OTTAWA - There are a couple of national discussions that few governments want to risk political capital to wade into — one is the Constitution, the other is the Indian Act.
Conservative MP Rob Clarke decided he'd dip his toe into the latter three years ago with a private member's bill, after hearing for years from aboriginal leaders how reviled the Indian Act was.
Last week, his Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act became law. Clarke — a member of Saskatchewan's Muskeg Lake First Nation — says he's proud to be the first aboriginal person to record such a legislative achievement.
"I thought well, let's start a dialogue nobody's actually taken...on, head on," Clarke said in an interview.
"I thought it would be better for a First Nations [person] to stake this forward and create some substantial change, but also to create some dialogue between government and First Nations."
The legislation repeals long-outdated references to residential schools in the Indian Act, and removes a reference to restricting certain people on reserves from trade.
The bill also give bands the responsibility to manage the publication of their bylaws on the Internet, in the Canada Gazette, or other venues.
The bylaw issue recently came up in Saskatchewan, when home moving companies complained that they were being charged by a band for driving on their roads, but were not able to view the rule in print.
A complicated element that dealt with overhauling how wills and estates are dealt with was amended out when the bill was studied in committee.
But the central feature of Clarke's bill is the requirement that the aboriginal affairs minister appear at a Commons committee every year to report on his or her progress in developing a replacement for the Indian Act.
The Indian Act itself is extremely unpopular, but crafting an alternative has been a political challenge. The prime minister's own attempt to reform funding for First Nations education evaporated this year as talks between the federal government and aboriginal leaders came to a standstill.
Many First Nations voices criticized Clarke's bill as a piecemeal attempt to address the problem, without the proper consultation required under the Constitution.
"While it may be difficult to speak to every First Nation in the country, there is a need to ensure that First Nations' voices are heard and that every effort is made to speak with those First Nations who hold the rights and will be impacted," Assembly of First Nations B.C. regional chief and now Liberal candidate Jody Wilson-Raybould told a Commons committee.
Clarke says it's unreasonable to think an MP would have the resources to do widespread national consultations. He said he did travel across the country and wrote to all First Nations reserves looking for their input.
"Yeah, I received a lot of criticism, however there was also a lot of people who said, it's about time something was done, and actually somebody taking charge and trying to make effective change," Clarke said.
Saskatchewan Sen. Lillian Dyck used stronger language recently when she said Clarke was "behaving like a white man" by pushing the bill. She later said she recognized the comment could be hurtful.
Others have suggested that the impetus for overhauling the Indian Act should come from First Nations themselves — a position that Clarke bristles at.
"When (NDP MP)Jean Crowder stands up in the House and says this has to be aboriginally led, from aboriginal to aboriginal, I say, hold on there — I'm native, I'm First Nations, why can't I do this?" said Clarke.
"We do have to start looking at a better relationship."