Focus On

An opportunity wasted | Bruce McDougall

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 @ 11:49 AM | By Bruce McDougall

Bruce McDougall %>
Bruce McDougall
One of the more memorable details that emerged from the brouhaha involving the Liberal government and SNC-Lavalin was the refusal of Jody Wilson-Raybould to assume the role of minister of Indigenous Services. According to reports, she said she’d spent her life opposed to the Indian Act, which underlies the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, and she did not want to take charge of programs administered under its authority.

Around the same time, a story appeared about Amy Hull, a 20-year-old dance student at York University in Toronto, who lost her status under the Indian Act as a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq and Inuk nation. A founding member in 2008 of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq, Hull moved to Toronto to enrol at York because there was no program available in Newfoundland, then lost her status under a points-based system because she’d moved out of the province. Along with her status, she also lost the funding for her university tuition.

“At first I was crying a lot,” Hull said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “Then I was really angry. I’m a valuable human being, I have a place here, I deserve a place here. It’s owed to me.”

If Hull had been a mere taxpayer complaining that the Canada Revenue Agency had withheld her tax rebate, her remarks would have gone unnoticed. Everyone knows how it feels when the government takes more than its share of our money and doesn’t give it back. But Hull was speaking as a member of a sovereign nation whose treaties with the federal government specifically entitle its members to funding for post-secondary education.

Even with status, only selected members of a First Nation receive post-secondary tuition funding, because of budget cuts and limitations under the Indian Act. As with many practices and procedures specified in the legislation, the Act places responsibility on First Nations for selecting qualified members, while the government controls the money.

This passive-aggressive aspect of the Indian Act has befuddled, hampered and infuriated First Nations for more than a century. It has obligated Canada’s Aboriginal people to behave in ways that diminish their identity and heritage while inviting ridicule and condemnation from Canadians who don’t understand or care about the law that governs Aboriginal lives.

As a result, many Canadians assume that First Nations people live in this country under the same terms as immigrants from Scotland, Jamaica, China or Ukraine. They find it difficult to see why Indigenous people are not as eternally grateful as immigrants to this country for the Canadian government's help.

The word help deserves a closer look: With Canada’s help, more than 20 per cent of First Nations adults have no access to garbage collection services. Nine per cent of First Nation homes do not have either sewage service or a septic tank. Almost 40 per cent of First Nations water systems are unsafe, affecting 25 per cent of people living on reserves.

Thanks to the kind people of Canada, Indigenous children have been torn from their families, forced to abandon their language, prohibited from voting, transferring property, drinking alcohol or entering a pool hall. Aboriginal people who fought for Canada in the Second World War lost their status. And to this day the 1.3 million First Nation people remain subject to and subjugated by an act of Parliament called the Indian Act.  

So let’s get this straight: people who have lived here for centuries welcomed our half-starved, scurvy-ridden, bug-infested ancestors to this land, accommodated their aggression and uninformed interpretation of the priorities of life, withstood the imposition of cultural norms that made no sense to them, had their own culture torn apart by well-meaning busybodies who felt that anyone in his right mind would prefer to speak English and join the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) to speaking his own language and raising his children according to his own customs; these people who met British representatives of the Crown on equal footing in the 18th century and signed treaties on that basis only to have those treaties violated time and time again; who have never relinquished their sovereignty; who accepted again and again the terms of unfair judgments just so they could maintain some sense of their own culture and then paid the price for their naivete by ending up on some plot of ground with no autonomy and no power to change their lot in life; who now have to live by law on designated reserves drinking polluted water and peeing in the woods; who can’t by law do anything to improve these reserves without permission from the Great White Father and a bureaucracy in Ottawa of 4,500 people with an $8 billion budget; these people incur the scorn of so-called Canadian citizens when one of their 20-year-old daughters wants us to live up to our treaty obligations and pay for her dance lessons.

As a First Nations woman whose family has had the strength to thrive in the face of this overwhelming stupidity, Jody Wilson-Raybould could have assumed a position of influence as minister of Indigenous Services and started the wheels turning to get rid of the Indian Act.

As a Vancouver consultant, Ross Greenwood, observed in The Globe and Mail, “As minister, Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have had a platform and the departmental resources to work for positive change. Now she would seem to be left with only the capacity to criticize and complain. What a wasted opportunity.”

Bruce McDougall ( has written for The Globe and MailMaclean's and other Canadian news magazines. He is that is the author of The Last Hockey Game and Every Minute is a Suicidegraduate of Harvard College, he attended the University of Toronto Law School.

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to The Lawyer's Daily, contact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at or call 647-776-6740.