November 08, 2009

Tribe to abandon Indian status?

Native tribe will petition Ottawa to remove its Indian status

Gitxsan people from northwest British Columbia willing to relinquish reserves, tax exemptions, Indian Act housing and financial supports in exchange for a share of resources

By Justine Hunter
A delegation of the Gitxsan people from northwest British Columbia is set to meet with Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl next month with a groundbreaking proposal: That the 13,000 members of their tribe be allowed to abandon their status as "Indians."

The group is willing to relinquish reserves, tax exemptions, Indian Act housing and financial supports in exchange for a share of resources. Unlike most contemporary efforts at treaty-making, it would also abandon the ambition of a separate level of government.

B.C.'s new minister of aboriginal affairs and reconciliation, George Abbott, has met twice with the Gitxsan treaty team and has put his senior negotiator on the file. Mr. Strahl agreed to the meeting after Mr. Abbott sent a letter to Ottawa last week urging him to take a look at the proposed governance model.

In an interview, Mr. Abbott said he has given his negotiators "a mandate to talk and explore." He said the proposal still has many hurdles, including the question of whether elected chiefs or hereditary chiefs can claim to speak for the Gitxsan people. The concept is far outside of the standard treaty model, and it presents a series of constitutional questions about the possibility of taking away, even with consent, the rights accorded to status Indians.
Comment:  Whether voluntarily or involuntarily, tribes have given up their rights and privileges before. For instance, all the tribes terminated or forced to assimilate. Nothing good has ever come of it.

Really, I'd love to hear about the tribe that benefited from giving up its unique status as a sovereign and independent nation. Because I can't think of a single example. Every deal a tribe has made with the government has turned out bad for the tribe and good for the government.

Sovereignty is the tribe's one bulwark against exploitation. It's the reason the legislature, the courts, and the public will take the Natives' presence seriously. If nothing else, it's a bargaining chip; it forces non-Natives to negotiate rather than simply take what they want.

When you reduce your existence to a monetary deal, you risk everything. Any person who knows history can guess what happens next. The government says circumstances have changed, pleads "national security" or "economic necessity." It arbitrarily violates the terms of the agreement, reducing the Natives' share to nothing. The Natives can't fall back on sovereignty as their defense, so they lose everything.

I don't know the details of the Gitxsan people's situation, but ideally they should retain their sovereignty and seek a share of the land and resources. Don't trade one for the other, demand both.

For more on the subject, see Status of Status Indians to Change.

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