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21 Things This Book Can Tell You about the Indian Act

Bob Joseph’s new book explains Indian Act’s attempts at assimilation and how Canadians can find a hopeful path forward.

Katie Hyslop 16 Mar

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

Reconciliation runs in Bob Joseph’s family. The son of Reconciliation Canada founder Chief Robert Joseph of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, Bob Joseph has spent more than 20 years training corporations and Canadian governments to work effectively and respectfully with Indigenous communities through his business Indigenous Corporate Training.

As part of that work Joseph spends a lot of time educating non-Indigenous people about the Indian Act, legislation almost as old as Canada itself. Yet most Canadians know nothing about it.

“So I thought I’d just put together a [blog] post, ‘21 Things You May Not Have Known About the Indian Act’ just as a way to get that information out there to people,” Joseph said in a phone interview with The Tyee earlier this week.

The piece went viral, accumulating 55,000 shares on Facebook alone. Three years later the article still gets upwards of 1,500 hits a month.

“People were definitely interested in it, and that’s what got us thinking here’s a chance, something that really peaks a curiosity for people to deep dive Indigenous issues. We should really think about expanding on the ‘21 Things’ and offering a few hints for reconciliation,” he said.

That expansion turned into a book of the same name, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, which comes out April 10. While the Act is much larger and more comprehensive than the book, Joseph touches on the key elements of racism and inequity Indigenous people living in Canada still experience today. That includes the forced internment on reserves, the Canadian government determining band membership and the forced removal of thousands of Indigenous children from their communities, language and culture via our ongoing child welfare crisis.

Joseph provides a path to move forward that requires partnership between an educated settler population and Indigenous people. The Tyee spoke to Joseph about his book, the Act, and why he remains hopeful about our collective future.

What does reconciliation mean to you?

A little bit of a look back into history to see where we’ve come from, what the thinking was and to really contrast it with where we are now and what the future can bring. And there’s lots of opportunities there for all Canadians.

Why should non-Indigenous people care about the Indian Act?

Because you can actually dismantle it like the current federal government is talking about and replace it with other forms of governance. I think it will fundamentally change the relationship.

[Government’s] big concern, obviously, is how much money goes into running programs: healthcare, housing, education, that kind of stuff. And unfortunately the Indian Act and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, not so much recently but in its heyday, was designed to assimilate. And it seemed that assimilation would happen, and the feds took on a fiduciary duty or legal obligation to continue to fund it until they assimilated. So that number has actually grown into a pretty staggering number.

But in essence, though, it’s really created dependency problems with peoples and communities, which they’re unhappy with to the point of saying, we want to get out of this relationship, we want to dismantle the Indian Act, we want to become self-reliant. They’re really looking for three selfs: self-determination, nobody in Ottawa gets to tell us who our people are anymore; self-government, we can govern ourselves and be transparent and accountable in the Canadian state; and self-reliance, we’ll look after ourselves.

The Nisga’a Nation used to be an Indian Act band with Indian Act chief and council, but through the negotiation of treaties they actually dismantled the Indian Act and took on their own form of government, the Nisga’a Lisims government. My big test for it all is you don’t hear much about them, which to me it means things are working. If things weren’t working we’d certainly hear about it.

Just the financial benefits alone are staggering. I remember years ago the Vancouver Sun, ’94 or ’95, ran an article talking about the cost of Indian land claims and that they would be $10 billion. And taxpayers were disappointed: the economy was in a tailspin, there was a deficit and a debt, and now they were going to have to pay another $10 billion.

But what if I told you we could self-finance a $10 billion treaty process if we just changed the funding relationship, and gave people an opportunity to be more self-reliant?

PricewaterhouseCoopers was commissioned in the early 1990s by the province to take an economic impact assessment of [settling] land claims on B.C.’s economy. At that time, they estimated about $1 billion of direct investment, plus about 1,500 jobs, just in two sectors: forestry and mining.

So what I would tell people is we can self-finance $10 billion B.C. treaty process in about five years if we change the funding relationship, the funding transfers, and stopped spending all the money on fighting court cases about the land claims. It would be a much cheaper proposition, plus I think there would be more prosperity. Certainly the Nisga’a are interested in economic opportunities.

Where would this self-sufficiency money come from?

When we talk about the Treaty Process, people often think: is that treaty a cookie cutter? And I always like to tell my learners no, you’re a chef, but you’re not a pastry chef. You’re a dim sum chef with 16 menu items and each community will decide which menus items work for them.

So some of them will be very pro-business, but when I say that we can compare the Nisga’a to the Westbank First Nation, who has over 10,000 non-First Nations people living on lands paying leaseholder fees and taxes to Westbank First Nation. So that’s their style of economic development, where Nisga’a, because of their location, was looking into forestry resources. I’m certain that they’re collecting stumpage fees and mining royalties, and all of the other things that they negotiated.

So there will be some difference in how they achieve that self-reliance piece, but certainly there was a transfer of cash, a transfer of lands and resources. Nisga’a actually agreed to pay taxes, they saw more net benefit to the Nisga’a nation if their people were paying taxes than if they weren’t paying taxes.

Would that mean the end of federal funds for First Nations people entirely?

Yeah, through the Indian Act it would. But what the Nisga’a said was if our people are paying taxes, they should be entitled to programs available to other Canadians, taxpayer equity funding, because they’re taxpayers now. So that was a big deal for them, because if we looked at just education they got a certain amount of money to run their K through 12 education and there was less money for band schools than there were for other schools.

So they were saying if we’re paying taxes, we want taxpayer equity funding, because that’s just what every Canadian gets for the payment of taxes, and that’s where they saw that more long-term benefit to the Nisga’a nation.

Weren’t they already paying taxes?

It would depend on whether or not they were working on reserve. If you’re a status Indian working on reserve and being paid on reserve, then you’re considered tax exempt. Section 87 of the Indian Act talks about the tax exemption piece. You could be a status Indian but not work on the reserve and that becomes a much tougher proposition to get income tax exempt because Revenue Canada really looks at where the work is occurring and where they’re being paid.

There is truth to the notion that they don’t pay taxes, but not all of them. Especially remote communities, I don’t know what the levels of unemployment are, but it starts to give you an idea of how many people would actually benefit from an income tax exemption.

But when we talk about Nisga’a, though, because they transferred title of the reserve, the Indian Act disappears, the governance is replaced by a Nisga’a Lisims and some village governments. That’s certainly not available to them: they’re participating in the economy, paying taxes. That’s been a long-term objective. What they were saying and many others is give us some land and some resources, give us the ability to make decisions about those lands and resources, and we’ll participate in the political and economic mainstream, but in a way that protects our culture.

21 Things gives an opportunity for people to see some of the things that were part of that Indian Act that really were designed to assimilate. Women could lose status by marrying non-Indian men, that meant you couldn’t live on reserve. It was the basis for residential schools, we need to take away the kids to really have influence on them.

If we think just about reserves, think about a utility that wants to run a corridor on the reserve, the best practice today is to go the band and try to find some arrangement with the band in order to have it there. But they still need to have Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in to sign the paper because title to the reserves rests with Her Majesty.

So it created the band council system; it banned potlatches, powwows and ceremonies; it didn’t let them vote until 1960 federally — they were considered anybody other than persons; they had to get permits to sell.

[Chief Robert Joseph] actually did some peace mission work and they travelled to the Middle East. They were talking to Palestinians and Israelis and trying to spread the word of peace. He came back from that it was one of the most horrible things he’d ever witnessed, the animosity and how vitriolic people can be. He said we’re not doing that, we’re not going to let this country go that way, that’s not healthy for anybody’s kids.

How do you dismantle the Indian Act without hurting the people who currently rely on the services?

That’s what the challenge is for Indian and North Affairs Canada, and they’re saying we’re going to look at it on a case by case basis, to experiment and figure it out. And I think that it comes down to sort of a governance question, and that the communities should really drive, and I think Paul Martin’s made a lot of sense in some of his comments: they get to decide what it looks like, they should come to the table when it’s ready, and then they can slowly figure out how to make that transition.

Not too slowly, though. If there’s pilot programs and over 600 bands: you do two pilot programs a year, then that’s 300 years to make the change. I think it has to happen quicker than that.

In B.C. would those community-driven conversations be the same as treaty negotiations?

It can happen in treaties, but we’ve also seen self-government conversations happen outside of treaty negotiations. Westbank First Nation, for example, wasn’t able to work it out with their fellow community members. So they have a self-government agreement that allows them to govern their reserve lands and resources without having to go to the Minster of Indian Affairs for every decision.

How important is the transfer of land? Some people say reconciliation can’t happen without it.

If you think about a community with reserve land, they don’t own it, it’s harder to sell. The best you can do is a 99-year head lease. The big problem for the members is they can’t borrow money against it. It gets into other social issues like basic housing.

There are instances where the government has said we’re going to do a First Nations home owners loan program, so they’ll lend you the money to do the bricks and mortar, but you still don’t own the dirt you build on. And most Canadians will tell you the money’s in the dirt, not the depreciating asset piece.

But there’s a really fundamental piece here: that whole Nisga’a treaty process was fundamentally a human rights process, the ability of people to be who they are, where they are, for as long as that’s possible. They didn’t come here from anywhere. So they really need a place and a space to protect their cultures and look after their people.

When you look back at the Indian Act, we were actually trying to take all of that away from them.

What gives you faith that we can untangle the relationship between Indigenous people and settlers?

Faith in the Constitution: Section 35 recognizes and affirms the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

I was just downtown yesterday training one of the big federal agencies, and you can see a shift. When I get there they’re asking why should we do this? What’s in it for me? And why can’t they be equal?

By the time they leave they’re saying how can we fix this? What can we do? How can we change this? And they’re actually really taking in the hints and tips on how to work on things effectively, protocol, pronunciation.

Honestly I think most settlers want it to change. I’ve had lots of people apologize to me personally. I don’t know how to deal with that, actually. All I can say is thank you. Sometimes, though, on the legal side for political reasons we do a lot of legal challenges.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Politics

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