Listen Up! The 100-year old Indian Act is archaic and needs to be scrapped – Opinion

Hugh Mackenzie Huntsville Doppler

Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

Canada’s Great Shame

It was a wake-up call for many Canadians in the past week or so when news of the multiple attempted suicides in the indigenous community of Attawapiskat on James Bay finally went viral. It is indeed an epidemic in many Native communities deeply rooted in generational poverty, depression and addiction. There may well be reasons for it but there are no excuses for it, and it is our country’s great shame.

Most Canadians choose to ignore the abject conditions under which many indigenous people live, third world inhabitants in one of the most prosperous countries on earth. It is no longer a well-kept secret and it is quickly becoming a stain on our international reputation.

There are those who believe that the solution to this long-standing problem is to throw more money at it, promote the individualism of the First Nations Community and avoid assimilation into our Canadian culture at all costs. Sadly, it is much more complicated than that.

The reality is that there is plenty of blame to be spread around amongst governments, charitable organizations and First Nations leaders. For one thing, the so called Indian Act, more than 100 years old, is archaic, encourages Native dependency and in many ways treats them like children. It needs to be scrapped. We need to recognize the equality of First Nations people with other Canadians. To do that, we do not need to rob them of their distinctiveness, but equality means opportunity, resources, a hand up and not a hand out, responsibility and yes, accountability.

We need to take a serious look at why Canada’s approach to serving her indigenous people has failed. Is it a lack of funds? Taking Attawapiskat as a small example, a reported one billion dollars of government assistance has been poured into that community over the past decade. Has it made a difference? On the face of it, one would hardly think so.

In my view, we need to take a fresh and innovative approach to integrating indigenous people into a prosperous Canada, while maintaining their cultural identity. We need to treat First Nations people less as a responsibility and more as an opportunity to enrich our Canadian heritage.

First and foremost, we need to work to restore their sense of pride and self-worth. It is very difficult to think well of yourself when you rely heavily on others for survival and have no sense of personal accomplishment. Therefore, we need to ensure that resources intended to help indigenous people to become self-reliant, productive citizens, actually get into their hands. And to accomplish that, First Nations Leaders, who administer public funds, need to be held accountable for how they are spent.

During the last years of the Harper administration, legislation was put in place to require indigenous leaders receiving public funds to file annual financial statements showing how their money was spent. The Trudeau Government, although they have put a high priority on transparency, have indicated that they will expunge this requirement, which in my view is a mistake. Prosperity without accountability is too often confined to the very few and this applies to the indigenous community as well as our own. There are too many instances of Chiefs, Native Administrators and bureaucrats living in very expensive houses and enjoying a lavish lifestyle that the people they have a responsibility to serve can only dream of.

Public funds to indigenous communities should be directed toward developing industry and private sector opportunities that achieve self-reliance. The clear mandate should be the creation of jobs and opportunity and not the maintenance of welfare and poverty.

Accountability by those in charge is an important element in ensuring this will happen. While the autonomy of indigenous people must be respected it cannot override our responsibility to ensure that all Canadians, including our First Nations citizens, have equal access to the many opportunities that are available in our country, including education, jobs and mental health care.

I believe we can all agree that the disparity between non-native Canadians and many indigenous people is far too wide and must be finally and effectively resolved. Without doubt, however, there will be much disagreement about how this can be accomplished. There will be arguments about distinctiveness versus assimilation. There will be debates about who owes what to whom. At the end of the day, however, native and non-native people need to work together to find a path to ensure equal opportunity to every Canadian, regardless of their origin. Until we do, there will be more suicides and attempted suicides, more poverty, more addiction and more depression in our indigenous communities. And if we let that continue, shame on us!

Photo credit –

 Don’t miss out on Doppler! Sign up for our free, twice-weekly newsletter here


  1. It has been a bottomless pit with no or little improvement of the lot of our Native peoples . The status quo must go. Saying ” the right thing ” and doing ” the right thing ” are apparently two different things on both sides of this .

  2. Hugh, many people will agree with your article as do I. The question then is how do we as ordinary citizens proceed to encourage real change to this problem and not just leave it to elected officials who have from past experience given it lip service but have not brought the pressures required to see progress?

  3. sylvia purdon on

    Check out what is happening in Australia and New Zealand, both prosperous countries similar to Canada and equally as unable as we are to solve the problems the indigenous people present.

  4. In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau proposed to do away with the Indian Act. Much of what you articulate, Hugh, he articulated then.
    Native leadership opposed his proposal. Some 45 years later the Act is still in force and the same unacceptable conditions persist in many native communities.

  5. Two thumbs way up!!! And “industry and private sector opportunities” does not mean arts and crafts in the year 2016. Native youth must become engaged in their future through scholarships and apprenticeships. More community centres and sports and other recreational programs are required to provide avenues for those who are not academically inclined. Self esteem can produce miracles!

  6. Terry Clarke on

    Assimilation is the answer!!! If we Canadians worked as hard as we do to bring refugees from the ‘world’ then we could bring our native people to their new wonderful Canada!!!

  7. A billion dollars over ten years…. poured into a flood plain village with no prospect of meaningful jobs in that area, ever! Add a good dose of opaque accounting on both sides. stir and simmer gently and voila.. a big mess.
    Perhaps these people need to be re-settled (like the refugees from Syria?) They need a place to live where there is something meaningful to do. Too many of these outposts have lost their reason for existence as the world and society changes. We can prolong the agony by infusing cash but we have proven this does not work well. We need a totally different approach to this issue.

  8. Merrill Perret on

    Well said, Mr. Mackenzie!
    More money is obviously not the solution, and certainly not without increased responsibility and accountability. The Indian Act is rather obviously failing these people.

  9. The Indian Act is at the root of this problem. It’s a unilateral statute imposed on First Nations, not a treaty, and it dictates how First Nations are governed, how their land can be used, their health care and education (which are funded at a much lower level than our provincial systems), and more. It created the residential school system and criminalized many Aboriginal ceremonies. People living on reserves don’t own the land they live on, so the Crown can expropriate it, lease portions of it to non-First Nations people, or even move the reserve entirely. The Crown owns the houses on the reserves, so people can’t borrow money to get ahead or start businesses because they don’t have collateral. The Crown regulates how the natural resources can be used, so people can’t create their own jobs opening a gravel pit, for example, because the Crown limits how much gravel can be sold each year. Same with farming reserve lands. How can First Nations be expected to survive, much less thrive, when limited in so many ways? Aboriginal people are expected to abandon their culture and traditions and assimilate into urban society if they want to be successful. Not much has changed since the Indian Act was passed in 1876, when John A. MacDonald wrote, “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

  10. Clyde Mobbley on

    IMO this is a pretty out of control opinion piece.
    The following two paragraphs are from Pam Palmater’s blog site. I strongly suggest it be read.
    “Presenting accountability legislation as the solution implies that First Nations are the cause of their own poverty – a racist stereotype Harper’s Cons use quite frequently to divide community members from their leaders and Canadians from First Nations.”
    “But why are we even talking about salaries when we should be talking about funding First Nation food, water and housing? That’s because of C-27 FNFTA and all the media hype around an alleged lack of transparency in First Nations. There are critical problems with this legislation which make it both unconstitutional and illegal: (1) it was done without legal consultation, accommodation and consent of First Nations and (2) it’s a direct interference with inherent First Nation jurisdiction;  and (3) it violates their internationally-protected First Nation right to be self-determining.”

  11. ABORT Greed. Look at the money mining has made and the real low amount that goes back to the First Nations nearby! Why are we not talking about SCRAPPING the deal with owners who exploit resources? Make them responsible for clean up and providing CLEAN WATER or AIR. We seem to be glorifying profit take and leaving out the humanity factor. Hello to Hugh from his former radio host “Tom Deen”

Leave a reply below. Comments without both first & last name will not be published. Your email address is required for validation but will not be publicly visible.