Their plans are as different as their two widely separated homelands. But for the 650-member Sechelt Indian Band of British Columbia’s scenic Sunshine Coast and the 20,000 Cree and Ojibway of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation in rugged Northern Ontario, the dream is the same: the start of a bold experiment in native self-government in place of the overweening control of the 109-year-old federal Indian Act.
Ontario and Ottawa are poised to announce that they will negotiate self-government agreements with the Nishnawbe-Aski, whose 42 communities in Northern Ontario stretch from Red Lake to Timmins, and eventually with the province’s other Indian groups. At the same time, federal legislation is already being drafted with the Sechelt Band and the British Columbia government to grant unique municipal government powers to the band council.
Such progress seemed remote eight months ago, when a first ministers’ conference on native rights ended in failure (Maclean’s, April 15). The federal strategy now is clearly to establish demonstration models of native selfgovernments. The fivemonth-old government of Ontario Liberal Premier David Peterson, for one, supports the idea. An Ontario cabinet document on native selfgoverment obtained by Maclean's recommended that Ontario begin negotiating the terms of native government before a possible constitutional amendment in 1987 forces the issue. Said the document dated Sept. 20: “We would not then be faced with aboriginal governments springing up all over the country, defending their rights in the courts.”
The Sechelt and Nishnawbe-Aski visions of self-government differ, but the two groups share an impatience to begin. In an interview, Sechelt Chief Councillor Stanley Dixon recited a list of at least eight major projects that
his band council is anxious to begin as soon as the Sechelt self-government legislation is approved by Parliament, possibly early in the new year. Projects planned on the reserve’s holdings of more than 2,500 acres of land scattered around the Sechelt Peninsula northwest of Vancouver include a 400boat marina-hotel complex at Wilson
Creek and a condominium complex on Porpoise Bay.
Before any of the projects can be realized, the band will have to be freed from the provisions of the Indian Act, which requires the Crown to own and control reserve lands and grants the department of Indian affairs sweeping powers over band policies. The band’s proposals would make the act a legal entity.
Indian control over vast tracts of reserve land in Northern Ontario will also be the key to negotiations between the Nishnawbe-Aski and the two levels
of government. The Ontario cabinet document listed areas to be negotiated, including Indian ownership of reserve lands and control of mineral rights, the funding of band-managed school boards, governments and social programs, and the possibility of “guaranteed participation in existing legislatures and even on school boards and other special purpose bodies.” For his part, Grand Chief Dennis Cromarty of the Nishnawbe-Aski people told Maclean's that a self-government agreement will likely require, initially, substantial increases in financial support from both levels of government. “As it is now,” said Cromarty, “I’d say our communities are probably the poorest in the country.” Cost is not the only stumbling block. Other questions are raised by the provincial cabinet document and an internal federal paper obtained by Maclean’s on the Sechelt negotiations. Among the concerns: under native self-government, would aboriginal laws take precedence over conflicting federal or provincial regulations? Would the federal government be liable if a band broke a contract or ran into financial difficulty? For its part, the Assembly of First Nations, the organization representing a majority of Canada’s status Indians, told Maclean’s negotiated settlements might result in watered-down, municipal-style governments that will undermine the constitutional talks and dilute Indian culture. Dixon dismissed that concern in an interview. “When you are a ward of the Crown,” he asked, “what is your culture?”
In the meantime, Cromarty said he hoped that the Ontario government would agree to begin negotiations soon, so an agreement can be in place before a scheduled 1987 constitutional conference. Noting the poverty, high mortality rates, social problems and poor living standards that have afflicted many Northern Ontario reserves under non-native governments, he added, “We could not do much worse.”
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