The Indian Act? Welcome to 2019

For 24 years, from 1927 to 1951, First Nations people were not allowed to hire lawyers or pursue land claims. And others could be jailed for helping them raise legal funds.

How things have changed: By our count, First Nations across Canada have a ‘winning streak’ in recent years of 209 successful cases on title and rights, and other cases are in process.

Another example: For 52 years (1871 to 1923) First Nations people were banned from commercial fishing. Now, of course, First Nations people are leading fishers, and the five Nuu-chah-nulth nations in BC won in court this year the right to their own commercial fishery.

This is not to gloat, but to note that the times are changing. From coast to coast to coast, First Nations and their people are becoming known as business leaders, and as solid partners to non-Indigenous companies in natural-resource development.

One favourite example (although it’s in oil, rather than BC natural gas or LNG) is the 900-member Fort McKay nation in Alberta, whose three oilsands companies have been bringing in $1.7 billion a year for the last five years. They call it ‘community capitalism.’

Take the Squamish Nation in BC, which has a working partnership with Woodfibre LNG on Howe Sound, developed a unique environmental assessment agreement, and issued its own environmental certificate for the project.

Take the Haisla nation here in BC, who have a long list of non-Indigenous companies with whom the nation has working partnerships. That, of course, includes LNG developers: LNG Canada, Coastal GasLink, Kitimat LNG, and Pacific Trails Pipeline.

Chief Councillor Crystal Smith of the Haisla:

“I want First Nations members to have the same quality of life that every other person in Canada has. I want B.C.’s First Nations to be heard and be included in the discussions which impact our territories. I want us and other First Nations to achieve their independence in order to properly and effectively care for the future of our people.

“First Nations have been left out of resource development for too long, and it would be easy to say no to projects, but now we are involved, we have been consulted, and will ensure there are benefits to all First Nations involved in these projects. We do have a share, and we will have our say on how these projects are developed.

“And so the Haisla said yes to these projects because we have concluded they will be built responsibly for our environment and will allow our people to flourish. We said yes to these projects because we believe they will provide employment not only for ourselves but for the north. . . .

“We said yes to LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink, because the proponents and the Province of British Columbia have approached us from a position of respect for our nations and our people. They have respected our expertise when it comes to our territory and our culture.”

First Nations interests in doing business don’t stop there. One group of nations in BC is actively pursuing buying a share in the Coastal GasLink pipeline that will feed the LNG Canada plant at Kitimat. TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada, plans to divest up to 75% of the line.

And you may already know that three groups of First Nations are working on proposals to buy an interest of 51% (or more) in the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion project.

All of these things contribute to “Economic Reconciliation” which, to us, goes and must go hand in hand with “Reconciliation” — moving Canada forward together in a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

It’s all a far cry from the era when (1866 to 1953) the Indian Act forbade First Nations people from taking up land in BC.

It’s also a far cry from the age when First Nations people weren’t allowed to vote. We didn’t get the full right to vote until 1960.

Now, with a federal election coming up this fall, Indigenous votes could play an important part in the results:

Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations notes that 61.5% of eligible First Nations voters cast their ballots in 2015, and he wants that number to increase during the upcoming election.

“If you want to become prime minister or member of Parliament, you better listen to our people and our concerns, because we vote now and have impact. That’s what’s going to happen in October. We’re not going to be pushed to the side any more.”

There will, no doubt, be more promises from candidates about further reform of — or full abolition of — the current (and supposedly ‘modernized’) Indian Act.

Until then, remember these sad points:

  • From 1869 to 1985, a First Nations woman marrying a non-Indigenous man lost her status as an “Indian.” This law did not apply to First Nations men. (See footnote below.)
  • From 1876 to 1985, a First Nations member who earned a university degree, or became a church minister, or joined the military, lost their status rights. First Nations veterans who returned from World War II were stripped of their Indian status.
  • From 1885 to 1951, the Act banned the potlatch, that important ceremony among BC coastal people. Thus 22 people were actually sent to prison in 1921 for a potlatch held at Alert Bay.
  • Under various sections of the Act, and at various times, First Nations people were barred from buying or using alcohol, could not go into pool halls or bars, could not buy ammunition, and were not allowed to leave the reserve (or wear traditional regalia off the reserve) without permission of the federal “Indian Agent” there.

And remember that the last Residential School in Canada remained open until 1996.
Even though it’s 2019 we haven’t come far enough.  Hopefully, we have embarked on a new era of reconciliation, and hopefully the results of the upcoming federal election this fall will not impact the momentum First Nations are achieving.

Footnote: On 15 August 2019, the federal government announced the final provisions of Bill S-3 now are in force. This provides for registration by First Nations descendants born before April 17, 1985 who lost their status or were removed from band lists due to marriages to non-Indigenous men.

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(Posted here 09 August 2019)