All Canadians Should Be Offended Apartheid-Like System Still Exists

A young man performs a traditional dance celebrating the spring equinox at the Thunderbird House in Winnipeg in 2005.

A young man performs a traditional dance celebrating the spring equinox at the Thunderbird House in Winnipeg in 2005. WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

By: Brian Giesbrecht | Winnipeg Free Press

Time to scrap racist Indian Act

Maclean’s magazine declared Winnipeg to be Canada’s most racist city. However, Maclean’s should have gone much further and declared Canada to be a racist country in relation to aboriginal people.

Racism is the belief one group or race of people is inferior in ability. That is exactly what Canada’s legislation dealing with aboriginal people is based on.

The 1876 Indian Act treated indigenous people like children. By today’s standards, it is a totally regressive and racist piece of legislation. With its reserve system (which was supposed to be a temporary measure), it created what can be called an aboriginal apartheid system.

The Indian Act uses the race of a person to define his or her privileges. For example, a status Indian has more privileges than a non-status Indian. People are born into their racial classifications as people in India were born into their caste. Aboriginal people carry cards that categorize them according to how “Indian” they are. This is a racial-purity scheme and should be deeply offensive to all Canadians — aboriginal and non-aboriginal. No other Canadian would accept the idea of carrying a card that declares what race he or she belongs to.

When South Africa was designing its system to separate the races in 1948, officials came to Canada to study our reserves. Although they called their apartheid tribal areas homelands, their model was Canada’s reserves.

So why is the aboriginal apartheid system still here? Surely indigenous leaders, who are not shy about denouncing racism, should have insisted long ago the apartheid system be abolished. Instead — and this is as disturbing as it is bizarre — aboriginal leaders themselves insist the Indian Act must stay.

The only prime minister bold enough to try to initiate the process of phasing out the Indian Act faced accusations of “racist” and “cultural genocide” from the chiefs before he could even get to a discussion stage. In 1969, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his Indian affairs minister, a young Jean Chrétien, introduced a discussion paper that proposed phasing out the entire reserve system. The incredibly valuable land now being held in trust for First Nations people (a combined area larger than France) would have been transferred to them as individuals.

This would have created a huge source of wealth for First Nations. The new landowners would have been able to create whatever kind of collective or individual ownership model they wanted. Since they would own the land as individuals, it would be their decision, not that of the chiefs. Generous funds were to be made available for transition programs.

Trudeau and Chrétien were attempting to move aboriginal people from the margins of the Canadian economy to the mainstream. Aboriginal culture and tradition were not threatened. But the chiefs mobilized and killed the idea. Using thuggish tactics, such as threats of blockades and violence, they put an end to the proposal before it could see the light of day. Trudeau and Chrétien backed down.

From that day to the present, federal government policy has been to transfer increasing sums of money to the chiefs, with few questions asked. The policy of the chiefs has been to make money demands and market an endless list of historical wrongs, some real and some perceived. Except for insisting on some basic accounting transparency from the chiefs, Ottawa has been compliant.

Why did the chiefs insist the Indian Act must stay?

There were many reasons. Some did not want to lose their privileged positions. Others acted out of better motives — they desperately wanted to keep alive a way of life that had in fact come to an end long ago. But they all made the same fundamental mistake: they equated a successful integration into the Canadian economy with a loss of cultural identity. They continue to make the same mistake to this day.

Would it be a difficult job to phase out the apartheid system? Absolutely. Even if the process had started in 1969, it would have taken years and a great deal of money to accomplish. Now, the job is even more formidable, but it can be done.

The reserve system is not something Moses brought with him down the mountain. It was a cynical system made by 19th-century men, and it can be unmade by modern men and women. As Manitoba’s senior aboriginal elder, Elijah Harper, said shortly before he died: “The Indian Act treats us like children — we should get rid of it.”

But until the First Nations leadership wakes up to the reality reserves must go, what is their plan? Incredibly, it is more apartheid. Multiculturalism is the official policy that applies to all Canadians — except reserve residents. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples proposed continuing the current system. After spending a truly stunning $58 million, this is what the commission came up with: the 633 or so reserves should consolidate into about 50 to 80 First Nations and then deal nation to nation with Canada. Canada’s role was to pay the bills.

Each First Nation would make its own laws, operate its own economy and remain separate from the Canadian mosaic. Mind-boggling amounts of money from Canada would be needed to subsidize these 50 to 80 nations at first, but by some unexplained process this “self-government” would result in these nations creating their own economies, and they would become self-supporting. The commission gave its plan 20 years for all of this to work out.

As we know, the commission’s report was largely ignored. With very few exceptions, most reserves today are far more dependent on the federal government than before. Billions of dollars are spent annually, with results that are completely discouraging.

A growing number of successful aboriginal people have already found an answer. It is the tried-and-true formula that works for every successful person: get good at something and go where the jobs are. There are now many successful aboriginal lawyers, judges, artists, playwrights, journalists and workers of every description, and the number is growing.

Yes, Winnipeg has its share of racists, as does Canada as a whole. But most Winnipeggers, like most Canadians, are not racists. Canadians want to see aboriginal people succeed. We are dismayed when we read the negative statistics about aboriginal people in jails, in the child-welfare system and the like, and we are deeply unhappy with a system that keeps so many aboriginal people locked in a cycle of dependence and despair.

But we have no doubt about the abilities of aboriginal people. And when we do see aboriginal people succeed — to paraphrase the words of the late chief Dan George — “our hearts soar.”

Brian Giesbrecht was a provincial court judge from 1976 until 2007. He is now retired.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2015 A9