Metlakatla cautiously optimistic on Indian Act reform

At least one of the major First Nations on the North Coast is cautiously optimistic about the renewed debate in Canada about whether the Indian Act needs a complete overhaul. Chief Harold Leighton of the Metlakatla First Nation says that the fact that its receiving discussion is a step in the right direction, but has seen attempts to reform the legislation fail before.

At least one of the major First Nations on the North Coast is cautiously optimistic about the renewed debate  in Canada about whether the Indian Act needs a complete overhaul. Chief Harold Leighton of the Metlakatla First Nation says that the fact that its receiving discussion is a step in the right direction, but has seen attempts to reform the legislation fail before.

“We’re hoping that it will be totally overhauled and that there’ll be major changes, but, there are going to be some first nations that resist that,” says Leighton.

The debate over whether or not to reform the Indian Act was reignited last week when the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shaun Atleo, called upon the federal government to reshape the relationship between aboriginal groups and Ottawa into a “government-to-government” relationship. Something that will require sweeping changes to the legislation that governs that relationship; legislation originally written during colonial times.

“That’s the  guidelines we’re working under. They’re that outdated,” says Leighton.

One of Metlakatla’s biggest grievances with the current Indian Act, according to Chief Leighton, is the rules that govern land-use. First Nations are required to get approval from the Minister of Indian Affairs for almost any project that would use what is now considered to be crown land. The need for government approval of almost every single project slows down development considerably. Metlakatla would like to have that requirement dropped entirely and First Nations given full control over how their  land is used.

“On reserve, when it comes to land, you can’t do any kind of development without getting the Minister of Indian Affairs involved in everything from the smallest project to the largest project,” says Leighton, “we’ve been trying to renew a lease, and its been five years now that we’ve been working with Indian Affairs and we still don’t have it,”

If the Metlakatla First Nation could have its way, according to Leighton, the Indian Act would be completely scrapped and negotiations for a self-governance agreement for all First Nations in Canada would be negotiated. Such an agreement would give aboriginal communities greatly increased independence from the federal government, with much more control over its own affairs without having Ottawa always looking over their shoulder. Leighton says that First Nations are not looking for sovereignty if that is what some people are worried about.

“[Some people have] said that First Nations wanted to be sovereign. That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard . . . First Nations do want to control whatever we’re dealing with in terms of land, revenues, education and  a whole range of topics that do fall under the Indian Act and shouldn’t be there,” says Leighton.

For the moment though, the process is not much  more than talk about reform, but with a call to action from a national Aboriginal leader and an apparently willing NDP ready to tackle the issue, it up to the Conservative government to decide to open up a process that would almost take months or years of intense negotiations.

The Prince Rupert Northern View tried to ask the Chiefs of the Haida and Lax Kw’alaams First Nations for their comments, but neither were available.