When I first began writing about Aboriginal people in Canada in 1968, the federal government had just concluded one of its periodic “consultations” with “the Indians” that had taken them two years, and had resulted in the publication of 25 or 30 big red books. In these books were printed, presumably, all the ideas put forward by the Aboriginals during these “consultations”, and all the complaints they had made about their current situation.

I asked to see these books, and an official in Indian Affairs eventually handed me all of them. He told me later he never expected to hear from me again. But I read them, every word, and wrote a long article about them that occupied a full page of The Montreal Star. The books contained a bitter catalogue of the grievances of Aboriginal people about the way they were being treated.

About six months later, the feds published their White Paper proposals, which would, essentially, have abolished Indian status, cancelled the federal responsibility for “Indians and lands reserved for Indians”, shucked off the federal trust for Indian lands, and made Indians the responsibility, like all other Canadians, of the provinces.

Nowhere in the 25 or 30 books recording the “consultations” with “the Indians”, had any Indian suggested such policies!

This was what Indian Affairs meant by “consultation”. And now they are at it again. Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault announced at the end of April that he would introduce legislation in the fall, come what may, that would transform the Indian Act. This — of course! — will be done only after a summer of “consultations” that he has launched under the fancy title of “Communities First: First Nations Governance”. These consultations, he said, will include every Aboriginal person in Canada. It would be (just like the 1967 “consultation”) a “grassroots” effort. And it will be carried out through “a Website, an 800 number call centre, and an intensive advertising campaign” which will reach every aboriginal person in Canada regardless of where they live, including native youth, women and elders. As well, he said, departmental officials would consult with all the traditional leadership groups like the Assembly of First nations, provincial political-tribal organizations, band chiefs, and off-reserve native agencies.

“People are very interested in the day-to-day affairs of their community and how we can improve it, so we can get on with developing a relationship using the Indian Act that makes some sense and stop using the contribution agreement and audits as a way of developing a relationship,” said Nault. “Everything dealing with governance contained in the Indian Act is now on the table.”

This time, however, the Aboriginal leadership is better prepared than they were in the 1960s. BC’s Interior Alliance Chief Arthur Manuel, whose main purpose in life is to defend and breath life into Aboriginal title, quickly remarked that this was a 2001 version of the 1969 White Paper.

The proposed federal legislative package includes the First Nations Governance Act, the First Nations Financial Institutions Act, and the so-called Independent Claims Commission Act, and was “an attempt to modernize Indian Nations out of existence”, Manuel said. With the support of the Interior Alliance, he characterized Nault’s proposals in this way:

They are an attempt to:

* Extinguish Aboriginal title and rights to traditional territories (now called acquiring “certainty” over the land).

* Eliminate Indian Reserves by converting them into “Fee Simple” lands.

* Eliminate Indian tax immunity (to force the paying of property, income, sales taxes and user fees by Indians on Indian


* Impose federal and provincial laws over Indians.

The Interior Alliance said the proposed legislative package would accelerate the extinguishment process, and was “a gross violation of Indigenous peoples’ inherent right to self-determination” and added that the Canadian constitution already “recognizes and affirms” Aboriginal rights, including the preexisting, inherent right to self-government.

“As Indian Affairs Minister in the first Trudeau government,” Chief Manuel said, “Jean Chrétien built his career on trying to turn Indian Nations into municipalities and Chiefs into small town mayors. At the twilight of his career he now seems ready to legislate his outdated, assimilationist views on our people.”

Chief Manuel added: the current government offensive also includes “the same type of sham consultations that Jean Chrétien used as Indian Affairs Minister in 1969. Only now the Department is more seasoned at this game.”

But Chief Manuel was far from alone in rejecting the government’s approach.

The Mi’kmaq, Maliseet & Passamaquoddy Chiefs quickly denounced Nault’s proposal as “a unilateral federally-driven process” that will yield mandatory legislation, and does not address their peoples’ governance aspirations.

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs, noting that they have “never ceded or surrendered our Aboriginal Title and Rights and have the inherent right of Self-Determination”, declared that Nault’s proposals would have the following unacceptable effects:

Transfer Canada’s fiduciary duties towards indigenous peoples in the areas of reserve lands, money, and membership into

the hands, and onto the shoulders of Band Councils.

Undermine the nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples.

Transfer more control, and therefore, legal liability, for small parcels of reserve lands to band governments.

Increase our accountability to the federal government while reducing the federal government’s own liabilities, fiduciary obligations and responsibilities to our peoples.

Put band councils in the position of administering our own poverty.

Alter the current voting regimes for band governments, perhaps to the point of incorporating a say for non-members who live on reserve.

And convert bands into “corporations” with powers similar to local municipalities.

“IT IS HEREBY RESOLVED that the UBCIC Chiefs Council rejects the White Paper 2001 and calls upon all indigenous peoples and nations to join with us and compel Canada to recognize our inherent right of self-determination, and Aboriginal title (recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in Delgamuukw), rather than tinkering with the Indian Act.”

A rapid rejection

So within 10 days, Aboriginal leaders across the country raised themselves against Nault’s proposals, expressed their distrust of the government’s motives, and finally, declared their determination not to have anything to do with the so-called “consultation process”. To sum it all up, the Confederacy of Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations, meeting in British Columbia, passed Resolution 15/01 rejecting Nault’s proposal, and calling for a better process that focuses on building effective and efficient First Nations’ governments.

AFN National Chief Matthew Coon Come said the proposed ‘Governance Act’ is limited in scope and has nothing to do with real governance. It is about tinkering with existing policies to make First Nations more accountable to government, and the government less accountable to First Nations. “Our vision of governance is based on the nation-to-nation relationship expressed in section 35 of Canada’s own Constitution Act.”

The Chiefs’ motion states “that we reject the process the Minister is currently pursuing and instead declare that we, as First Nations, will draw up our own laws based on traditional customs and practices at the local community, regional and national levels”.

The National Chief noted that First Nations do want change, but the Minister’s proposed process is seriously flawed. “Change must be the result of a joint process and effort, not a unilateral action by the Minister. We want to throw off the burden of the colonial Indian Act and move into a nation-to-nation relationship with Canada,” said Chief Coon Come. “This resolution gives the national chief and the executive a mandate to work with First Nations to develop a better process that will include all our citizens in re-building our nations and addressing our priorities. This need not be a long drawn-out process, as we can build on existing work like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.” (Of course, the monumental work of RCAP has been virtually ignored by the government).

First Nations leaders also expressed concerns that the Minister developed his proposal without any input from First Nations, is not providing nearly enough time for full consultations, and will not provide any mechanism for First Nations citizens to approve or reject the outcomes. The Minister has stated that any new legislation will be mandatory and will be imposed on First Nations.

“Is the government going back on its commitment to work in partnership with First Nations as stated in its own Gathering Strength policy?” asked Chief Coon Come. “The Minister’s unilateral, imposed approach reflects the same attitude that created the Indian Act in the first place. A flawed process will only result in flawed outcomes. It will be resisted by First Nations and will be an irresponsible use of public funds.”

The next move came from the Atlantic Policy Congress Chiefs who applauded the AFN call to boycott the proposed consultations. The Atlantic Chiefs called for a better process that focuses on building effective and efficient First Nations governments, a process coming from the nations and not solely from the Minister of Indian Affairs. “The Prime Minister’s throne speech said that the government of Canada would not unilaterally force anything onto the Aboriginal nations in Canada, but it seems minister Robert Nault wants to unilaterally impose a process on our people,” said APC co-chair Chief Lawrence Paul. “The show of unity across the country on this issue makes me feel very proud as a leader and a Mi’kmaq,” said Chief Peter Barlow. Chief Manuel, in the course of all this, provided an illuminating catalogue of what one might call “Indian Affairs-speak”, the curious habit of the government bureaucrats in renaming with innocuous-sounding words, ancient processes that in some cases go back to the founding of the department.

He said that in the mid-1980’s the department employed a SWAT (Special Words and Tactics) strategy to “control the dialogue” on aboriginal issues with the media and the general public. Now, he said, they are adding Aboriginal “grassroots people” as a target group. The federal practice has been to coopt indigenous peoples, concepts and meanings into the federal and/or provincial policy framework in order to trick them into thinking the government is looking out for their best interests, when often nothing could be further from the truth.

In the departmental lexicon he named:

* “Inherent right to self-government” really means “delegated federal and/or provincial authority”.

* “Independent Claims Commission” really means federally controlled claims commission.

* “Certainty” really means extinguishment or conversion of constitutionally protected section 35 Aboriginal title and rights.

* “Own Source Revenues” really means taxation.

“We know that since their return to government in 1993, Chretien and his Ministers have been looking at the demographic growth of indigenous peoples in Canada and have been scheming to off-load their constitutional obligations and responsibilities onto the provinces and onto our own peoples at the local level through taxation.” He said Chretien broke his 1993 Red Book promises to First Nations; has ignored the bulk of the RCAP final report and recommendations; in eight years, unlike Pierre Trudeau, Chretien has never met with the Chiefs in Assembly; he has never apologized for the treatment of Aboriginal peoples by the Crown; and he prefers to manipulate the agenda by hiding behind his successive Ministers of Indian Affairs.

Since Chretien’s return to government, Chiefs and councils are being increasingly forced to “administer our own poverty” because the federal government has been incrementally cutting us loose financially by “capping or eliminating programs altogether.”

“It is clear to us that the new and modern relationship with Aboriginal peoples that Chretien, and (Nault) talk about, means the termination of our Aboriginal title and rights. Many of us wouldn’t go into the self-government, or land claims, negotiation processes the Chretien government set up, and now Chretien views us as unfinished business. We oppose Chretien’s blueprint for legislative change because we know where it leads and we will inform our peoples of his plans to use and deceive them, and we will support our peoples in the fight for their freedom and self-determination by taking direct action.”

The appearance of the expression “termination policy” in Manuel’s analysis recalls that “termination” of federal responsibiolity for Indians has been tried persistently in both Canada and the United States. It was this policy that led to what writer Alvin Josephy, jr in the 1960s described as “termination psychosis”, which meant that the moment anything faintly resembling termination of Indian status was suggested, the Indians across the Continent rose as a body to oppose it.

In 1969, the Alberta Indian Association, under Harold Cardinal’s leadership, became the spearhead for the opposition to the White Paper, producing a book called Indians Plus, which they took to Prime Minister Trudeau in Ottawa. This initiative resulted in withdrawal of the White Paper, although most Aboriginal leaders believe the government, while rejecting it, nevertheless began to implement it by stealth.

It will be interesting to see if the current Aboriginal leaders, so much better prepared than in 1969, can force withdrawal of Nault’s Governance initiative, or whether the government, now with the backing of many right-wing, anti-Indian intellectuals, and the anti-Indian postures of the Alliance party, (not to mention the anti-Indian positions of the BC Liberals, soon to be elected to office) will insist on forcing through the changes in the teeth of Aboriginal opposition. That would surely be the path to a major disaster.