OTTAWA - An influential lobby group with close ties to the federal Conservatives is recommending that Ottawa ditch the Indian Act and give First Nations more control over their land in order to end aboriginal poverty once and for all.
On the surface of it, those are goals that First Nations could agree with. But any agreement ends at the superficial level.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation — architects of a campaign to open up chiefs' books to the public that was instrumental in recent federal legislation to publish salaries and benefits — is now urging Ottawa to treat First Nations people like everyone else.
"For the sake of kids living in poverty on too many reserves, we don't need another decade with more social programs and tinkering," said Colin Craig, the group's Prairie director.
"We need a new approach, one that treats all Canadians the same and connects aboriginal people with jobs and opportunities."
Craig said that means Ottawa should get rid of legislation such as the Indian Act, parts of the Criminal Code that allow for reduced sentences, as well as arts grants for aboriginals — all while respecting treaties and the Constitution.
Ottawa should, however, be proactive in giving aboriginal people in remote communities the support they need to move to areas where they can find jobs and education, he said.
The federation also says band members should be able to own their homes, and develop, lease or sell their reserve land without Ottawa's permission.
The group is also proposing a pilot project that would see funding go directly to band members, and then have the band council tax some of it back to pay for services.
"Whatever the Harper government decides to move ahead with, it should first discuss the changes with grassroots taxpayers and grassroots people living on reserves," Craig said.
The proposals are bound to be controversial.
The federation made many enemies among First Nations leaders when it published a list of high salaries going to chiefs and pushed for legislative changes.
The Assembly of First Nations has also resisted some proposed changes to land and home ownership, althoug it also has some proposals of its own on that front.
And while many chiefs say they want to get rid of the Indian Act, the assembly argues that it needs to be done methodically so that there is a better structure in place — based on treaty and aboriginal rights — by the time the old structure disappears.
Having the law treat aboriginals just like everyone else doesn't make sense when aboriginals find themselves in a very different situation that most people, said Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief for British Columbia.
"While we all agree that the Indian Act should be done way with ... there is still a need for 'catch up' for our peoples which is why affirmative action programs are still needed and required," she said in an email.
On land management and home ownership, the regional chief said First Nations are indeed experimenting with many new arrangements and striving for more direct control of their land and property.
"What we don’t want is for Canada to design it for us."
As for supporting people to move off reserves for jobs and education, Wilson-Raybould said Ottawa should not expect people to give up their homes and attachment to the land.
Rather, support is needed to enable First Nations to take a greater equity stake in the natural resource developments that are often in their traditional backyards, she said.
Impatience among First Nations with the existing system is boiling over. Chiefs are squaring off against each other and aboriginal protesters are in the streets in growing numbers.
Craig said he wanted to inject some policy discussion into the protests, and that's why he chose to publish his proposals on Tuesday.
He acknowledged that the federal government already supports legislation aimed at eventually getting rid of the Indian Act, has taken measures on accountability, and has provisions for leasing and land development in the latest omnibus budget bill.
"The government is making some good strides in some of these areas," he said. "We're encouraging them to go further."
Craig said he has heard from many First Nations citizens who like his ideas.
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