CANADA

The ‘small indignities’

Ovide Mercredi seeks change—without violence

E. KAYE FULTON September 2 1991
CANADA

The ‘small indignities’

Ovide Mercredi seeks change—without violence

E. KAYE FULTON September 2 1991

The ‘small indignities’

CANADA

Ovide Mercredi seeks change—without violence

From the outset, conflicting forces set Ovide Mercredi apart. Prohibited from living with relatives on the Grand Rapids Indian reserve in central Manitoba because his father did not satisfy the federal Indian Act’s requirements for official Indian status, the young Cree and his family instead lived just outside the reserve’s boundaries. Raised at home and on his parents’ trapline to speak Cree, he refused to speak at all for a full year after enrolling— at age 7—in the community’s only school, where teachers insisted that he speak only English.

Later, when Mercredi entered the University of Manitoba in the early 1970s, he was one of only a handful of natives on the school’s campus. By the time he graduated in 1977, there was a thriving native student association at U of M, as well as a department bf native studies, largely because of his influence. Recalled Mercredi:

“Very early in life, I knew there was a distinction—an artificial one—about Indians that was not a making of my people.

But you struggle and you overcome and it makes you stronger.” Now, the 45-year-old native-rights activist is at the pinnacle of his power among his people.

In the months ahead, Mercredi and the Assembly of First Nations that he leads will strive to reach a long-sought constitutional accord that will secure aboriginal rights. This week, he will discuss specific native demands with nine provincial premiers meeting at Whistler,

B.C. At the same time, the quiet-spoken lawyer is certain to be a pivotal force behind a royal commission into aboriginal rights that the federal government announced last spring. He is putting an individual stamp on hearings under way to survey the constitutional views of Canada’s 500,000 officially recognized Indians, as well as thousands more Métis, Inuit and other native groups. For Mercredi, the discussions are elements of an ambitious personal goal: repairing two centuries of increasingly debilitating native dependence on white governments. Said Mercredi: “My challenge for the

next three years is to turn grievances into solutions. The onus is as much on us as it is on the federal and provincial governments.” Indeed, the same events that have forced native issues to the top of the national agenda have also focused attention on the leader of a formerly obscure organization. When he first

arrived in Ottawa in 1989, as a vice-chief representing Manitoba in the Assembly of First Nations, Mercredi was largely invisible in the shadow of his urbane, popular predecessor, Georges Erasmus. But in the two months since delegates to the assembly’s national convention chose him—on a late-night fourth ballot after a marathon day of voting—as national chief in Erasmus’s place, Mercredi has proven himself to be a formidable opponent of tradi-

tional government policies towards natives.

He is also a complex and sometimes contradictory man. Mercredi’s compelling blend of passion and deliberation has captured the imagination of many political analysts—including Toronto Sun columnist Douglas Fisher, who compared the slightly built Cree to the biblical Joshua, toppling the walls of Jericho. But some native leaders express concern about Mercredi’s personal ambitions—alleging that he harbors a desire to become the spokesman for other native groups beyond the status Indians represented by the assembly. Said one native chief, who requested anonymity: “Ovide goes right to the heart of things quickly because he is marching to his own vision. While that is a strength if the vision is universally shared, when it isn’t it can also alienate those who prefer consensus.”

But Mercredi’s discipline and personal vision have been tested before. When he was 12, he was already helping his family hunt for the ducks, prairie chickens and rabbits that supplemented larger game in their traditional diet. He recalls that his parents, George and Louise, imparted a keen sense of values to their children. “From them, I learned that we are not inferior, and that no one living thing is better than another,” Mercredi told Maclean’s. “That was a very important philosophy to be ingrained in you as a child.” But he added that in the remote region where George Mercredi eked out a small living from his trapline, that conviction was constantly tested by “small indignities.” In one instance, administrators misspelled the name of generations of Mercredis who attended the local school, recording it as “Mecredi”—an error that Ovide legally corrected in 1966.

There were more serious g setbacks, as well. In 1959, the í Manitoba government decided I to harness the hydroelectric potential of rapids that ran S through the local Cree reserve. 1 The reserve’s residents were “ forced to relocate to an area not far from their original homes. But the development flooded land where many Cree—including Mercredi’s father—had traplines. Recalled Mercredi: “What Hydro showed was the dominance of one society over another, a complete disrespect for my people.”

In fact, Mercredi—by then 16 and a highschool dropout—and his father benefited more from the development than many of their neighbors. Both went to work for Manitoba Hydro. There, the young Cree quickly demonstrated a

drive that had eluded him at school. Said Lloyd Stevenson, a Peguis lawyer who worked alongside Mercredi on the hydro project: “To me, it was merely work when work was hard to come by. To Ovide, it seemed a challenge.”

Still, the hydro project’s disruption of native life made a lasting impression on Mercredi’s political development. The Cree youngster had already been introduced—through a years-old back issue of Life magazine—to the political doctrine of civil disobedience that Indian visionary Mahatma Gandhi had elaborated. Declared Mercredi: “Gandhi’s thoughts helped shape my own thinking about political action. [His theories of] nonviolence and coexistence are inherent in our relations with Canadians.” After Manitoba Hydro flooded the Cree’s ancestral land, however, Mercredi’s outlook acquired a sharper focus. “I decided if I were ever to have a position of authority,” he recalled, “I would come back and help my people. Now, 26 years later, they are fighting for reparations and planning blockades. That is where I’ll be.” At about the same time, Mercredi lost the faith he had in the Roman Catholic religion since childhood. That faith was reflected in his name—adopted from a bishop, Ovide Charlebois, who took Catholicism to northern Manitoba in the early 1900s, adopting many Cree customs and the band’s lyrical language. But when non-natives arrived to build and operate the new hydro project, the church reverted to an English mass and dropped its unique Cree services. “The use of Cree became virtually non-existent,” Mercredi said. He added: “By

1965, the church had lost its relevance to me.” But his interest in politics was gaining momentum. After entering the University of Manitoba as a mature student, Mercredi quickly organized the growing number of natives on campus into a political association. As its president, he persuaded senior faculty members to attend a native conference at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., one of the first campuses to offer native studies, in order to convince them to adopt similar programs of their own. By the time he graduated in 1977, the university had established an Indian studies department that, by 1991, had expanded to offer 26 courses on native affairs. Two years after graduation, Mercredi was called to the Manito-

ba bar and quickly found employment as a legal adviser to the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs, where he helped natives regain control of their own childand family-service agencies. In the same period, Mercredi met and married his wife, Shelley Buhay, a non-native lawyer. The couple have one daughter, Danielle, 9.

Since his arrival in Ottawa in 1989, Mercredi’s determination to follow his own course in pursuit of native rights has sometimes perplexed other aboriginal leaders. Some assembly members expressed impatience last summer when Mercredi disavowed the use of arms by Mohawks manning the barricades at Oka, Que. But Mercredi drew his own hard line last week when he denounced the entire Indian Act—the federal statute that governs most aspects of a status Indian’s life—and threatened to boycott the royal commission on native grievances unless its mandate closely followed his assembly’s demands. Said one native leader who is critical of Mercredi: “His is not an easy job. But we cannot afford to be inflexible.”

But the Cree admirer of Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence appears unlikely to back away from confrontation. Last week, Mercredi discussed a “national act of disobedience,” in which natives would challenge white authority by ignoring federal and provincial laws that restrict native hunting. To the trapper’s son from central Manitoba, the issues at stake clearly go beyond the now-silenced rapids of his childhood.

E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa