Mr. Speaker, I am honoured and happy to rise today to support the hon. member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River in his laudable efforts to engage the House in this very timely and historical debate on the Indian Act of 1876. This debate is long overdue.
We proudly and rightly declare that Canada stands for truth, justice, freedom, equality, democracy, independence, and prosperity, but the continued plight of the institutionalized inequality of the first nations people is our great hypocrisy. We cannot bask in our understanding of constitutions and the principles of justice and freedom and celebrate our heritage of liberty and prosperity, and be justified to ignore the continuing plight of those who live in cramped third-world conditions, those who live on our doorsteps, our neighbours.
This plight is not simply the result of past prejudices and abuses. It is not simply a result of insufficient education. There continues to be institutionalized, legally mandated inequality and artificial limitations that shackle first nations.
Whatever the various solutions may be for the various first nations to achieve full sovereignty as nations, we cannot begin to hope for self-determination if the individuals living on reserves are not allowed the same freedoms, which are necessary for self-reliance, that are taken for granted by all other law-abiding Canadians. That is why we must support Bill C-428, an act to amend the Indian Act, which includes the repeal of many of the act's most archaic and oppressive provisions.
The Indian Act of 1876 was derived from the 1857 civilization of Indian tribes act and the culmination of other acts and proclamations before that date. The 1857 legislation was enacted by the British colonial government and declared that Indians who were “sufficiently advanced” education-wise, or “capable of managing his own affairs”, would be enfranchised. That is, they would be given the vote. In essence, the law said that if an Indian man learned to read and was willing to sign a pledge to live as a white, he was allowed to vote, own property and serve on juries, but if he did so, he would lose all his aboriginal rights. Understandably, very few first nations peoples chose to surrender their heritage and ancestry.
The 1867 British North America Act transferred responsibility of Canada's first nations from the British to the new Canadian federal government in Ottawa. At that time Canada had sole authority to negotiate treaties with the Indians and to purchase their land. At the same time, the Canadian government was supposed to shepherding the first nations' best interests. It was and is an inherently flawed principle, open to huge conflicts of interest, and has led to many abuses.
The Indian Act of 1876 incorporated the earlier colonial legislation and essentially made status Indians wards of the Crown, and the Crown was able to completely regulate their lives. Restrictions ranged from rules about how they would elect leaders, how their children would be educated, how their estates would be dealt with after death and how they would engage in commerce. Essentially, it did not allow them to engage in commerce. First nations were allowed virtually no self-governing powers, and it was not just the first nations, individuals had no self-governing powers.
We would hope that we as a nation would have advanced sufficiently to realize the fallacy and futility of those earlier paternalistic documents. I suspect that we do recognize the injustices of the Indian Act, but we have failed to put aside our pride and our politics. We are too worried about who is right and who will get the credit, when we should be committed to what is right and ensuring our fellow countrymen get the quality of life and dignity enjoyed by most Canadians.
Thanks to the hon. member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, who has introduced Bill C-428, we are now confronting the more archaic and even absurd aspects of the original legislation, which are still in the Indian Act.
A striking example of those absurdities is the matter of sale of produce from the land farmed by first nations. First nations people are people of the land. They farm, grow grain and produce, have dairy farms, cattle herds, and apple, pear and peach orchards, among many other crops and produce. They have a respect for the earth and the bounty that derives from it. It is the very essence of their ancient and revered culture, yet the Indian Act makes a mockery of that respect and well-earned bounty.
Any other Canadian takes it for granted that we have the right to the fruits of our labour and to sell, barter, or exchange as we see fit. However, to this day, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs must approve all land transfers. Additionally, if a first nation person sells, barters, exchanges, gives, or otherwise disposes of cattle or other animals; grain or hay, whether wild or cultivated; root crops; or other products from any reserve in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta to anyone other than a member of their own band, the superintendent must approve that transaction in writing. This order can be revoked or reinstated to any band at any time by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. Furthermore, if a first nation person violates this order, he or she is deemed guilty of an offence. It is shameful to believe that we have allowed an effective embargo on the fruits of honest labour.
As proposed by the member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, Bill C-428 would remove this provision, which prohibits first nations from selling their own goods and agricultural products produced on reserve to non-band members. We must repeal this section of the legislation. Doing so would enable first nation communities to become more productive and self-sustaining contributors to their own long-term wealth and that of their neighbouring non-aboriginal communities.
I live next door to the Blood reserve. A lot of people in southern Alberta see the poverty on the reserve and the poverty of many first nation people who have tried to leave the reserve. Some of them wonder why they do not just work their own land. In fact, I hear that all the time. They ask why they do not work their own land, because they have great agricultural land and great oil reserves. They do not realize that these people do not have the legal right to run a business as we have the right to run a business. They do not have the legal right to sell their produce as they see fit, as every other Canadian does.
Self-respect and self-worth derive in large measure from the ability to self-actualize as individuals and as a people. It is the potential to grow and to reach our goals that makes Canada a wondrous land to call home. It is the right time to right the wrongs that are inherent in the Indian Act. We must repeal the provision that forbids the sale of apples and pears by first nations to any and all Canadians. I know that in this right-minded House, it cannot be seen in any other way.
This is just one of the legally entrenched injustices that Bill C-428 would overturn. Besides amending the provision against selling produce, it includes the removal of any mention of and requirement for residential schools. We have apologized for residential schools, but that apology is a little hollow if it continues to be the law of the land in actual form, even though it is not practised. A lot of talk against the bill has been that it does not do enough or that it does not have unanimous support. It has been suggested that we should not even attempt to revise the Indian Act nation by nation, rather we have to wait until every first nation across the country is on board. However, to wait for unanimous support is similar to saying that all of our international affairs, treaties and free trade agreements have to cease until we can get one overarching international trade agreement and treaty that applies to every country in the world.
I would say that this is the time when we must move forward. We cannot wait and sacrifice those who suffer on the altar of perfection and unanimity. We must move forward, and this is a great first step.