By Gary Kenny
Early on in my career as a human rights researcher and activist, I worked with individuals and organizations committed to helping Black South Africans end their country’s notorious system of Apartheid. It never ceased to disappoint me how so few of us Canadians were aware of Canada’s own long-time support of South Africa’s racist Apartheid system.
Perhaps we can be forgiven. Successive Canadian governments didn’t acknowledge that sordid part of Canada’s history. And in those days anyway, one would be hard-pressed to find much about the subject in the media or textbooks.
In fact, Canada – or more pointedly, Canada’s legislated treatment of Indigenous peoples through the (still existing) Indian Act – once served as a template in the creation of South Africa’s Apartheid system.
As Canadian political scientist Linda Freeman documents in her book, Ambiguous Champion, “In the years when South Africa’s White Nationalist government was building the Apartheid system, South African officials regularly came to Canada to examine reserves set aside for First Nations.”
Hosted by Canadian governments of the day, representatives of the Apartheid state studied the oppressive regulations embedded in the Indian Act – a set of laws that forms the foundation of much of Canada’s historical – and present-day – relationship with Indigenous peoples.
How Canada addressed its “Indian problem” helped the South African government solve its “Black problem.”
The Indian Act was proclaimed in 1876 – unilaterally, without any consultation with Indigenous communities across Canada – and consolidated earlier colonial legislation. It gave the Crown the complete control it sought over the lives of Indigenous peoples.
Sir John A. MacDonald, prime minister at the time, believed the Act would ensure that the dream of a nation “from sea to sea” could unfold unhindered by “Indians, savages or heathens” – those who he and others deemed inferior, sub-human, or not human at all. They were to be “civilized and Christianized “– assimilated – into the fuller humanity and community of settler Canadians.
In its sweep, the Act was designed to terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political distinctiveness of Indigenous peoples through absorption into mainstream Canadian life and values. It replaced traditional structures of governance with elected band councils. It gave the Crown restrictive control over the rights of Indigenous peoples to practice their cultures and traditions.
It also enabled the government to determine the Indigenous land base, which today is a cross-Canada archipelago of mostly small reserves. It determines who qualifies as “Indian” in the form of “Indian status.”
Likely with regret now, Canada’s theological institutions of the day effectively consented to the Act. They didn’t critically analyze the theological basis of the colonial legislation’s assumptions of superiority.
Calling Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, and specifically the Indian Act, “apartheid” may seem exaggerated, even extreme. Not so for many prominent Indigenous leaders.
In response to a 2017 Globe and Mail editorial that took issue with the term, Senator Murray Sinclair, a lawyer and former chairperson of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, replied, “Excuse me, but apartheid is exactly what happened here.”
Sinclair continued: “Through chicanery, lies, and duplicity (read broken treaties), the government lulled (Indigenous leaders) into a false sense of security, and after asserting the extension of Canada’s legal jurisdiction, enacted apartheid laws over them…That apartheid system still exists, and it is what we, who are working for reconciliation, are all working to dismantle.”
While the Indian Act has undergone numerous amendments, it largely retains its original form. Which begs the question: In this era when Canadians are increasingly waking up to the multitude of injustices heaped on the First Peoples of this land, and demanding redress, why hasn’t the Act been abolished? Why does such a pernicious statute remain on the federal books?
As my research for this column demonstrated, the answer is complex. And even among Indigenous peoples, perspectives differ.
“Yes, the Indian Act is racist; it was designed with the intention of legislating Indians out of existence,” wrote Mi’kmaw lawyer Pamela Palmater in MacLean’s magazine. The most offending sections at least should be amended, she said.
However, Palmater added, “the complexities of the Indian Act go beyond racism. (For Indigenous peoples) it also serves as a legislative tool by which to hold the federal government accountable for their legal responsibilities.”
Palmater is referring to various legal protections contained in the Act, like tax exemptions for property on reserves, and the protection of reserve lands from seizure. Abolishing the Act, she says, would place Indigenous lands “under provincial jurisdiction and vulnerable to the provincial governments’ voracious extraction and development appetites.”
The way forward, Palmater believes, is not the abolishment of the Act but direct negotiations between the federal government and actual, rights-bearing First Nations governments.
It means, Palmater added, that some First Nations might opt out of some or all aspects of the Act. It might mean that some will prefer to negotiate municipal-style governing arrangements, while others may want inter-governmental agreements that respect their sovereignty and jurisdiction in all areas.
“If we get this nation-to-nation partnership process part right, then the Indian Act eventually becomes irrelevant, but at a pace which works for First Nations without any risks to their rights,” Palmater said. “The honour of the Crown and the (original) spirit and intent of the treaties demand no less.”
In the meantime, there’s much that Canadians can do to call out the Indian Act’s apartheid essence. In 1984 The United Church of Canada declared South Africa’s Apartheid a heresy. Other churches followed suit resulting in greater pressure on the Canadian government to act against the South African government.
Canada’s churches could also declare the Indian Act a heresy. It might provide the federal government with the moral incentive it seems to lack in ending once and for all Canada’s profoundly unjust treatment of Indigenous peoples. ◊