One Thing You Didn’t Know About the Indian Act: “Equality”
Editor’s Note: Following the publication of Treaty No. 3 (1792) in March of 2019, The Ontarion has again partnered with Dr. Brittany Luby for an experiential learning collaboration between The Ontarion and Dr. Luby’s class.
IN 2019, THE PEOPLE’S PARTY OF CANADA (PPC), a new right-leaning party that has expressed xenophobic attitudes, released its platform policies. The PPC’s writing on “Aboriginal Issues,” demonstrates the vague usage of the term “equality,” suggesting that the party is unaware or ignorant of how that word was used to compromise Indigenous treaty rights in the not-so-distant past.
In 1969, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government debuted the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy. The White Paper, as it came to be known, was littered with feel-good words like “equality,” “multiculturalism,” and “just.” These words, however, were coded attempts to cut federal obligations (and, likely, expenditures). This feel-good rhetoric aimed to assimilate Indigenous people into “Canadian society” and release the federal government of its legal obligations; if Canada had no “status Indians,” then Canada would have no need for the Department of Indian Affairs (and thus no need to fund it). The major similarity between the White Paper and the PPC’s platform is the use of the word “equality” as a hint at the elimination of the Indian Act.
The 1969 White Paper required that legal and legislative bases of discrimination be removed from Canada’s legal framework and specifically advocated for the repeal of the Indian Act. This was inherently problematic, as it called for the dissolution of the Department of Indian Affairs without any plan for the continued recognition of treaty rights or an acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty. Although the Indian Act is an example of colonial racism, it lays out a specific set of rules and obligations that help to govern and facilitate an Indigenous-Crown relationship. The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs vehemently opposed the White Paper and compared the termination of unique Indigenous identities to the termination of Canadian citizenship itself. Without the Indian Act, Indigenous peoples feared that they would no longer have legal rights to treaty lands and their relationship with the federal government would be terminated altogether.
Fast forward to 2019.
The PPC announced in their platform that they will:
[E]xplore options to replace the paternalistic Indian Act, which kept indigenous peoples in a state of dependency and allows the federal government to control most aspects of their lives, with a new legal framework that guarantees equal rights and responsibilities to Aboriginal peoples as Canadians, and promotes the self-reliance of communities.
The use of vague terms like “explore options” and “most aspects” give far too much wiggle room for negative policy change, and their use of Aboriginal in federal party’s policy platform demonstrates—at best—a lack of knowledge on Indigenous issues as the term “Indigenous” is used as the most appropriate term. The PPC’s use of “self-reliance” sneakily demonstrates their desire to rid themselves of all responsibility to First Nations. Further, the PPC claims that it will maintain and respect the constitution and treaties with Indigenous nations; however, without the Indian Act, it is unclear how (and under which law) Canada will manage its treaty responsibilities.
The poorly chosen language continues throughout the PPC’s platform. We find, for example, reference to some Indigenous communities living “in conditions that resemble those of third world countries.” All the while, the PPC announced their want to “ensure that programs are better targeted to benefit the indigenous population,” (a vague way of alluding to funding cuts), which could be achievable by giving money to “communities that have the greatest needs,” (a highly problematic approach that devalues some struggles by the unnecessary comparison to others).
If the PPC or its leader, Maxime Bernier, knew about the history of Indigenous politics and resistance, they would know about the intense backlash that took place following the announcement of the 1969 White Paper — backlash that led to its withdrawal from parliament — and about the danger of abolishing the Indian Act without consultation or a plan to uphold Canada’s treaty responsibilities and to recognize Indigenous sovereignty.
Although the PPC is currently only projected to win zero to one seat in the 2019 federal election, any evidence of support of this party demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of Canadian history and the historic misuse of words like “equality” to downplay Canada’s treaty responsibilities and to suppress Indigenous sovereignty.
With the divisive election on our hands, the PPC and their platform should act as a warning Canadians and Indigenous allies that complacency is not an option in the present political climate.
To learn more about the history of the 1969 White Paper, click here.