The Canadian government’s Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs must be learning to expect the unexpected.
In Montreal last week for hearings on Bill C-7, Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault’s Governance Act, MPs on the committee might have expected the demonstrations that followed hearings in other parts of the country. Despite heavy protest from the Assembly of First Nations, however, we were told that there were cracks in the dam with Indian Affairs claiming support from the AFN Regional chief of B.C./Alberta and the Yukon as well as the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Nation Women’s Association, the Northwest Alliance Council, Treaty 7& 8 First Nations Peoples, 58 First Nations in Saskatchewan, the Prince Albert First Nation, the Native Women’s association in the Yukon and various regional organizations.
NDP Member of Parliament Pat Martin said that most Native representatives have not supported this Bill and commented that there had been massive protests across the country. Martin went further to say that most people recommend the standing committee on Aboriginal Affairs send the bill back and start over.
The Standing Committee might also have expected support from Grand Chief Fernand Chalifoux of the Alliance Autochtone du Quebec, the first presentator.
But Chalifoux had a surprise in store. He came out hitting, saying, “Our desire for inclusion and our offer of partnership has not been well received, either by the Indian Act chiefs or by the Department’s regional officials,” followed by, “Our participation in these hearings is aimed at protecting the interests of our constituents- and does not validate or ratify what for us was a disturbing and disrespectful experience with INAC’s so-called consultation process on First Nations Governance.”
Chalifoux felt that it began 150 years ago in Quebec when it was decided to deny “Aboriginal and treaty rights’ and to “promote a system of dispersal and assimilation.”
It was a message that Chalifoux would come back to again and again. He felt the consultation process failed in Quebec because most Indian Act Chiefs found it easier to keep the status quo and could turn their backs on off-reserve and non-status Indians.
“We are seen as a threat to very limited resources,” said Chalifoux. He also felt that Bill C-7 may end up strengthening the Indian Act mentality, but applauded the idea of including the Canadian Charter of Rights and the Canadian Human Rights Act across the board.
In response to a question from the Standing Committee, Chalifoux said that he would recommend scrapping the bill but to look at what has been accomplished and use that as a base to redo some of the consultation.
Next up to bat was the Quebec Native Women’s Association. Believe it or not things just got a whole lot more interesting as two rows of women filed in wearing red strips of cloth tied to their arms. They didn’t sit but stood there while President Michelle Audette made her presentation.
Audette brought a strong message to the Standing Committee on how Native women and children are the most vulnerable people in society: “What use is there in having a smoothly operating administration and balanced books to someone who has no place to live?”
From attacking Nault’s cry of accountability and fiscal management, Audette moved on saying that section five of the FNG Act could lead to even greater discrimination than in the past. She pointed out that some women who were reinstated were having problems trying to return to their reserves.
Like Chalifoux, she went to the past and observed that historically, lands and houses were registered in the male spouses’ name, saying that lead to “economic vulnerability and homelessness of women and children. Canada must live up to its constitutional obligation and ensure that band councils operate in a manner compatible with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
If all goes as Nault plans, the Act will be fully implemented by April of 2006. Bands who do not come up with their own forms of governance will have the Act impose “minimum standards” on them. The Eastern James Bay Cree and other First Nations with an existing governance agreement will not be subject to this legislation.
Next Issue: AFN Regional Chief Ghislain Picard defends the AFN position.