07/17/2013 02:18 EDT | Updated 09/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba chief says he threw away Indian Act card as act of 'emancipation'

ONION LAKE, Sask. - One of Canada's most outspoken aboriginal critics says he threw away his Indian Act card as an act of emancipation and is encouraging others to reject the "racist policies" of the past in their own way.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he threw the card in the garbage at a National Treaty Gathering of rival chiefs in Onion Lake, Sask. The Assembly of First Nations is holding its annual meeting this week in Whitehorse, Yukon, highlighting the growing schism within the country's aboriginal leadership.

Both the Indian Act and the Assembly of First Nations are "relics" of the past, Nepinak said in an interview Wednesday.

"We've been subjecting ourselves to the prescriptive processes and the prescriptive policies of the Indian Act for far too long," he said.

"We need to emancipate ourselves and we need to decolonize ourselves. Emancipation starts with a rejection of the Indian Act and the control mechanisms that are tied to that entire process.

"We've grown tired of it ... we're done with it."

Comparing the current system to apartheid South Africa, Nepinak said the idea of a "status Indian" was created through racist policies designed to control aboriginal people. Government bureaucrats should no longer get to determine who is eligible to belong to an aboriginal community, he said.

"We're already seeing generations of young people being born into the world who cannot have access to band citizenship on the basis of their disqualification from Indian Act status," Nepinak said. "As strong indigenous people, we need to recreate ourselves outside of that context, back to a truer form of who we are."

While Nepinak used the stage at the rival treaty gathering to throw away his Indian Act card publicly, he also used the pulpit to criticize the Assembly of First Nations.

The current system of treaty negotiation with the federal government, under the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations, isn't working, Nepinak said. The organization has become dependent on federal cash, much of which is dedicated to implementing federal policies, he said.

"It's a bit of a relic now," he said. "It's a relic of a bygone era when policies and programs were OK for us. It's not that way any more."

Chief Shawn Atleo has said it's not the role of AFN to negotiate on anyone's behalf, but rather help clear the way for nation-to-nation negotiations to proceed. He has called for unity among aboriginal people but says AFN does not have to be the only voice for First Nations people.

— By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version spelled Nepinak's name incorrectly