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An Indian Act

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Issue: 40 Section: Opinion Topics: Indigenous

October 21, 2006

An Indian Act

A response to an attempt of genocide

by Stewart Steinhauer

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A helicopter hovers over the Six Nations' blockade in Ontario. photo: David Maracle
Artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun publicly protested after his painting 'Red Man Watching White Men Trying To Fix A Hole In The Sky' was purchased by the National Art Gallery to be shown in their 'Indian Room.' He didn't want his work to be associated with the notional concept of 'Indians.' Earlier in his career, he had been charged with desecrating an official document when he showed, in one of his professional exhibitions, a photographic series of himself firing a high-powered rifle into a target-mounted official copy of Canada's 'Indian Act.' The photographic series was titled 'An Indian Act.'

Indian. There is no such word in any language indigenous to Turtle Island. In fact, there's no such word in any language indigenous to India. Back when Columbus made his historic voyage, the nation we now call India was called Hindustan, and the people there, because of their all-day-every-day spiritual practice, were characterized by the Spaniards as living in God, "in dios."

'The Admiral of the Ocean Seas' – the name given to Columbus by the Spanish Court for only being half a planet off course -- encountered what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Folks there were living in God too. They weren't white folks either and they just happened to be where the flat-Earth mentality folks thought Hindustan must be. Columbus called them Indians, too.

Around 1550, the Spanish Court convened the Council of the Indies to clear up the legal and moral questions surrounding the lands and peoples living in Europe's New World. Despite an impassioned presentation by Bartoleme De Las Casas, documenting the horrors already visited upon the "in God" people by the Spaniards under Columbus's command, the decision was taken to identify all of the peoples in the New World as Indians. To the court, Indians were a monolithic population developmentally lagging behind Europe and in need of the civilizing influence of Europeans. From the conference came the theoretical construction of an international system of wardship, where Europe's men of influence took upon themselves a task that has come to be known as "the White Man's Burden": bringing civilization to the darker 'races' of humanity.

'Indians' and Europe's international system of wardship came together in Canada as "An Act For The Gradual Civilization Of Indians," an official copy of which Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun was charged for desecrating. This act of Parliament is still in effect; we now know it by its short name, the Indian Act.

As my uncle, Mike Steinhauer, likes to point out, all you need to know about the Indian Act is that it says, "The minister may…." The Indian Act gives the minister sweeping discretionary powers unheard of in modern democracies.

The basic notion behind modern democracy is that the people freely give fully informed consent to be ruled and choose representatives to form the government that decides the what, where, when, why and how of those rules. It's called the 'rule of law.'

Although the version of the Indian Act Canada currently uses dates back to 1876, that version was a rolled together collection of legal notions stemming from the 1550 Council of the Indies. In 1876, the people whose lives would become subject to the discretionary powers of the minister were not Canadian citizens, nor were they consulted, nor did they freely give fully informed consent to be ruled by the Indian Act. In fact, the people so ruled did not become citizens of the nation exercising this rule until March 10, 1960, and became so without being consulted, never mind freely giving fully informed consent.

A lot of important events occurred before 1876 and a lot of important events have occurred since 1960, but let's narrow down our focus to the 84-year period when peoples not of the Canadian citizenry -- notionally called Indians -- were ruled by an act of a foreign parliament giving foreign persons dictatorial powers over their day-to-day lives in their own homelands.

Let's start with property rights. Indigenous views of property rights are not the same as European views of property rights, but a concept of property rights did, and still does, exist for indigenous peoples. Under the Indian Act, both original indigenous property rights and property rights as constituted under Canadian law were prohibited. This is still in effect.

The October 1876 version of the Indian Act coincides with the successful destruction of the 60-million-head buffalo herd, seen as a food source for 'Indians' and therefore necessarily destroyed by a concerted joint effort of Canadian and US governments. In my area of Alberta, an internationally binding treaty had just been signed in September 1876, promising that the indigenous way of life would continue as before, but with Her Majesty's gifts on top.

As compensation for agreeing to share some of the land with the Queen's people, indigenous people found themselves trapped on 'lands reserved for Indians,' with an Indian agent and an agent of Christianity, whose orders were backed up by the newly-formed North-West Mounted Police.

In her 1980 'From Colonialism to Economic Imperialism: The Experience of the Canadian Indian,' sociologist Gail Kellough likened the effects of the Indian Act to a forced march through European history because it created a feudal relationship on every reserve in Canada. Writing in 1970, Robertson notes:

"The Indian Affairs Branch is the lord of the manor. The Indian agent is the local manager. The lord has total control over the lives of his serfs, who neither own their land nor rent it. They are "crofters" permitted to live on the land and farm it but not for their own individual benefit. The lord or manager tells them what to plant and when to sow or harvest; he provides the equipment; he tells them when to sell the crop, and at what price."

What Kellough and other well-meaning Canadians looking sympathetically at Canada's "Indian Problem" don't mention is the intentional destruction of the national characteristics of indigenous peoples. Raphael Lemkin, who originated the concept of genocide, called this its stage one. Economy, governance, language, spiritual practice and customary law were all abolished by decree of the Indian Act. During that 84-year period: Indian Act Chief and Councils were established and traditional governance systems suppressed; John A Macdonald ordered forced starvation as collective punishment for the North-West Rebellion; the pass law controlling movement outside of reserves was implemented; and Duncan Campbell Scott's 'kill the Indian and spare the man' residential schools removed up to five generations of children from family homes, leaving the children thus 'schooled' in a mental/emotional state modern psychologists call 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.'

The cumulative effects of this 84-year period were:

– Killing members of the group.
– Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
– Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
–Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
–Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

For those not familiar, that is the definition of genocide as enshrined in the Genocide Convention, which Canada signed in 1949 and ratified in 1952.

By 1925, social scientists were rushing to reserves to observe the last of a 'dying breed'; it had become common sense to ordinary Canadians that 'Indians' would not and could not survive because of their natural inferiority; Darwinian notions of the survival of the fittest had been applied to human societies and 'Indians' were obviously slated for extinction.

Inexplicably, this monolithic population did not become extinct, as predicted, but instead began a resurgence that carries on today, and explains the forced imposition of Canadian citizenship in 1960 and the continuing development of Canada's 'aboriginal doctrine' in 2006. According to this doctrine, 'Indians' are put through the next transformation, with neither consultation nor consent, on a journey towards becoming 'ethnic Canadians of aboriginal ancestry.' As the Indian Act's full title makes explicit, it's a gradual process. 'Indians' must be contained within the framework of a developmentally backward monolithic dependent population.

The bottom line? Calculate Turtle Island's current market value and GDP and you'll get the picture. There is something called the Great Game going on, the international struggle for geopolitical control of the entire planet. Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island have been caught up in this game for over 500 years, most recently as pawns called 'Indians' created by the Captains of Industry and the Great Statesmen who claim the right to play the game.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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