Portrait of Duncan Campbell Scott.
Portrait of Duncan Campbell Scott.

A story in the Globe and Mail today (Tue, Apr 14)  is informative – not for what it states but for what it doesn’t. Here’s the lede by Bill Curry:


OTTAWA — Parliament has less than a year to craft a new definition of “Indian” before Canadian native policy risks tumbling into chaos as the existing rules for determining native status are thrown out by the courts.

The clock is ticking after the B.C. Court of Appeal set the tight deadline for the minority Parliament. It’s a ruling that has experts in native law scratching their heads, wondering how such a contentious issue can possibly be resolved in time.

Right there is the problem, not from the perspectives of that B.C. judge, Canada’s Parliamentarians, or from the Minister of Indian Affairs or anyone else from the Government of Canada. No the problem is that Indians, or First Nations (a term I loathe), would allow anyone else – most especially the colonizer – to define who they are.

The sad fact is that most Indigenous North Americans in Canada have had whatever sense of nationhood they once held so dear to be replaced by the Indian Act. They allowed (yes, allowed) this piece of Canadian law to dominate their lives. They allowed the Indian Act to displace their own governments and institutions, their own laws and customs. They allowed the Indian Act, drawn up to meet the needs of white colonists, to define who was, who wasn’t, and who could be an “Indian.” 

Indigenous peoples in Canada allowed the Indian Act to replace their own forms of local government with the federal Indian agent. The Indian Agent held the power over the lives of Indigenous peoples on behalf of whatever ministry they served.  He ruled over them completely. The Indian agent was slowly replaced by Indian Act band councils – a different version but still the Indian agent in modern dress.

Now, a court in British Columbia has given the Indian Affairs Minister, the Canadian government, Parliament, a deadline. The court has, in my opinion, misplaced that order. The court’s order should be directed instead at the Indigenous nations in Canada to come up with their own definition of membership – and citizenship – and stop waiting for white people to do it for them.

BTW, Campbell Scott (pictured) was the deputy minister for Indian Affairs at the turn of the previous century. He infamously described (paraphrase here) Indian policy in Canada as ridding the Indian in the Indian, until there were no more Indians and no more Indian problem. You can still hear the same or very similar sentiments uttered in the halls of the Canadian parliament and in society. What better reminder to Indigenous peoples why they need to stand up today.