First Nations’ MP Rob Clarke believes the Idle No More movement has “no clear direction.” Photo by Deborah Gyapong

First Nations’ MP seeks to amend Indian Act

By 
  • January 24, 2013

While Idle No More protests and blockades continue sporadically across Canada, the Conservatives’ Aboriginal Caucus chair is busy tackling the outdated Indian Act.

MP Rob Clarke, a member of the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, originally entitled his private member’s Bill C-428 “An Act to Repeal the Indian Act” with the intention of having it repealed within two years. However, he has revised it to take a more incremental approach.

Bill C-428 now will amend and update the Indian Act, and prompt a yearly process of review and dialogue with First Nations on further changes should it pass. And now that the Conservative government has thrown its support behind the bill, it stands a good chance of becoming law.

“This is going to be one of the toughest debates I’m ever going to see or experience and one of the hottest topics currently facing Canadians at this time,” said Clarke in an interview from his riding.

Clarke, who was first elected in 2008 to represent the northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé– Missinippi–Churchill River, is one of five aboriginal MPs in the Tory caucus. The Aboriginal Caucus includes these five plus one Conservative Senator. There are two aboriginal NDP MPs but they are not part of this caucus.

While welcoming the grassroots nature of Idle No More and understanding the frustrations among First Nations peoples, Clarke expressed concern some chiefs have co-opted it for their own purposes. He said he is worried about calls for blockades of highways and rail lines and the potential for civil disobedience that could risk lives of First Nations demonstrators and police. He also noted the presence of big union activists who were also involved in the Occupy Wall St. movement and the student protests in Quebec.

As a former RCMP officer who served 18 years in First Nations communities in Saskatchewan, Clarke expressed concern for public safety and for threats by some to shut down routes to the oil sands, major border crossings or major highways and rail lines.

“We’re worried about our economy, about job growth and keeping the economy strong,” he said. “If Idle No More or individuals start to affect industry or the potential for economic growth that could hurt First Nations’ businesses on reserves.

“Their credibility is affected,” he said. “It’s also an issue of trust.”

Clarke expects his bill to go before a House of Commons committee after a late February vote and that’s where real consultation will begin.

Many First Nations leaders want the Indian Act repealed, he said. But others depend on it. The diffuse nature of the latest grassroots uprising has not brought clarity.

“Idle No More is all over the map. There’s no clear direction.”

Clarke hopes his bill will start a real, on-the-record debate on the Indian Act, enacted in 1876, that has “created dependency.”

“It’s also created an industry,” he said.

The federal government has put billions of dollars into education, fresh water and waste water treatment and housing, but sometimes it is difficult to find where those dollars end up actually helping people on reserves.

“The money is not filtering down to the service providers,” he said.

The positive changes don’t make the news in the way negative stories do, he noted.

There are more than 600 First Nations and he does not expect consensus, but he pointed out many First Nations are already operating with new agreements with the federal government and experiencing great success in building businesses and employing not only their own people but those in surrounding areas.

Among the amendments to the Indian Act Clarke’s Bill C-428 proposes:

o Repeal the section on wills and estates that says the Indian Affairs Minister must approve wills in order for them to be valid;
o Repeal the section that does not allow First Nations to sell their produce without the Minister’s permission;
o Repeal of the section that forces First Nations to get ministerial approval of their by-laws;
o Repeal of any sections that restrict trade with First Nations;
o Repeal of how First Nations peoples are described and the removal of all references to residential schools.

On his web site, Clarke explains most First Nations leaders and grassroots members want the Indian Act “replaced with legislation that will redefine the relationship between the Crown and First Nations.”

“As someone who grew up with the Indian Act as a part of my life, and as a former RCMP officer charged with enforcing the Indian Act, I understand the barriers that have been placed in the way of our people — economic, social and cultural barriers — that have stood in the way of our growth and development as healthy communities.”

 

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