Ottawa Looks To Change Indian Act

Government, aboriginal leaders in talks on how to boost accountability to natives


From Monday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA The federal government is consulting aboriginal leaders on how to replace the 1876 Indian Act and increase the accountability of chiefs, councillors and Ottawa to aboriginal citizens, says Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice.

Mr. Prentice said senior officials in his department have suggested that he bring in the "basic approach" of the controversial first nations governance act, which died in 2003 because aboriginals protested against what they said was a top-down approach that lacked consultation. In an interview, Mr. Prentice said transparency and governance issues are important, but he does not see a need to bring back that act, which was the last major attempt to update the Indian Act.

"Those are important things that we're going to have to work on," he said, but stressed that "there's no intention to do anything that does not involve full consultation with aboriginal people."

The governance act was billed as an interim option for bands that wished to move away from the antiquated Indian Act while they continued to negotiate full self-government agreements. It laid out minimum standards for bands regarding the conduct of elections and the type of information band governments should provide to their citizens. Mr. Prentice noted that in the past few years, there have been several acts, including the First Nations Land Management Act and the First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act, that have addressed some of the concerns about governance.

"I think [the governance act has] been superseded by other events," he said. "But it contained provisions relating to the electoral process; it contained provisions relating to accountability; it contained other provisions relating to financial issues, if you will, financial codes and such. There's actually been some pretty significant developments since then in some of the legislation that was introduced in the last Parliament. And I think all of that needs to be considered.

"There needs to be an extensive consultation process with the [Assembly of First Nations] and with the other aboriginal organizations to move forward on those issues. I mean, they will clearly work best if there's a level of support, and what I hear in talking to first nation leaders is a desire to move forward with those kinds of initiatives themselves, so I think that we're making significant progress already," he said.

Mr. Prentice said his preference is to go back to what the Conservative Party proposed at its founding policy forum in 2004. The party called for separate legislation for each of the services Ottawa delivers to aboriginals, such as housing, education and health care.

Mr. Prentice pointed to the recent Auditor-General's report, which also called for legislation to spell out what services federal public servants should be delivering and what services aboriginals should expect.

"We have started already to move on that," Mr. Prentice said.

A briefing note to Mr. Prentice on changes to the Indian Act, obtained by The Globe and Mail through the Access to Information Act, suggests a piece-by-piece approach would be easier and more affordable than attempting to bring in "a new Indian Act." However, two other options are blanked out on the grounds that they contain advice to a minister.