British Columbia

Indigenous author says Indian Act is overdue for change

Bob Joseph is an Indigenous relations trainer and author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, and says the Indian Act is long overdue for a change.

'The Indian Act really was designed to take away cultures ... that sort of melting pot ideology'

Bob Joseph, the author of 21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act, believes learning about the act is essential for reconciliation. (Bob Joseph/Facebook)

The Indian Act has been around nearly as long as Canada and has shaped the lives of Indigenous people by giving the federal government the power to determine their identity, governance and livelihoods, says an Indigenous author.

Bob Joseph, author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, says the Act is long overdue for a change.

He sat down with On the Coast's Gloria Macarenko to discuss how Indigenous communities are reclaiming their power.

The Indian Act is, of course, an expansive piece of policy. What was your criteria for narrowing the Act down to 21 things?

I think a lot of it was decided by some of the reaction at two perceptions: they're lazy and they don't want to work.

But if you look at some of the provisions of the Indian Act they weren't allowed to sell produce. They actually had to get permits to sell produce, so they wouldn't have fared well in agricultural communities like a lot of provinces in the country are.

To make it worse, we leased out their land, because they weren't as enterprising as we thought they could be with their reserve land, so those would be a couple of things.

You work as an Indigenous relations trainer. How does your day job interact with the Indian Act?   

I help people work effectively with Indigenous people.

When we're doing intercultural communications, one of the things we understand is that people will bring their culture, history, community, values, and beliefs with them to the conversation.

We share that with people, so they have an understanding about cross cultural communications.

The book mentions that the Indian Act allowed land to be taken from the Kitsilano reserve and then be used by the government for railway projects and development. How does this part of the Indian Act resonate today with projects like the Kinder Morgan Pipeline extension?

It still is relevant, if Kinder Morgan does have any pipeline running across reserve lands. It's so hard to develop reserve lands because of an old paternalistic document.

If you decide to go across those federally held Crown lands, you have to involve Indigenous (people), Northern Affairs Canada, Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and then the big one is the Department of Justice. They're going to look at the whole conversation and try to decide, if we approve this, will we get sued in 50 years.

It still is a very negative impact on communities and development in Canada, for some of the liabilities it undertakes with this system that really was designed to assimilate

You say that the Indian Act needs to be dismantled and that self-government is the way forward for Indigenous people. What does that look like?

There's many different forms, actually models we can draw on already right out of B.C.

We have the Nisga'a Nation ... where we saw the creation of the Nisga'a Lisims government, which was really a traditional government.

They'll elect a president, but they determine who their people will be by showing descendancy to a Nisga'a matriarch.

They did a whole bunch of things inside of that treaty that really helped them to be self determining. Nobody in Ottawa gets to tell us who our people are. They created that Nisga'a Lisims government.

And (they're) self reliant. They can participate in the political and economic mainstream in a way that protects their culture, because the Indian Act really was designed to take away cultures, make everybody the same and that sort of melting pot ideology.

This interview aired on On The Coast on April 10 and has been edited for clarity and structure. To hear the complete interview, click on the audio below.