Walking to Ottawa chained to the Indian Act
Last January, Leo Baskatawang decided to go for a walk—a long walk, from Vancouver to Ottawa, dragging a copy of the Indian Act chained to his body. He didn’t actually start until April 23, but the impetus for it was the Crown-First Nations Gathering three months earlier.
In the official Outcome Statement for the January 24 meeting, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office described it as “historic” and the relationship between government and First Nations as one of “mutual respect”. Conservative MP Rob Clarke, whose controversial private member’s bill to reform the Indian Act goes to second reading October 18, said it was “a success”. Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called it “a first step".
To say that Baskatawang did not see the day as historic, successful or a first step would be an epic understatement. In counterpoint to Harper’s woodsy metaphors about the Indian Act as both “a tree with deep roots” and “a tree fallen across a road”, Baskatawang came up with a metaphor of his own—the Indian Act as a ball and chain, serving little purpose but to hold Canada’s indigenous peoples back.
What could be so wrong with the Act as to inspire a 32-year-old graduate student to walk over 4,000 kilometres dragging a copy of it on the ground to make his point?
Basically, it grants the Crown tremendous powers that restrict the ability of Canada’s indigenous people to speak for themselves and move forward economically. It positions the government as a paternalistic figure and indigenous peoples as children unable to make decisions, such as how to write a will or use reserve land without the approval of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs.