Understanding the reserve system, the Indian Act, and how universities can help answer the Aboriginal question

Julia Riddle | Fulcrum Contributor

Illustration by Mathias MacPhee

ON DEC. 11, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence went on a hunger strike, saying she would starve herself until Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston agreed to meet with her and other First Nations chiefs. Her actions were prompted by the House of Commons passing the Conservative government’s omnibus budget implementation bill, Bill C-45, which changes various environmental laws and alters the 1876 Indian Act. The changes allow Aboriginal Peoples to sell or lease their land to non-natives through a community vote, which some critics argue violates treaty rights.

Idle No More is the name given to the social movement begun in November 2011, which gained significant momentum after Spence declared her hunger strike. The grassroots movement began with a series of teach-ins in Saskatchewan, and unites First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples along with their non-Aboriginal supporters in protests against a number of bills then before Parliament, including the omnibus budget legislation. Today the movement’s goals are to assert indigenous sovereignty and begin the work toward sustainable, renewable development.

The two movements are separate but complementary, with the overall goals being environmentally sustainable, shared resource management, the government’s respect of Aboriginal treaties, and the improvement of living conditions for Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.

The Fulcrum sat down with professors of Aboriginal studies, Aboriginal activists, and students to better understand how Canada’s Aboriginals are currently being marginalized and how universities fit in the bigger picture.

Reserves: part of the problem or the solution?
As an academic in the subject area, Dalie Giroux, interim coordinator of the Aboriginal studies program at the University of Ottawa, said there’s one question she is asked repeatedly as an academic in political science and Aboriginal studies: “The Aboriginal problem, how are we going to fix it?”

Her response was pointed, calling out the bizarre nature of the words chosen.

“It’s weird,” she said. “These are people, not a problem.”

The question in Canada is the same as it is in any colonized country: How can the original inhabitants of the land maintain their society and way of life when they have been permanently displaced?

The historical solution has been the native reserve. Reserves are treaty-protected plots of land intended to give Aboriginal Peoples a place to live, continue their traditions, and maintain their culture.

However, Canada’s Aboriginal reserves aren’t fulfilling their purpose. Statistics show that people living on reserves experience higher levels of various social problems such as poverty, drug addiction, and suicide than the rest of the country’s communities. For instance, unemployment among Aboriginal Peoples is too high to be included in the national average: in the 2006 census, it was recorded at nearly 15 per cent, in contrast to 6.3 per cent recorded and reported for the rest of the country.

Claude Denis, a political science professor at the U of O, specializes in looking at the relationship between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canadians. He explained how reserves evolved into tools of oppression rather than protection.

“The system of reserves was created at a time when the plan of the Canadian government was to assimilate ‘Indians’ and make them into ‘ordinary’ Canadians,” he said. “And while the official policy has changed—there isn’t anymore an official policy of assimilation—that’s fairly recent.”

Although Canadian policies are no longer directed toward eradicating native culture, Denis said that in practice, little has changed besides the official party line.

When faced with difficulties seemingly entrenched in the reserve system, a common response is to simply suggest said system be eliminated.

However, Rarihokwats, an Ottawa Mohawk who works as a band advisor fighting for Aboriginal rights, said, “It’s not the fault of the First Nations, it’s not the fault of the reserves themselves. The reserve is a treasured homeland. It’s not something to be done away with. It’s the only thing that people have left and the only hope for the future.”

Other experts agree that reserves are a critical element for Aboriginal Peoples to maintain their identities, since reserves provide a place for native identity to exist free of western influences.

University of Minnesota law professor John Borrows is one such expert. Borrows is a member of the Ojibwa First Nation and a leading international scholar in indigenous law. His articles and legal texts have been cited by Canadian Supreme Court judges, and his publications include the award-winning books Recovering Canada; The Resurgence of Indigenous Law and Canada’s Indigenous Constitution. Borrows believes that while currently reserves aren’t thriving, they’re still essential.

“There is a community there,” he said. “There is the ability to continue to relate to the land—language still has a place of critical mass on some of the reserves. There is a sense of continuity that is attached to the reserves.”

Matters of the law
One misconception about reserves has to do with their system of administration. The 1876 Indian Act dictates how the political system on a reserve—a band council—operates. Since the formation of the Indian Act, reserves have been required to govern themselves based on the Canadian government’s mandate, rather than by the ways in which they governed themselves for the millennia before colonization.

“A band council is not an indigenous institution, it’s a federal institution,” explained Giroux.

She argues that changing the laws so that indigenous peoples have the right to govern themselves would be a strong first step in overcoming the obstacles of the reserve system.

“We should allow them to have their own political systems, like they had for many, many, many, many years before us,” said Giroux.

Borrows spoke about the challenges created by a colonial system of government, suggesting that the best thing that could happen to improve the situation on reserves in Canada would be an internal check-and-balance system.

“Right now the chief and council [have] most of the authority on the reserve, at least formally, in the Canadian government’s sight,” he said. “And I think that makes it difficult if things are going wrong to be able to have a legitimate way of resolving disputes or holding people to accountability.”

Another element that affects self-determination is the homogeny of Canadian Aboriginal law. For instance, the band system laid out in federal law is the same for all of the different Aboriginal communities. Rarihokwats explained that often the diversity of the Aboriginal Peoples in Canada is forgotten or purposely ignored.

“It’s like Japan’s different from China, different from India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh … you know that’s an Asian person, but they’re really made up of distinct cultures,” he said. “The Mohawks and the Ojibwa and the Cree and the Mi’kmaq and so on all are very distinct cultures with languages as different as German is from Chinese.”

Some Aboriginals feel the Indian Act prevents the peoples on reserves from developing their own identities as it completely ignores the fact that a multiplicity of cultures made up North America before it was settled.

“To group them together as one group and expect that … they have to do things the same way, they all have to do the same thing, that’s part of a colonial structure,” said Rarihokwats.

Canada is a country that has “preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians” enshrined in its constitution, yet according to the 2006 census, the 600-plus distinct First Nations groups identified in Canada are governed to this day by one piece of legislation.

Improving public perception
While the experts agree that laws need to change, it’s not just legislature that paints all Aboriginals with one brush. Many individuals are also guilty of judging Aboriginal communities and people based on stereotypes, but the experts believe these perceptions can and should be changed.

Rarihokwats believes the way non-Aboriginals view Aboriginals plays a huge role in perpetuating colonialism.

“The myths that have been created, perhaps unintentionally, that are certainly well-entrenched, is not the true Canadian history,” he said. “As a result, people have no way of explaining Indian poverty except to say, ‘They’re lazy, they’re drunk, they’re this, they’re that, they’re not well-located,’ or whatever.”

But Rarihokwats argues this is racism that is not only illogical and offensive, but harmful.

“None of those arguments really make any real sense, and they are simply a diversion or an avoidance of dealing with the real issue. And the real issue is: who is the owner of the land and the resources and what are the financial arrangements that need to be made?”

It is these questions the Idle No More movement seeks to answer, while also improving public perception of Aboriginal Peoples through education.

Erica Lee is a student at the University of Saskatchewan and the cultural co-ordinator for the school’s Indigenous Students’ Council. She helped organize and spoke at the movement’s initial rallies held in Saskatoon in November 2011.

“Idle No More isn’t about one bill or one government,” Lee said in an interview with the University of Saskatchewan’s newspaper the Sheaf. “It tries to be recognizing of the processes that underlie the colonial legislation.”

Chief Spence’s hunger strike and an escalation of protests and rallies across the country and the world may be working to increasing awareness. Lee said much of the support she has seen has come from non-Aboriginal people, especially students, and reported they’re pushing for a better way to engage with the government.

According to Lee, the movement gives everyone a chance to engage in democracy, which she feels is “totally lacking in Canada right now.”

Universities’ roles
Some misconceptions about Aboriginals and reserves occur because Canadians know so little about the different peoples that were here before the Europeans.

Giroux has come across academic bias against Aboriginal knowledge throughout her career.

“We don’t teach decolonization, we don’t teach anti-colonialism, we don’t teach Aboriginal political thought, we hardly teach their literature,” she said. “It feels like we haven’t started as a society to listen to them. It feels like we have not realized yet that we have things to learn from them.”

For the past nine years, Giroux has been working to create a contemporary Aboriginal political thought course in the U of O faculty of social sciences, but until last year had never been able to do so. She believes this is evidence that there’s just not enough importance or respect given to the subject area.

“When are we going to accept the notion that [Aboriginals] have knowledge and ways to do things and that they’re very eager to put them in place?” she asked.

Giroux believes studying Aboriginals is most essential in defeating colonial attitudes.

“It’s really turning around this superiority, prejudice, saying, ‘I think we have a culture that could help you guys,’” she said.

Universities may have a role not only in educating non-Aboriginals, but also in ensuring Aboriginal students have the culturally sensitive resources they need to succeed.

Robert Kudlovich, an Aboriginal student studying science at the U of O, believes Aboriginals who move away from home sorely miss the sense of belonging that often comes with living on a reserve. Kudlovich is working toward building an Indigenous Students’ Association (ISA) on campus.

“The ISA [will be] essentially a community, a home away from home,” he explained.

Together with the Aboriginal Resource Centre (ARC), Kudlovich is working to create the ISA to expand upon the services currently provided by the ARC. Those services support Aboriginal students’ educational, professional, and personal needs in a manner consistent with their culture and values. For example, a peer-help support system and visiting-elders program aim to build community among Aboriginal students. The ARC also puts together cultural events, such as guest speakers and movie showings, for everyone interested in attending.

Kudlovich recognizes the importance of these activities in forming friendships and adjusting to life at a university that can feel far from home.

“There are Aboriginals from all over coming to the University of Ottawa,” he said. “In a world that is foreign to many Aboriginals, it’s important to be able to form a community.”

The need for momentum
“There has to be a paradigm shift; there has to be fundamental change,” said Rarihokwats when asked what he would identify as the biggest challenge facing Aboriginals in Canada. “If you go through the whole history, right from the beginning of settlement to the formation of the Dominions of Canada, and just follow it year after year after year after year, there has been no fundamental change in that, right up to the present day.”

Rarihokwats spoke about the advice given by generations of reports about how best to govern Aboriginal affairs in Canada.

“We have all the recommendations out there, the Royal Commission, the Penner Report, this report, that report, it’s all there, they keep saying the same thing. And yet this massive momentum just seems to continue. So that’s what really has to change,” he said.

“I’m not hopeful that it’s going to be changed voluntarily; in other words, I see no sign that [the] government is going to listen to that message … that means that people have to do it themselves and that may often mean confrontation, unfortunately,” Rarihokwats explained.

Denis says change needs to happen politically.

“More than any first step, what we need is the political will to change something, to change the system fundamentally, and clearly the present government doesn’t have that, and previous governments haven’t either. So the first thing is, we need political will,” said Denis.

He believes a small amount of momentum could go a long way.

“With that would come a number of things, including an acknowledgement that indigenous peoples are sovereign on their land. It’s not sovereignty that we give them, it’s sovereignty that we recognize or should recognize that they have already.”

“I am hopeful of survival, I am hopeful of that. But I’m not hopeful of voluntary change, unless your generation does it,” said Rarihokwats. “I am hopeful of your generation … let’s see if we can do it together.”