National Chief Shawn Atleo's bold words about repealing the Indian Act and abolishing the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, at the Assembly of First Nations general assembly this week in Moncton, are unfortunately not accompanied by a specific picture of what would replace either of those institutions. Instead, there is a diffuse discussion paper.
The Indian Act was largely misguided when first enacted in 1876. The series of patchwork amendments over the following 135 years have not turned it into a sound structure. First nations communities might well benefit from greater flexibility and freedom than the Indian Act provides for – in their memberships codes, their forms of self-government, their handling of property rights and many other matters. But the reliance that the discussion paper seems to place on the multiplicity of treaties is not a substitute for a comprehensive framework of some sort.
In any case, there will certainly continue to be fiscal transfers from the federal government to these communities. There needs to be some department or agency, by whatever name, answerable to a cabinet minister and consequently to Parliament, to deal with those transfers and to oversee that spending.
Mr. Atleo wants a government-to-government relationship. The provinces have such a relationship with Ottawa, and there has been a federal minister of intergovernmental affairs for 18 years, though with a secretariat in the Privy Council Office, rather than a full department. Perhaps what Mr. Atleo has in mind would be something analogous.
An entity smaller than a department – or a fragmented set of smaller entities for the delivery of this or that service – might not be an improvement, considering that the needs of first nations communities are so great, and so urgent. The provinces have far more political power vis-à-vis Ottawa, and vastly more revenues of their own than the first nations communities. The breakup of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs could result in a dangerous neglect of aboriginal policy.
The National Chief is a perceptive and thoughtful politician. Mr. Atleo is right that thorough-going change is needed. Canadians would be grateful for a much more clear account of what it is that he wants and what he hopes for.