Canada's angry natives no longer want to be beggars on their own soil

Roy MacGregor June 1 1981


Canada's angry natives no longer want to be beggars on their own soil

Roy MacGregor June 1 1981



Canada's angry natives no longer want to be beggars on their own soil

Roy MacGregor

The key on this brittle spring day is false impression. What the geese see, as they cross the mouth of the Broadback River and head out over James Bay, is a bald ice patch fringed by a stubble of larch and black spruce. Near the island there is a shallow saucer of open water, and here several dozen Canada geese are at rest, not moving because they are not real. To the side, behind a blind of white canvas and ice, the Grand Chief of the Cree Council kneels on sweet, soft balsam. He is invisible in a white cotton cap and white poplin coat. Far to the south, the spring geese faintly bark, their path home destined over this illusion of security, the harsh truth—realized too late—too Atf nn nnof n

Chief Billy Diamond does not look up, toward the geese, nor down, toward his loaded 12-gauge pump. He has, instead, been looking back, struck with the realization that on this very day, on another spring goose hunt precisely 10 years ago, the transistor radio had informed him that his home was about to become part of the largest hydroelectric project in the world. That announcement, the first he had heard of the plan, would forever change his life.

He could remember the day perfectly, the wind warm and out of the south, whereas today’s wind was from the north. But not just the wind had changed. Ten years ago the blind had concealed Uncle Philip, the man who, with Billy’s father, Malcolm, had taught him the Cree name for every point and rise of land for as far as the eye could see. Uncle Philip had been a cripple, hip and leg crushed by a falling tree and never set properly, but he had also been a fighter. Two winters back, when they found him dead in his snowshoes, it was proof that a Diamond’s heart gives out before the spirit. A Diamond fights on. And the family was delighted when Billy honored his uncle’s name by passing it on to his fourth child, a son born the following November.

On this day, back home in Rupert House, the young Philip was in his 18th month, finally learning to crawl. There was talk of brain damage; perhaps, like his namesake great-uncle, he was crippled. But at least he was alive. Down from the house toward the Rupert River, a small plot in the Anglican Church graveyard told an even sadder story of the Cree children, as did at least a half-dozen other small graves in other native communities of Northern Quebec. They are victims of a disease of poverty, a heartbreaking legacy of Chief Billy Diamond’s treasured James Bay Agreement.

Ka-ronk! Billy snaps out of it at the signal from the second blind. There are geese within sight, drawn curiously toward the decoys. Ka-ronk, ka-ronk— the Cree call and the geese answer, the illusion in play. Billy raises his shotgun, moving once again into his own imaginings of this cruel spring. He thinks of Eric Gourdeau, the Quebec bureaucrat who deals with the Cree for the provincial government, who dares to sit in his Quebec City office and say: “The Cree are very rich people now. They can take care of themselves. They’re all practically millionaires, you know.”

Yesterday, when the geese were flying better, Billy Diamond blasted Eric Gourdeau out of the sky twice. But today’s geese bank away with the soft sigh of distancing wings. The Grand Chief of the 6,500 Cree rolls to a sitting position, takes a bite of doughy bannock and considers the decade between the two hunts. “I now know the government is not your trustee. The government is your opponent.” Chewing, he considers his own words: suddenly standing, he turns toward James Bay and shouts. Do you hear me out there? The call heads for the northwest, fast fading on the barrens.

‘There’s more than Indians in this country1

It was once so simple. In 1909, when Capt. Joseph Elzear Bernier claimed an Arctic island, he merely took his rifle and fired 19 shots in the air. “I instructed an Eskimo to fire the 20th,” he reported, “telling him he was now a Canadian.” Seventy-two years later the price of a shell has risen: not counting possible royalties from mineral rights, including gas and oil, the cost of turning native people into fully participating Canadians has risen to the point where it will likely cost in excess of $1 billion in cash and as much as a quarter of all the land in the Yukon and N-W.T.

In the eight years since the 3,000 Nishgas of the northern coast of British Columbia split the Supreme Court of Canada over aboriginal rights—thereby forcing the government to reverse its previous decision to ignore such rights—more than 260 native claims have been filed with Ottawa. Fourteen of these are described as “comprehensive,” meaning native interest has never been extinguished, and the rest are “specific” claims involving grievances over past deals. Such specific claims might involve everything from treaty forgery in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan to ownership of such things as the Great Lakes. While 45 of them have already been rejected by the federal government, “in excess of a thousand” are anticipated, many of them legitimate. It is the comprehensive claims, however, that are reaching the crisis point and that are crucially tied to two current debates: the constitution and the drive toward energy selfsufficiency. The major claims are:

• The Dene Nation Involving some 650.000 square miles of the mineral-rich Mackenzie Valley (see map, page 56), this claim involves the 10,000 Dene and the 6,000 members of the Northwest Territories Metis Association. The federal government has hinted at a settlement of around $200 million and two per cent of the land base, but that isn’t even close to what the Dene are after: their own nation within Confederation, some political self-determination and at least a fair share of subsurface mineral rights. With a negotiator appointed only last month, this claim is nowhere near settlement.

• The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada The 17.000 Inuit of the Far North are insisting any claims negotiations be paralleled by talks toward creating Nunavut, a 750,000-square-mile block which, after creation, would become a full province within 15 years. Settlement might also include outright ownership of as much as 15 per cent of the land and subsurface mineral rights to a smaller portion, as well as considerable cash. The talks are getting serious, and federal negotiator Robert Mitchell is hoping for an agreement in principle by Christmas.

• Conseil Attikamek-Montagnais du Québec Involving 10,000 people and 200,000 square miles of Quebec, this claim is ironic in that these natives are after a sovereignty-association with Canada, no “cash-for-land deal” as in the James Bay Agreement. Leaders have even taken their case to an international human rights tribunal in Rotterdam, where Canada was found in violation of the United Nations Human Rights Charter for unilaterally annexing aboriginal lands in the James Bay Agreement. Canada has yet to answer these charges and negotiations are a long, long way off.

• The Council for Yukon Indians (CYl) Representing 6,000 natives, the CYl is after a significant amount of the Yukon’s 207,000 square miles, including some mineral rights, cash and the right to tax resources at the wellhead. One high-ranking CYl official predicts an agreement in principle by the fall.

• The Committee for Original Peoples’ Entitlement (COPE) Involving the 2,500 Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic, COPE originally pursued outright ownership of 169,000 square miles, then in 1978, signed an agreement in principle for $45 million, ownership of 37,000 square miles and, perhaps most important, full subsurface rights to 5,000 square miles. Leaked documents subsequently revealed (Maclean’s, Feb. 23) that the federal government has had second thoughts on their signed agreement and the subsequent controversy has thrown the final negotiations into doubt.

For the federal government, these are merely the coming migraines in an increasing headache. With little comfort expected in the future, the government can no longer point to the past, either, claiming as it once did that the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was a glowing example of serious negotiation, fair settlement and proven workability. What was once first noticed—the Cree’s $135 million and the Inuit’s $90 million—is now overshadowed by gastroenteritis, the killer disease of the poverty-stricken Third World, contaminated water, open sewers and inadequate housing. Yet when Cree Chief Billy Diamond and Inuit leader Charlie Watt go looking for shoulders to lean on in their time of need, they are deflected by shrugs in Ottawa and Quebec City, the two governments legally responsible for the continuing implementation of the agreement.

The history of the James Bay settlement-long considered a sellout by such groups as the Dene—has chilled the hearts of other native groups currently involved in negotiations. They would be tempted to back off, were it not for the two-edged political sword hanging over their heads: the constitution and energy. Members of Parliament may have wept when Justice Minister Jean Chrétien announced in January that aboriginal recognition would indeed be enshrined in the new constitution, but it was native leaders who wept privately when they failed to gain a veto right over any future amendments which might be engineered—by unsympathetic provinces—and that might affect aboriginal rights. “The amending formula should not lie in the hands of the provinces,” says Jim Bourque, president of the N.W.T. Metis Association. “They don’t give a damn about aboriginal people.”

So wary are the native groups of enlarged provincial say in their affairs (precisely what the Cree believe has hurt them), that they would actually prefer to continue dealing with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the Mr. Magoo of the federal bureaucracy, renowned for its shortsightedness and bungling. This department, lectured by the auditor-general for losing track of $300 million in 1979-80, subjected to six ministers in seven years, remains the “white father” of native affairs. The present minister, John Munro, however, is currently ironing out the final wrinkles in a brand new native claims policy, one that he hopes might restore some “necessary credibility on the government’s part.”

It will need to go a long way, however, if Munro hopes to ease the immense ill feeling that has built up in recent weeks over the federal government’s National Energy Program. Through a nondescript Commons standing committee on public works and natural resources, the Liberals are frantically ramming through a bill known as C-48, the Canada Oil and Gas Act, legislation so powerful and all-inclusive that it confirms Ottawa’s full control of resource development north of the 60th parallel as well as a 25-per-cent government share in all resource projects. An outraged Dene Nation, the very people who fought the Mackenzie Valley pipeline and won through the 1977 Berger inquiry, have charged that this is a concerted move “to lock up northern resources and throw the key away.” The Globe and Mail, in an editorial, calls it a “dictatorial act.”

Vaught in the dance of political elephants'

Both John Munro and Energy Minister Marc Lalonde deny these charges, saying the new constitution—and possible amendments to C-48—will adequately protect aboriginal rights, but their denial unfortunately coincided with a delayed announcement, just as Parliament entered its two-week recess, that Petro-Canada, the governmentowned oil company, of which Munro’s deputy minister is an ex officio member, was being given special permission to explore some 31 million acres in the North. This action, coupled with a late April National Energy Board approval for the construction of the Norman Wells pipeline—directly contradicting Justice Thomas Berger’s call for a 10year moratorium on such development until the land claims are settled—has outraged native leaders. The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada asked Munro last July to “withdraw lands from disposition that are a subject of negotiations” and have yet to receive an official reply. Obviously, one is no longer necessary. Munro has promised, however, to produce more information on just what lands Petrocan has tied up.

Native leaders do not have to be told what it all means. “If there’s no development,” Kit Spence, a Munro aide, has said, “there’s no pressure to settle native claims, and we’ll never settle. There’s more than Indians in this country.”

On Oct. 19,1980, Chief Billy Diamond was telephoned in Rupert House by the Hospital Sainte-Justine in Montreal. Could Billy and his wife please come— quickly. It took a full day to reach Montreal, and when Billy and Elizabeth Diamond finally rushed into Room 3616 their first thought was that there had been a mistake: this red balloon of open sores couldn’t be their son. Yet... it was Philip. The gastroenteritis had given way to chicken pox and then to meningitis. The baby was going into seizures. Elizabeth was unable to bear it. She broke down. Billy fought it, but then he broke as well, standing there helpless as he listened to the doctor’s urgent request: would Billy draw as close as he could to the child? Would Billy help them look for a possible spark?

Hands shaking, eyes full, he leaned over his dying son. The doctor asked Billy to say something, so he spoke in Cree, softly. He told Philip there were people praying for him. But nothing. Billy leaned over still closer, to within an inch of the baby’s open eyes. “Philip,” he said, still speaking in Cree, “you’ve got a future. Don’t let it go.” The baby’s eyes moved, a flicker. Not much, but enough. Two days later the swelling was going down and the seizures had stopped. And on Jan. 19, after 121 days of hospital care worth $48,363, Philip Winston Diamond was taken home to whatever will be his future.

Were it not for tiny Philip’s dead namesake, Billy Diamond might have become cynical about futures long ago. There are times when it does feel like all his own glory is now behind. But such glory! A week after he was elected chief in 1970 he immediately issued his challenge to the federal system of Indian Affairs. The local Indian agent arrived by floatplane at the Rupert House dock and informed Billy he had all of 20 minutes to hear out the new chief. In front of his village, Chief Billy Diamond said, “You can f—k your 20 minutes,” and he turned and walked away.

He became chief in time to lead the fight against Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s ambitious plan to turn the northern part of his province into a massive wall outlet. The Cree got only a small fraction of the land they claimed, but they did extract promises from the federal and provincial governments that, as Warren Allmand, then minister of Indian and northern affairs, put it when he introduced the legislation in the House, “government funding will be available for key community services.” The $225-million cash and debentures settlement the Cree and Inuit shared would form a kind of heritage fund, deemed 75-per-cent untouchable by law, which would form nothing other than an economic base, its equity and interest backing sensible business projects.

We're talking about a sense of responsibility'

Only four years after that legislation, Warren Allmand, by now out of the cabinet, would reflect on what went wrong: no money had been set aside specifically for several of the promised implementation projects; little effort had been made by the department to meet the deadlines for detailed periodic reports (only one has appeared so far); and, unbelievably, keeping track of the entire James Bay Agreement would become a part-time job for a single government employee. For a government stuck in 1981 with a $14-billion deficit, the ramifications were alarming. A confidential report prepared in December by a high department official acknowledged the costs “can be quasi-astronomical and beyond the means” of the department. The conclusion:“ something went wrong.”

It hurt Billy Diamond to learn this firsthand, because for so long he had been a believer. It was beyond him how, in May of 1976, another native leader in Alberta, Nelson Small Legs Jr., could have shot himself and left a suicide note saying, “I give my life in protest to the Canadian government for its treatment of Indian people for the past 100 years.” Billy Diamond thought he had been treated fairly. He liked the James Bay Agreement. But in May last year Philip fell sick. And by last Aug. 10, when a four-month-old Cree baby from Nemaska named Tommy Wapachee died of the same symptoms, virtually every Cree child under the age of 2 was suffering. Billy knew that he, too, would have to protest. Unlike Small Legs, Tommy Wapachee had left no message; so Billy Diamond would do it for him.

He would record the history of the James Bay Agreement in thick brown, black and blue documents and he would place these before the House of Commons committees on Indian affairs and on health and welfare. He would tell about Indian Affairs digging sewer trenches and then inexplicably failing to complete the work, leaving festering moats and open cesspools. He would tell of Quebec agreeing to corrective work and not coming through, of Ottawa promising yet doing nothing, and finally how the Cree were using their own money—the sacred heritage fund—to finance the completion of proper waste disposal.

The biggest holdup was Quebec City, where the agreement had never been popular to begin with. Just why the Quebec government didn’t like him, Billy Diamond wasn’t sure; perhaps it was just that here was another situation of federal-provincial hand-washing, where all the dirt stays with the third party. “Indians are caught in the dance of the political elephants,” says Rob Milen, who resigned his land negotiator job in Saskatchewan last year over federal-provincial buck-passing. “The province steps on you one day and then the federal government the next.” Whatever, Quebec City was so reluctant to give any authority, let alone the agreed-to funding, to the troubled Cree Regional Health Board that in September the Cree turned to the courts and a $264-million lawsuit. While the lawyers mutter and while Quebec and Ottawa argue about which health responsibilities are whose, a brand new hospital sits unopened in the Cree village of Chisasibi, unable to even hire staff.

John Munro promised a full review of the agreement by June, but already there is evidence of a tuberculosis epidemic in Mistassini and 20 reported cases of gastroenteritis in Paint Hills. Munro flew to Paint Hills in April, saw the obvious, and announced an immediate emergency plan which he believed was under way in mid-May. “That’s a surprise to me,” Diamond’s assistant, Robert Epstein, said on the following day. “They have not done anything.”

“In the James Bay Agreement we’re talking about more than just contract laws,” says David Porter, vice-chairman of the Council for Yukon Indians, who is watching this sad tale with increasing concern. “We’re talking about a sense of responsibility. What the hell is a government for? Is a government set up to screw these people? Or is it there to help them? It’s a tough lesson to learn because there’s no recourse for the Cree, you know. They extinguished their rights. They gave up the land. They’ve nothing left to bargain with.” Hanging on the wall of Yukon territorial government leader Chris Pearson’s office is a small pencil sketch, a bucolic scene of an Indian paddling away from the island on which his tepee sits. Reflected in the water is the mirror image of the paddler, of the canoe, the island and the trees. But not of the tepee. It is as if the home is not quite real, a mirage. Pearson thinks it is an oversight, the artistic immaturity of the 17-yearold native who gave him the sketch. It may also be a message.

The question of property rights is nothing new in Canada. It was Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, who rose in the House of Commons on April 15,1886, and maintained the native was “simply living on the benevolence and charity of the Canadian Parliament and, as the old adage says, beggars should not be choosers.”

Yet today, only a dozen years after the present prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, said, “We can’t recognize aboriginal rights because no society can be built on historical ‘might-have-beens,’ ” the president of the Dene Nation, Georges Erasmus, is able to say: “We’re willing to negotiate our way into Canada on the basis that we keep our lands and control and ownership of enough resources so we become self-reliant, so that we’re not beggars in our own land.” All thanks to Canada’s judicial system.

The 1973 Supreme Court split on aboriginal rights, which led to Trudeau’s about-face on aboriginal rights, has since been followed by a 1979 ruling by N.W.T. Justice Patrick Mahoney that the Baker Lake Inuit, who had taken the government to court to stop mining companies from trifling with caribou grounds, did indeed have aboriginal rights and that these rights could not be said to have been extinguished by the 1670 Hudson’s Bay Charter, as the federal lawyers were arguing. However, Justice Mahoney then allowed the mining company to proceed, saying aboriginal rights were not necessarily property rights. Just what they were, he didn’t say. And so the dilemma has yet to be resolved. Should the Dene Nation take the federal government to court over the Norman Wells pipeline, expected to be approved by cabinet sometime this summer, the issue might finally be put to rest. But the Justice Mahoney decision has had the effect of making native groups extremely wary about the court.

Weekly, the pressure to settle rises: Norman Wells and Bill C-48 were followed by the Petrocan push into the North and, more recently, by an internal government report, not yet made public, which argues that the already signed agreement in principle with the COPE people of the Western Arctic “could indefinitely delay oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Region,” expected to be in the neighborhood of $40 billion. With the COPE agreement in principle all but broken by Ottawa anyway, this report suggests the creation of an arbitrator with massive powers over land use and no recourse for appeal, simply to “allow industry quick access to lands necessary for exploration and development projects.”

Walking Out establishes a Cree male as a hunter

This, of course, involves the Arctic ice pack, described only 11 years ago by Pierre Trudeau as “the most significant surface area of the globe . . . [whose] continued existence in unspoiled form is vital to all mankind.” Last year, in Churchill, three polar bears were dumped into oil to see how they would fare in a drilling disaster. That one bear survived must have been encouragement to someone, somewhere.

“Sometimes you just feel like grabbing your gun, your snowshoes and your pack and disappearing into the bush,” says the CYl’s David Porter. “But unfortunately that just isn’t possible anymore. The industrial 20th century is here, and we’re going to have to deal with it.” “We may have to resort to violence,” says Chief Wayne Christian of the Salish’s Spallumcheen Band, who has turned from trying to deal with the Canadian politicians to the United Nations and Britain, also without much result.

It is late at night, one going on for two. Billy Diamond sits leaning on the faded oilcloth of the hunt camp table, a Coleman lamp hissing on the beam above, the waves of wood stove heat playing at the edges of the faded sign his daughter, Lorraine, has crayoned and stapled to the wall behind him: HOME SWEET HOME.

Home. . .. This used to be the private fishing lodge of Charles Stewart MacLean, late of Louisville, Ky. Come summer and the big amphibious plane carrying the wealthy American would break across the Broadback and slip gracefully down, taxiing slowly up to the docks. MacLean liked to be met by his head guide, a feisty little character named Malcolm Diamond who quaintly doubled up as chief of the ragtag band of Cree up at Rupert House. The last time Malcolm saw the master of the lodge, however, he told him to take his $6 a day and shove it. He was an Indian and he would hunt and fish around here as much as it suited him. It was his right. Malcolm and Billy still laugh about that one, treasuring the moment.

“You know,” says Billy, playing with the tailings of a final drink, “Bourassa said he’d harness seven rivers, create a half-million jobs—all within a decade. Well, his time’s up today. And he hasn’t done it yet.”

Uncle Philip wouldn’t give in. Nor would Malcolm. And Grand Chief Billy Diamond is not without a few ideas this spring night. There are other hydro projects in the works and they all need his co-operation. And there’s also his crazy idea of marching every man, woman and child, all 6,500 Cree, down to Ottawa to see Pierre Trudeau. “And maybe while we’re there,” he says, “they can load up a DC-3 and bomb Rupert with a payload of Javex.”

But first, before all other matters in Billy Diamond’s life, there is next month’s Walking Out ceremony. Traditionally Cree, the Walking Out establishes a Cree male as a hunter, a provider, a fighter. The boy dressed in the clothes of a young hunter, complete with small pack and carved wooden gun. The village elders gather in a special tepee built for the occasion: the child enters, receives their blessings and walks out to the cheers of the village. And even if Billy has to carry Philip himself, he is going to do it. For Uncle Philip. For young Philip. For himself.

With files from Carol Bruman, Dale Eisler, David Folster, Donald Gutstein, Katherine Lawrence, Peter McFarlane, Anna Prodanou and Suzanne Zwarun.