APTN National News
OTTAWA–The Conservative government unveiled its plan Thursday to unravel and eventually replace the Indian Act as it put its full weight behind a private members bill to repeal sections of the 136 year-old legislation.
The proposed Bill C-428, the Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act, was initially tabled by Conservative Saskatchewan MP Rob Clarke, a former RCMP officer and Muskeg Lake First Nation member. The proposed bill would strike down several sections of the Indian Act including those dealing with residential schools, wills and estates and band bylaws.
“This bill provides no cause for alarm among First Nations individuals,” Clarke said during a debate in the House of Commons. “Nor is there any cause for false alarms to be raised by First Nations leaders.”
The bill would also require the Aboriginal Affairs minister to annually report on the government’s progress “toward the repeal and replacement of the Indian Act.”
The Conservative’s “path” to eventually replace the Indian Act was revealed in Clarke’s speech delivered during first debate on the bill. The path was dubbed by the acronym “ARRC,” which stands for amend, repeal, replace and consult, said Clarke, MP for Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River.
“I hope in my lifetime to see the complete repeal of the Indian Act and see it replaced by a more modern set of laws that reflects today’s values, but also respects our past,” said Clarke Thursday evening. “These amendments to the Indian Act can be an important stepping stone on the path to achieving self-sufficiency and prosperity in First Nations communities.”
The Harper government took ownership of Clarke’s proposed bill earlier in the day.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said during question period that Clarke’s bill was “consistent with the government’s own approach to Indian Act reform.” Duncan said the government supported the bill “in principle” and would work on getting it passed into law.
“We look forward to studying the bill, exploring opportunities to improve it and passing it into law,” said Duncan.
Clarke’s proposed bill would require the Aboriginal Affairs minister to report every year on the government’s work to get rid of the Indian Act. The report would be submitted to the House of Commons committee on Aboriginal Affairs by Jan. 31 of each year.
“This section of my bill requires a collaborative consultation process between First Nations and the minister of Aboriginal affairs,” said Clarke. “This will ensure that First Nations can hold the government accountable for moving forward toward the complete removal of the Indian Act in a meaningful and respectful way.”
The proposed bill would allow First Nation band councils to pass bylaws without needing a sign-off from the minister. The bill would also repeal a section banning the sale of alcohol on reserves.
“It will provide these First Nations with the same rights and responsibilities that rural and urban municipalities have today,” said Clarke.
Under Clarke’s bill, the Aboriginal Affairs minister would also no longer have final say over wills and estates and repeal largely ignored sections restricting trade between non-First Nations and First Nations people.
The bill will also remove the term “residential school” from the Indian Act.
“I am proud as a First Nations man whose grandparents attended residential schools in Duck Lake, Sask., to be privileged, as a member of the House of Commons, to repeal this particularly shameful section and wording in the Indian Act,” said Clarke. “I fear that having this remain in the Indian Act will enable a future government to create residential schools on First Nations reserves.”
Clarke said fear of reprisal keeps many chiefs from openly supporting his private members bill.
Both the NDP and Liberals said their parties would oppose it.
NDP Aboriginal affairs critics Jean Crowder said the proposed bill would put wills and estates for First Nations people on reserves into a legal limbo.
Crowder said any proposed bill dealing with the Indian Act should result from consultation with First Nations, not the other way around.
“Consultation does not entail receiving emails from people and posting information on your website,” said Crowder. “Consultation does not constitute having witnesses appear in committee…go back to the drawing board and talk to First Nations from coast to coast to coast.”
Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett said any attempt to deal with the Indian Act should involve a proper process.
“A back-bencher’s private members bill is not an appropriate consultation,” said Bennett. “This kind of thing must be undertaken between the prime minister in a government-to-government way.”
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae has authored a motion outlining a process for dealing with the Indian Act. He is expected to speak about the motion on Monday.
Bennett said Clarke’s bill went against the promise made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the Crown-First Nations gathering not to unilaterally alter the Indian Act.
In January, at the Crown First Nations gathering the prime minister said:
“Our government has no grand scheme to repeal or unilaterally re-write the Indian Act. After 136 years, that tree has deep roots. Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole. However, there are ways, creative ways, collaborative ways, ways that involve consultation between our government, the provinces and First Nations leadership and communities. Ways that provide options within the Act, or outside of it, for practical, incremental and real change.”
Clarke’s Conservative colleagues blasted the opposition for not supporting the bill. Alberta MP Chris Warkentin, who chairs the Commons Aboriginal affairs committee, said the bill is authored by a First Nations person for First Nations people.
“He has overcome the travesty that is this Act and overcome past injustices to reach this House,” said Warkentin. “He has every right to bring forward a private members bill in this House.”
Warkentin said none of the opposition members had lived under the Act, unlike Clarke.
The bill now goes to the Aboriginal Affairs committee for study and to hear from witnesses.
The Conservatives hold a majority on that committee.