Indian Summer , Canadian Winter

September 25, 2007

THE DRAMA BEGAN IN JUNE 1990 IN WIN- nipeg, the capital city of the province of Manitoba. A fluke of history put Elijah Harper, an Ojibway politician who is one of Canada's few Indian parliamentarians, in a position to kill an elaborate constitutional deal known as the Meech Lake Accord. The accord was meant to secure the Quebec government's acceptance of the 1982 Cana- dian constitution, a document which severed Great Britain's last formal legal hold on the country. In return, Quebec would be recognized as a "distinct society." Indigenous people were completely excluded from the negotiations leading up to the deal, as well as from the constitutional definition of Canada drafted by the accord's authors. As in virtually all countries dominated by non- indigenous settlers, aboriginal people in Canada have been marginalized in most facets of the country's eco- nomic and political life. (The term "aboriginal" is used in Canada to describe its original peoples, including Indian, Inuit and Metis.) At the same time, they are vastly overrepresented in the jails, the unemployment lines, the detoxification centers and the morgues. By standing so firmly against the accord, Harper became an instant hero among the million or so indig- enous people in Canada. Thousands of them gathered at the legislative grounds in Winnipeg to witness and cel- ebrate the countdown to the accord's demise. Harper also became a hero for many English-speaking Canadians who wanted to register a protest against the perceived abuse of power by Prime Minister Brian Mul- roney and his closest political allies in the Quebec provin- cial government. The circumstances surrounding the death of the Meech Lake Accord enormously raised the profile of aboriginal people. At the same time, however, their issues were thrust into the midst of a growing schism between the politically cohesive French-speaking com- munity in Quebec and the eclectic mix of Canadians who communicate primarily in English. REPORT ON THE AMERICAS Tony Hall teaches Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge in the province of Alberta. 34Less than three weeks after the death of the Meech Lake Accord, the focus of the controversy shifted to the town of Oka, Quebec, where the town council was intent on expanding a golf course into a stand of pines that surrounds a sacred Mohawk cemetery.' On July 11 the Quebec provincial police attacked a small barricade the Kanesatake Mohawks had built to symbolize their resis- tance. A gun battle ensued. When the tear gas cleared, a police officer lay dead, a bullet in his chest. Within hours the neighboring Mohawks of Kahnawake blocked the Mercier Bridge, a major thoroughfare in greater Montreal, which runs through Kahnawake. Over the next few weeks, inconvenienced commuters mounted angry demonstrations where Indians were burned in ef- figy. Leading the Mohawk resistance at Oka and Kahnawake were members of the Mohawk Warrior Soci- ety, a paramilitary association financed in partby Mohawk gambling establishments in New York state. Considerable suspicion still exists that the ferocity of the original police attack on the Mohawk barricade was linked to the role native people played in killing the Meech Lake Accord. It was as if Quebec authorities were sending a signal that the quest for aboriginal self-determi- nation would not be allowed to impede the parallel quest for self-determination by the French-speaking Qu6becois. While the site of a proposed golf course stood at the forefront of this clash of interests, in the background stood a growing controversy over the right of the Quebec government to expand a huge hydroelectric project into the hunting ground of the Cree and Inuit people who predominate in the northeastern part of the province. These native people oppose this centerpiece of Premier Robert Bourassa's vision of Quebec's economic future as a major exporter of electricity, citing the ecological dev- astation that would result. For the Qu6becois, dam build- ing has become a veritable symbol of their efforts to carve out a more independent role for themselves as a strong, economically self-sufficient society. P ASSIONS AROUSED AT OKA AND KAHNA- wake spread like wildfire across the country. Al- though there was considerable criticism of the tactics of the Mohawk Warriors even among native people, many readily identified with the struggle to protect dwindling Indian lands from outside developers. Indian groups block- aded several key transportation routes in British Colum- bia, a province where Indian land title has never been addressed through treaty negotiations. In a part of north- ern Ontario where Indian land title remains similarly unaddressed, Ojibway bands at Mobert and Long Lake Reserve 58 set up protest camps blocking both transcon- tinental rail lines. In southern Ontario hydro lines were felled. In southern Alberta members of the Peigan Lonefighters Society registered their protest against a massive dam on the Oldman River being rushed to comple- tion without the required federal environmental assess- ment. The Lonefighters proceeded to dig a mile-long ditch on their reserve around an irrigation weir, rendering useless the irrigation dam upstream from their commu- nity. The barricade syndrome continued to spread. Images of dozens of brief road blockades, including in downtown Calgary and Vancouver, flashed across the nation's TV screens. Unprecedented numbers of non-natives got in- volved in support of aboriginal rights. Peace camps were established at the legislatures of several provincial capi- tals, including Toronto and Winnipeg. Prayer vigils were held as native and non-native people used all the power at their command to avoid a tragic outcome for the em- battled Mohawks at Oka and Kahnawake. The trepidation was well founded. The immediate response of the Quebec provincial police to the crisis was to block off food and medical supplies to the Mohawks. In the early stages of the standoff, police also tried to control the movement of journalists and seize their exposed film. Members of the Ku Klux Klan distributed literature at the anti-Indian protests near the Mercier Bridge. Meanwhile, an eerie silence descended on government leaders in Ottawa and Quebec City. The prime minister went into virtual hiding at his summer retreat in the Gatineau Hills. Public pronouncements from federal offi- cials focused almost exclusively on the criminal records of some of the Mohawk leaders, hardly a surprising revelation in a country where a young Indian has a far greater chance of going to jail than to college. 2 Without calling parliament into emergency session, in August the prime minister invoked key sections of the National Defense Act to place units of the Canadian army under the command of the Quebec government. As 20 years earlier, when revolutionary Quebec separatists kid- napped several officials, Canadian army tanks began rolling in the vicinity of Montreal. The eventual result was that the Mohawks of Kahnawake voluntarily removed their blockade on the Mercier Bridge, but not before a cavalcade of escaping Indian elders, women and children was savagely stoned by a large vigilante mob as Quebec provincial police looked on. A month laterthe lastMohawk holdouts at Oka voluntarily destroyed their weapons and left their stronghold to be arrested HE ROAD TO OKA AND TO ELIJAH HARP- er's stand has many branches. Canada inherited from the British government a relatively firm constitu- tional basis for the recognition of aboriginal rights. Alli- ances with Indian groups, sometimes codified in treaties, had been an important geopolitical necessity in asserting the Crown's jurisdiction against the competing claims of the United States. To this day the Inuit are among the most important upholders of the flag of Canadian sovereignty in the high arctic. Canada's moves toward independence over the past twenty years, however, have imperiled the old constitutional structures that recognized aboriginal rights. Whenever non-indigenous colonials take over increased powers of self-government, they almost invari- ably use their new-found liberty to undermine the legal status of indigenous societies.? British parliamentarians foresaw the problems ahead when they debated in 1981 the act for Canada's constitu- tional independence. Fully 27 of 30 hours of debate in the British House of Commons on the Canada Act were devoted to indigenous issues. The dire prophesies came true between 1983 and 1987 when Canada's prime min- ister and ten provincial premiers failed at four constitu- tional conferences to agree on any basic principles of aboriginal self-government. The fifth constitutional con- ference took place at Meech Lake. Virtually overnight Canada's first ministers agreed to extend to the people of Quebec precisely the kind of powers that aboriginal people had been seeking in order to preserve and promote the identities of their own distinct societies. A double standard of gross proportions was revealed. The failure to make progress on the constitutional front was matched by the failure of the political process to resolve aboriginal land claims. A pivotal Supreme Court decision in 1973 led to the creation of an administrative mechanism for negotiating land disputes between federal, provincial and indigenous authorities. After almost two decades, however, that process remained caught in iner- tia, stymied by provincial governments' jealous defense of their claims over natural resources. There was little incentive for federal authorities to counter such provin- cial prerogatives on behalf of aboriginal peoples. This became especially evident during the early years of Brian Mulroney's administration when his main preoccupation was to provide U.S. corporations with unfettered access to Canadian natural resources in order to clinch a free-trade treaty with the United States. The native leadership grew increasingly frustrated as the majority of their people struggled with abysmal hard- ship. "Canada, we have a warning for you," George Erasmus, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), told a broad gathering of his constituents in the summer of 1988. "We want to let you know that you're playing with fire. We may be the last generation of leaders who is prepared to sit down and peacefully nego- tiate our concerns with you. Canada, if you do not deal with this generation of leaders, then we cannot promise you are going to like the kind of violent political action that we can just about guarantee the next generation is going to bring." The AFN, created in 1980 by Indian leaders to deal with the Canadian government's push to patriate the constitution, represents one of the central paradoxes of Indian life. While the organization works for self-deter- 36 REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 1 REPORT ON THE AMERICAS i 36mination, it is composed of registered Indians, whose governance is structured by Canada's Indian Act. The Indian Act was set in place during the Victorian era to replace traditional forms of Indian decision-making with a hierarchical edifice of authority flowing from the fed- eral Ministry of Indian Affairs. One element of indigenous frustration vented during the Indian summer of 1990 was directed at those native people who were perceived to be supporters of the insti- tutional complex created by the Indian Act. The Mohawk Warriors led the way with their claim to represent an authority not rooted in the federal government, but rather in the ancient constitution of their own Iroquois Confed- eracy. The Warriors' flirtation with the operation of gambling casinos was justified as a way of building native institutions outside the framework of federal control. Those who renounce the legitimacy of the Indian Act and all it represents tend to look to new sources of leadership. Many look to an emerging cadre of Indian strategists who learned to fight the white man's system in the toughest school of all, the Canadian prison system. Canada is thus beginning to reap the bitter harvest of a situation where a native person is about ten times more likely to be incarcerated than the rest of the population. 5 The tensions between those working for change from within the Indian Act structures and those who deny the very legitimacy of those structures remained an undercur- rent in the 1990 protests. But shared animosity towards the governments of Canada and its provinces was strong enough to generate a fair degree of solidarity. It remains to be seen whether the new AFN national chief, Ovide Mercredi, will be able to maintain that somewhat tenuous unity. M ERCREDI IS A SOFT-SPOKEN BUT DETER- mined Cree lawyer in his mid-forties who came to prominence as a close adviser to Elijah Harper in his successful blockage of the Meech Lake Accord. Today he stands on a more solid political base than any other native leader in Canada since the early nineteenth century, when Tecumseh led a powerful Indian confederacy intent on fighting off the Americans to found a secure Indian state west of the Ohio River." One view holds that the Canadian government needs Mercredi's cooperation to build a new constitutional consensus. Mercredi has met with the prime minister and will probably play a role comparable to that of a provincial premier in the round of constitutional negotiations that lies ahead. Another victor to emerge from the Indian summer of 1990 was social democrat Bob Rae of the New Demo- cratic Party (NDP), who was elected premier of Ontario in September in the wake of the protests. One of his early acts in office was to recognize aboriginal self-government as an inherent right. This position acknowledges that the First Nations draw their authority for self-determination from sources which pre-exist the legal structures of Canada. NDP governments were elected in Saskatchewan and VOLUME XXV. NUMBFIR 3 (DI)ECEMIR 1991) British Columbia in October of this year and may soon follow Ontario's lead. Though unprecedented, the election of three NDP provincial governments does not necessary mark a new era of tolerance and pluralism in Canada. Reactionary elements rallying behind the Bloc Qu6becois seem to have taken hold of the movement for an independent Quebec. 7 Polls indicate they may do well in the next federal election. Similarly, the populist Reform Party whose roots lie in Alberta has given a political home for anti-French, anti-Indian, anti-ethnic bigotry." Mulroney' s Progressive Conservative Party is working hard to pre- empt this challenge from the Right. In the white reaction to native assertiveness during the summer of 1990, the face of Canadian fascism showed itself briefly but clearly. Who knows if the genie can be put back in the bottle? A referendum on Quebec's independence looms some- time in 1992. To lure the country away from partition, the federal government has designed a new constitutional proposal, one which Ovide Mercredi has already rejected as inadequate. Bob Rae will almost certainly be one of Mercredi's prime allies in the quest to have aboriginal self-government recognized in the Canadian constitution as an inherent right. The ability of Canadians to meet this challenge will be one of the major tests of whether our country will be renewed or broken in 1992. Indian Summer, Canadian Winter 1. For a detailed account, see G. York and L. Pindera,People ofthe Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka (Toronto: Little, Brown Canada, 1991). 2. A.C. Hamilton and C.M. Sinclair, The Justice System and Aboriginal People: Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba (Winnipeg: Queen's Printer of the Government of Manitoba, 1991). 3. Ironically, the Canadian army proved to be a moderating influence. The hawks in the Quebec and federal cabinets kept demanding military action to remove the heavily guarded blockades on the Mercier Bridge and seize huge arsenals allegedly hidden at Kahnawake. The generals simply refused to comply with these commands, aware that a bloodbath would have resulted. The army even went to the point of creating the illusion of an airlift out of Kahnawake to convince the hawks that a major cache of Mohawk weaponry had been removed. See York and Pindera, People a1the Pines, pp. 333-334. 4. See Menno Boldt and J. Anthony Long (eds.), The Quest for Justice: Aboriginal Peoples and Aboriginal Rights (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985); Tony Hall, "What Are We? Chopped Liver? Aboriginal Affairs in the Constitutional Politics ofCanada in the 1980's" in Michael Behiels (ed.), The Meech Lake Primer: Conflicting Views ofthe 1987 ConstitutionalAccord (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1989). 5. Hamilton and Sinclair, The Justice System. 6. Tecumseh died in combat at Moraviantown in 1813, in the War of I 8 12, fighting aginst the Long Knives (K'chimokman)--the Americans. 7. The Bloc Qu6becois represents the movementforQuebec independence at the federal level. The Parti Qudbecois runs candidates for the provincial legislature (assemblee nationale). 8. TheReformParly isgaining adherents inevery province and is expected to run candidates throughout Canada, except Quebec.

Tags: Canada, indigenous politics, Mohawk, First Nations, Canadian politics

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