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Breaking away from the Indian Act: Senator Christmas
Breaking away from the Indian Act: Senator Christmas
September 6, 2017
OPINION
Image of Dan Christmas
Dan Christmas, Nova Scotia

It’s been said that life is often an interesting collision of opportunity and irony — a fascinating mix of fortunes and fates, with sometimes surprising results. I was reminded of this recently as I delivered my maiden speech in the Senate.

There’s irony inherent in Confederation, too: 150 years ago, four colonial governments united to form a new nation. Three of these colonial governments were on Mi’kmaw lands. Our land, in the Gaspé region of Lower Canada, in Northern New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia became a big piece of what formed the Dominion of Canada.

So from the perspective of opportunity, the Mi’kmaw Nation played a large part in the birth of Canada. But it’s ironic for our nation that this is the case — as we were never involved, never consulted, never invited to the coming together of this new nation of Canada. That’s an even greater irony because the Royal Proclamation of 1763 — a legal declaration on behalf of the British sovereign — made a covenant that our lands would not be taken without our consent.

And now, 150 years since Confederation, the circle is complete: Canada has taken the opportunity to welcome the first Mi’kmaw senator into the upper chamber of its Parliament. It’s good to be there. It’s right that the Mi’kmaw Nation has finally been welcomed into Confederation.

For the Mi’kmaw Nation in the pre-Confederation days, our treaties of peace and friendship reflected a foundation of equal partnership and mutual respect. But this ended in 1876, when Parliament passed the Indian Act; partnership and respect succumbed to a regimen of dispossession of our lands, cultural genocide, subservience and ultimately a culture of dependency upon the federal government for survival. 

In 1887, prime minister John A. Macdonald declared, “the great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

If we are to achieve real reconciliation, we must acknowledge the truth and its often painful lessons. Because sometimes the uncomfortable tension of the truth can become the coiled spring that can catapult us into a better future.

And a better future is exactly what we have built in my home community of Membertou. But just 20 years ago, it was a very different Membertou that was shackled to the hopelessness of the Indian Act.

From 1976 to 1981, I served as the band manager for Membertou, one of a handful of staff. Indian agents oversaw on Indian Affairs’ behalf, literally and absolutely, every aspect of our operations.

There was no economic development, no employment prospects. No hope. No future. The Indian Act was a model of nearly absolute and complete dependency, where 100 per cent of your existence was based on Indian and Northern Affairs Canada payments.

In the early 1980s, we tried to work with the federal government on business programs for First Nations. Its feasibility study determined that our best shot at economic success was to get into the pipe manufacturing business, making irrigation pipe systems for farm fields.

A million dollars in cost and zero sales brought us to the brink of bankruptcy. We had trouble even making welfare payments. By 1994, we were broke and deeply in debt — we were done, stick a fork in us.

The Indian Act system had pushed Membertou into financial disaster.

Our chief, Terrence Paul, decided then and there he had to act. And act he did.

Enter Bernd Christmas, the first Mi’kmaw lawyer called to the bar in Canada, who was raised in Membertou. He was then a young man with a bustling Bay Street law practice in Toronto, at the heart of Canada’s legal profession.

Chief Terry somehow convinced this well-to-do lawyer to abandon his thriving and well-paid practice to come back to Membertou and get us on our financial feet in his role as our newly created director of operations.

Membertou made a determined decision to step away from the Indian Act. This colonial, prescriptive, paternal, destructive, racist and discriminatory act turned its back on the Mi’kmaw Nation. So we decided to turn our backs on the Indian Act.

We weren’t about to ask anyone’s permission about matters of our own future ever again.

We decided to create our own businesses, make our own money and be our own bosses. After getting out of debt, we began in gaming enterprises; we expanded into the commercial fishery and once we had cash flow, we set about to build our credibility in the marketplace.

In 2001, we became the first Indigenous community in the world to be ISO 9001 certified. ISO 9001 is a set of international standards for management and verification of good quality management practices. 

Through this certification, we built trust in the Membertou brand and kept moving forward. We had leadership, a trusted brand, a degree of financial resources — and an uncommon drive to succeed in enterprises initially run by and for the community with a sense of passion and zeal.

All of this occurred much to the very obvious chagrin of Indian Affairs officials who kept warning us: Don’t do this. We resolutely ignored them at every turn.

And ironically our businesses flourished at a time when the local economy literally nosedived. We’re now the area’s third-largest employer, with staff of about 500 people. We’re the only place in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality experiencing economic growth.

We’ve not only survived; we’ve flourished.

Through this experience comes my vision for a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples. The relationship must change. It must be founded in the concept of Indigenous self-reliance, committed to the notion of economic independence and dedicated to the sustainable generation of own-source revenues.

Through this, Indigenous peoples will rise and become generators and economic drivers of Canada’s gross domestic product.

The Membertou experience has shown that prosperity for this generation — achieved in this generation — is attainable. 

Daniel Christmas is a Mi’kmaw senator representing Nova Scotia. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.

This article appeared in the August 26, 2017 edition of the Chronicle Herald.