not reflective of Aboriginal women's core issues including membership, nationhood, and matrimonial property rights. Sadly, the old game of "divide and conquer" still works for some.

The First Nations Governance Initiative was discussed at the Assembly of First Nations Confederacy meeting in Halifax last year. NWAC agreed that a meaningful consultation process should be developed by INAC in partnership with First Nations. We chose to place our involvement in abeyance until Minister Nault and First Nations could develop a consultation process that was respectful and in partnership with First Nations. We asked for a three-month freeze on the FNGI. NWAC's decision to ask for a meaningful process has led to exclusion from further involvement and funding.

NWAC recognizes that accountability, elections procedures and questions of legal entity are problems within our communities. However, they are not the only issues for Aboriginal women. Issues faced by Aboriginal women in our communities strike at the very heart of our Nations. If we do not advocate for these key issues, who will? Male Aboriginal leaders do work to advance the issues of Aboriginal women, but 500 years of colonization has displaced Aboriginal women and the role of women in communities. The Indian Act created the Chief and Council governance structure, and now the male leadership speaks as if the structure belongs to us. We must work toward the elimination of racial, class and gender discrimination against Aboriginal women everywhere. Without the ability to determine membership and nationhood, our children have a bleak future. The current child registration process is shaming and degrading to Aboriginal women; the Indian Agent still has the power to determine who is an Indian.

Inclusion, coupled with meaningful consultation, is key to strong legislation. However, we fear that the Government has not learned its lesson. For example, the Consultative Process, Phase 1 was a sham. The Department of Indian and Northern Development (DIAND) conducted consultations with less than 1 per cent of the Aboriginal population. We do not know who was consulted or whether they were, in fact, First Nations. Many DIAND employees were counted among those consulted. The DIAND is very proud of having for the first time consulted directly with First Nations community members.

"First Nation's women have too long been excluded from the circle of decision making. This has lead to male bias and has perpetuated the disintegration of harmony between male and female in Aboriginal societies. Such conduct is unconscionable. While colonialism is at the root of our learned disrespect for women, we cannot blame colonialism for our informed actions today. This generation of First Nations men must take some measure of responsibility for the activities in which they engage." (J. Borrows, "Contemporary Traditional Equality: The Effect of the Charter on First Nations Politics" (1994) 23:19 Univ. of N.B.L.J. at 46.)

As the above quote suggests, NWAC's struggle has been long and difficult. Our grandmothers, mothers and sisters fought for necessary change and for the enlightenment of our nations, government and the world about the Indian Act's blatant discrimination. The late Mary Two Axe Early, and Jane Gottfriedson among our founding grandmothers, and many other Aboriginal women, dedicated their lives to change. NWAC exists because of these women warriors. Sandra Lovelace and Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell brought the plight of Aboriginal women to the United Nations before changes were realized. Despite the apparent victory of Bill C-31, women and children still face discrimination through exclusion from membership and nationhood.

Aboriginal women need to re-establish the traditional role in governance structures and decision-making processes. To do otherwise means continued oppression. If we falter, we have little hope for tomorrow. The re-establishment of our traditional role will counteract the impact of colonization. In fact, the strength of Aboriginal women has maintained our Nations in the face of the worst human tragedies such as abduction of Aboriginal children (the sixties scoop), apartheid-like policies, the residential school system, loss of land, culture and language. The future is bleak with or without the proposed First Nations Governance Act. The Act will not eliminate systemic racism, and the rape and murder of Aboriginal women. As I write, the biggest mass murder investigation continues on a pig farm in B.C. Of the victims identified and missing, half are Aboriginal women. We have a long way to go to achieve justice and security for Aboriginal women.

We do not want government and legislative processes to go backward. Our history clearly depicts a time when the Indian Agent was all-powerful: the Indian Agent determined membership, allocation of resources and benefits, negotiation of land (actually there was no negotiation, it was blatant theft), and relocation. The Indian Agents came with peace treaties that were forged and they bribed, threatened and coerced Indians to give up their lands and their children's future. Over time, the peace treaties were misinterpreted and evolved into agreements that gave up rights to land and resources.

The Indian Agent possessed power over Aboriginal Peoples. The process was flawed then, and it is flawed now. We have little interest in a governance agenda that will perpetuate sexism, racism and classism. The formula does not work anymore. If there is to be real change, we must demand a meaningful, inclusive process, with openness and transparency. Dissident groups such as ourselves face funding cuts, manipulation, marginalization and silencing tactics because we dare to criticize an unfair process.

Colonization and its cohort, patriarchy, has left a legacy of internalized racism, poverty, violence, and loss of hope, manifested by the highest rate of suicide among youth in the world. The Indian Act must be dismantled, not changed. We cannot uphold a piece of legislation that has nearly destroyed our way of life and nearly eliminated our people. We will make our ancestors proud by continuing the struggle they started so long ago. Our vision of freedom, independence and honour must be pursued at all costs. We have much to lose. Until next time, may Creator keep you safe and strong!

"A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons." (Tsistsistas, Cheyenne).

Mussi Cho

Kukdookaa Terri Brown is the President of the Native Women's Association of Canada.