Canada Sept. 14, 2017

Catholic Indigenous leaders cautiously hopeful about meeting with Trudeau

By Deborah Gyapong

Harry Lafond of the Muskeg Cree First Nation (right) speaks as part of a panel discussion at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops annual plenary in 2016. (Deborah Gyapong / CCN)

OTTAWA (CCN)—Two Catholic Indigenous leaders are cautiously optimistic about Prime Minister’s plans to renew relations with Canada’s first peoples by getting rid of the Indian Act.
On Oct. 3, Prime Minister Trudeau will host a First Ministers meeting in Ottawa with national Indigenous leaders.

“Canada is making progress towards a true nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, and government-to-government relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada,” the Prime Minister said in announcing the meeting. “I look forward to meeting with Indigenous leaders and building on the real progress we have made toward renewing our relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”

Prime Minister Trudeau also signalled big changes in August with a cabinet shuffle that divided the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department into two ministries.

The former minister of the department, Carolyn Bennett, will become the new Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, dealing with treaty negotiations and replacing the Indian Act.  Former Minister of Health Jane Philpott will take on the role of Minister of Indigenous Services.

Harry Lafond, a parish administrator for the Muskeg Lake First Nation, said he welcomed the shuffle if it brings about real change inside the federal bureaucracy that has been resistant to it.
“That bureaucracy is driven by a long history of Canadian policy and laws that continue the colonizing practices of its predecessors,” Lafond said.

Some of those policies “create dependency” and a “trustee relationship that is really about controlling and micromanaging the lives of Indigenous Canadians.”

The new department under Carolyn Bennett “has the greatest potential right now of initiating a change process that will lead us to a better place,” he said. “If they don’t make this change, we’ll be stuck for another half-century of trying to change a bureaucracy that is so indoctrinated with colonizing thinking.”

The Indian Act was the driving force for previous administrations, so that even when treaties were being implemented, “that implementation was always coloured by the policies derived from the Indian Act.”

As for “getting rid of the Indian Act,” Lafond said, “I don’t think we have an option.” It was designed to control, to create a master/service relationship, he said. “You can’t have a nation-to-nation discussion when that is in the room.”

“I know there’s fear,” he said. “As long as I’ve been involved in First Nations politics, there’s been this fear: ‘What’s going to replace it?’”

Deacon Rennie Nahanee, coordinator of ministry and outreach to Indigenous peoples for the Archdiocese of Vancouver and a member of the Squamish First Nation, likes the federal government’s taking a “nation-to-nation approach.”

“We did have our governments before and those were taken away and replaced with Indian Affairs band councils,” he said.

Deacon Nahanee does not want to see First Nations’ governments treated as similar to a municipal order of government. Also, he stressed any talk of self-government without taxation “doesn’t really give a lot of power to band councils.”

While he agrees with abolishing the Indian Act, he worries about what would replace it. “As bad as it is, it does tie us into the past and gives us certain rights.”

“The Indian Act ties us to the federal government, which is responsible for the Indian people,” he said. “If taking away the Indian Act moves us to come under the provinces that would not be good.”

The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility for Indigenous Peoples that the provinces lack, he said. “They would not have to look after the Indigenous Peoples’ best interests.”

The Indian Act created the reserve system that was supposed to be a protection for Indigenous Peoples’ land, he said. The act also describes their rights and status as Indigenous Peoples for education and health care.

“Indigenous people are still mostly poor across Canada and a lot of reserves don’t have good infrastructure for housing and water,” Deacon Nahanee said. “If removing the Indian Act improves that, that would be good ... if removing the Indian Act takes away what little we have now, then that is not good.”

If Indigenous people lose their status and the reserve system, “becoming part of the Canadian system, like municipalities, we as indigenous people could disappear into nothing,” Deacon Nahanee said.

As Ottawa tries to renew relations, Lafond said he hopes the Catholic Church “opens itself up to understand the politics of what is happening.”

“We need to understand what (colonization) has done with us as a people, and the Church needs to learn to walk with us on our terms,” Lafond said. “It can’t continue to pretend to be the answer to our problems. That’s the Church’s history in the last 200 years in Canada.”

The Church was “a team player in the colonizing forces that came into our communities,” he said. The Church has to understand its role and begin a “different type of conversation with our communities.”