MEMBERTOU — Band officials are gearing up for a possible fall referendum on a new land code that would represent a significant step on the road to self-government. It would also be a big step away from what most aboriginal people see as the paternalism of the federal Indian Act.
A citizen-based committee has been researching several aspects of self-government, including a land code and a citizenship code, and the land code is closest to being ready for a community vote, said Dan Christmas, senior adviser to the band.
“Right now, the federal government, under the Indian Act, manages reserve lands,” he said.
“What this land code will do, if it’s enacted, is Membertou chief and council will take over jurisdiction and management of reserve lands and the federal government will no longer have a management role.”
Christmas said under the Indian Act, land management includes zoning and environmental controls, and the authority to issue deeds and titles to individual band members, among other things.
Currently, those decisions are made at the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada regional office in
Amherst, or in Ottawa, he said.
With its own land code, Membertou will make those decisions.
“People tell me one-third of the Indian Act is about land management,” Christmas said.
“Taking over land is a significant step and there’s other steps to be taken, but on that journey to self-government, that is a significant piece.”
Christmas said Membertou is working toward self-government using “measured steps.”
The land code has been under discussion for about five years and has been through several rounds of consultation with elders, women, youth, band employees and the general populace. It was also the subject of a stop-and-chat session last week at the local Tim Hortons.
Christmas said the land code would need at least one more round of consultation before a referendum could be called, which could come as soon as the next meeting of chief and council.
A meeting was scheduled for this week, but has been postponed due to a death in the community, said the band’s executive director Trevor Bernard.
Christmas said the land code referendum will likely be held in November.
He said the citizenship code, which would define who can be a band member, is more controversial and will take longer to finalize.
It, too, has been through extensive consultations, but is not ready for a draft document.
“For instance, under the Indian Act, membership is based on blood, based on who your parents are, who your grandparents may be,” said Christmas. “There’s really no criteria about culture, about language, about connectivity to the community.
“Some of those other factors that mean so much to small communities are not under the Indian Act, and just having membership determined by blood alone doesn’t seem to connect with our beliefs.”
Even once those two aspects of self-government are established, he said, there are other issues to be decided before Membertou can get out from under the Indian Act.
“The other big issue, of course, is how the community elects its leadership. Right now we follow the Indian Act, so how a chief and council is elected, their terms, all that is still detailed under the Indian Act.
“At some point, I think Membertou would want to amend its own election code. But again that’s somewhat down the road a bit, but at least that’s the direction we’re heading.”
The goal is to eventually be free of the Indian Act altogether, said Christmas.
“Being removed from that old, paternalistic way of doing business and having the community manage its own affairs certainly is a great step forward.
“We want to see those days over. For all intents and purposes we operate as if the Indian Act isn’t there, but legally it still has jurisdiction.
“In a lot of ways Membertou already exercises self-government because very little of our revenue comes from the federal government today. We have a lot of financial freedom, so to speak, and we make a lot of our own decisions on other things, but these old vestiges from the Indian Act continue to haunt us and we’re trying desperately to cut these strings. We want to ensure that the freedom our community enjoys is real and genuine freedom.”