This is Harold Cardinal, a Cree and perhaps the most charismatic Indian leader since Cochise. He is telling you...

JON RUDDY December 1 1969


This is Harold Cardinal, a Cree and perhaps the most charismatic Indian leader since Cochise. He is telling you...

JON RUDDY December 1 1969


This is Harold Cardinal, a Cree and perhaps the most charismatic Indian leader since Cochise. He is telling you...

ffThe Canadian mosaic supposedly allows for the growth of different cultural groups as the basis for building a better Canada.. .The stronger the tiles within the mosaic, the stronger the mosaic as a whole. Before I can be a usefully participating and contributing citizen I must be allowed to develop a sense of pride and confidence in myself as an Indian. I must be allowed to be a red tile in the mosaic, not forced to become an unseen white tile.99


A Cree chief named Big Bear renounced the Indian Treaty of 1876 and assembled a band of nomads who would not settle on the reserves. These simple people did not understand that the vanishing buffalo could no longer feed them. They could not know that they were the last natives of the plains to experience the convulsion of the New World and to move into the awful responsibility of time. Early in 1885, hungry and faced with a government ultimatum, they began to save bullets and listen to the religious delusions of Louis Riel, the Métis leader. On April 2 some inflamed young braves ignored the moderate counsel of Big Bear and massacred the white people at Frog Lake, a hamlet that produced no other news for 84 years.

THE CREE RESERVE named Frog Lake is a three-hour drive east from Edmonton, near the Saskatchewan border. On September 8 Robert Stanfield became the first important white man ever to visit its shingled, one-room community centre. There to meet him were half the band’s 579 treaty Indians and Harold Cardinal, president of the Indian Association of Alberta.

The people had come from small frame houses in horsedrawn wagons and rattling cars over dirt roads that were deep-rutted and washed out in the; hollows, the men wearing shiny suits or bright, stiff, blue jeans and plaid shirts, the women cotton dresses in the primary colors. Cardinal had driven from Edmonton in a borrowed Toyota with a thermos of coffee at his side. Stanfield, who was on a four-day swing with his entourage through northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, had been persuaded to stop in to present bursaries from the band council to three high-school students. Before he could get away, the Opposition Leader was subjected to an inflammatory, 50-minute speech by Harold Cardinal, the first 40 minutes of which were in untranslated Cree.

At 24, Cardinal is the most articulate, perhaps already the ►

INDIANS continued

most powerful Indian leader in Canada. Ask an Albertan Cree about him and he’ll say fervently, “Harold is a good boy.” A Stanfield aide named Joe Clark has a more sophisticated estimate. During Cardinal’s address in Cree, he whispered to an acquaintance, a little wistfully, that the Indian had “as fine a political instinct as I’ve ever seen.” At a stroke Cardinal had bolstered the tribal assertiveness of the dirt-poor Frog Lake band — most members of which can speak English — and had demonstrated his racial pride, his unconcern for Great White Fathers from Ottawa. The Indians liked Cardinal and his speech. Their eyes were bright; it was as though the guttural, mysterious words were injected into their veins. But two local MPs, who had turned up to cultivate Stanfield rather than the Frog Lakers, looked progressively uncomfortable, amused, bored, impatient, annoyed and incredulous. And an agent from the Indian Affairs Branch muttered that Cardinal was being “difficult” again. “He’s an enigma,” the agent added dolefully.

Cardinal has been known as difficult ever since he dropped out of university in 1967 to devote himself fulltime to Indian politics. There’s no doubt that he is difficult: he has consistently refused to fall in with government experts who profess to know what’s good for him. But enigmatic he is not. Rather, he has* been almost totally predictable. Whether he is being difficult about hunting rights, medicare payments or the gist of Ottawa’s new Indian policy, all you have to do to anticipate Cardinal is ask yourself what is most desirable from an angry Indian’s point of view. Not a white-liberal’s point of view or a middle-class Métis point of view, but the point of view of an educated, vindictive treaty Indian whose ancestors were pushed around, slaughtered and swindled, and who now is out to get what he can for his people.

He wants complete medical coverage paid by the federal government, free and adequate educational facilities and the removal of all restrictions from what Indians believe are their eternal hunting, fishing and trapping rights. Cardinal also wants land and money. He points out that one treaty promised 640 acres for every family of five, or 160 acres for a single man. Instead of which, most of Alberta’s 26,012 treaty-Indians are crowded on 41 reserves, and 9,000 of them live on welfare. Cardinal is an advocate of Indian-run forestry, secondary industry and big-scale farming. He wants Ottawa to provide the capital in settlement of other neglected treaty rights. He quotes an. Indian farmer in northern Alberta: “Does the government expect us to farm our land with our fingernails?”

Cardinal believes that the impetus for what he hopes will be a quiet Indian revolution must come from the native people themselves. But, he adds, “There must be a revolution in the minds of white people to break down the barriers, the misconceptions, the bigotry and the racism,. Do white people want us continually to rely on welfare for ,a bare existence? Do they want us to live in squalor so that we can continue to fulfill the psychological needs of white dogooders who feel they are glorifying God by sending us secondhand clothes?”

His political instinct and his enduring facility for being difficult have made Cardinal the unquestioned leader of Alberta’s treaty Indians and the Great Red Hope of Can-

ffCardinal has as fine a political instinct as I've ever seen,99 says an aide of Robert Stanfield's, wistfully

ada’s native peoples. His book, The Unjust Society, scheduled for a late-November release by Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig, sold more than 16,000 copies in advance. By Christmas, Cardinal will be the most widely read Canadian Indian since Pauline Johnson. National leaders are already seeking him out: Stanfield initiated a private meeting during his western trip. Most Indians on the reserves resent neither his youth nor his highfalutin education. “He speaks well in Cree and in English,” said a Frog Lake grandmother. And, with unwonted emotion: “Ah, he’s a fine young fellow!”

In Hollywood, Cardinal would scarcely be cast as a native hero. Owlish and thick-bodied, quiet but quick to enjoy a laugh, he looks like a boy who has not yet lost his puppy fat. His speech is soft and hesitant — except in front of an audience, when it is soft and assured. In Cree or English he has the gift of Demosthenes. At an Alberta Liberal Party convention a year ago in Calgary, he received a 10-minute standing ovation for flaying Ottawa. His supporters claim that he is the most persuasive Indian spokesman since Cochise. He wears his beaded buckskin jacket proudly, like a feather, but rents a downtown Edmonton apartment whose most conspicuous piece of furniture is a large and expensive color-television set. He disparages Indian Affairs bureaucrats but himself talks of “resource teams” and “viable alternatives” and has spent an inordinate amount of time setting up office systems and chains of command within his own organization.

Like all treaty Indians, Harold Cardinal has been torn by wildly divergent cultures. Raised on the Sucker Creek reserve near the southwest shore of Lesser Slave Lake, he was one of 18 children, eight of whom died as infants. He has no knowledge of his ancestry. “We think more of the future than of the past,” he says, flashing his fine smile. “I was extremely well treated by my folks and my brothers and sisters. I guess I was a little spoiled because the ones born before me died. The worst thing that ever happened to me was when I was sent away to residential school.”

This was a Roman Catholic Indian school 12 miles from the reserve. Cardinal spent 10 years there, which, he says, “conditioned me to the way I feel about things.” He found the bleak regimentation oppressive. “There was a lot of preaching about brotherly love, but none was shown to me.” Today, Cardinal’s eyes brighten darkly at the very mention of the white-man’s church, and the most vitriolic chapter of his book is about missionaries. “If the Great Spirit is dead, the Indian knows who killed him,” it begins.

Home from school for weekends and summer vacations, Cardinal served as interpreter at band council meetings. (His father, who speaks no English, was chief of the Sucker Creek reserve for many years.) The involvement was enough to prompt the boy to continue his education — not, however, at the hated church school.

“I told the priest I was leaving and he got very hostile. He said that I was ungrateful and that I would not be able to get along in the city. At that time no student from the ►



reserve had successfully attended a white high school. He predicted that I would come back in a couple of months, begging for readmission. I sensed that my father was glad, however. He said it was my decision. Then he said, ‘You know, if you come home as a dropout, you must settle for the life we have.’ My old father is proof that you don’t have to be educated to be wise.”

Cardinal, who at 16 had never seen a city, stuck it out at Edmonton’s St. Francis Xavier High School, boarding with a congenial white couple found by Indian Affairs. The government gave him eight dollars a month spending money. “Two things kept me going,” he says. “What the priest said, and what my father said.”

During his final year at high school, Cardinal was elected president of the student council. A teacher recalls him as bright, reticent, liberal and a remarkably moving speaker at student assemblies. By this time he had decided to commit himself to the Indian cause.

At St. Patrick’s College, then part of the University of Ottawa, Cardinal majored in sociology but spent most of his energy on Indian campus organizations.

He took a year off in 1966 to work for the Canadian Union of Students, crossing the country four times and meeting other young Indian activists. He married a pretty Coast Salish girl from Vancouver Island, whom he’d met in Winnipeg at a Canadian Indian Youth Council workshop. (They now have a year-old son.) At the end of the 1967-68 term Cardinal dropped out of college to work for the then-stagnant Indian Association of Alberta. Astonishingly, he was voted in as president a month later. He was 23.

“I cannot promise you too many things,” Cardinal told the association, Trudeau-style. But he quickly organized a team of 16 trained field representatives to liaise with the farflurig bands. Within a year he put 25,000 miles on his station wagon, tirelessly driving from meeting to speech to powwow. He found new office space and staff in Edmonton and revised the constitution, disbanding — and infuriating — a white advisory group.'(“Whites must learn to act under the guidance of Indians,” he' says.) (He sparked a National Indian Brotherhood rejection of the Establishment-minded IndianEskimo Association (“Uncle Tomahawks”). He stomped off the board of an Edmonton-based agency to market handicrafts in a fine rattle of beads, having failed to establish Indian control. (“Although the manager was genetically an Indian, whites predominated on the board and had only a superficial understanding of the role of handicrafts in our culture.”) Mel Hurtig, Cardinal’s publisher, thoughtfully resigned too.

A relative moderate in the Red Power structure who finds the machinations of Kahn-Tineta Horn, for example, embarrassing, Cardinal nonetheless predicts a more militant role for his people. His primary goal is self-determinism despite “policies of assimilation and oppression,” “white supremacist

ffWe want the same as you: a better chance for our children, the option to choose our own pathway??

racism,” “entrenched bureaucrats,” “dogooders” and “attempts to keep us weak and fragmented.” Indians must solve their own problems with white resources, he says, “because we have 100 years of history to prove that we can’t look to the federal government or the do-gooders for advice.”

Currently, his main concern is the preparation of what might be called a Red Paper: a consensus of Indian counterproposals to a White Paper tabled in June by Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien. Cardinal believes that Ottawa’s new policy — which would repeal the Indian Act, transfer Indian Affairs from federal to provincial jurisdiction and eliminate separate legal status for Indians — threatens the race with abrogation of its rather precarious treaty rights, even with “cultural genocide.” Three chapters of The Unjust Society are an indictment of the policy and of prior government consultations with Indian groups, which, says Cardinal, “stand exposed as the purest hypocrisy,” since the White Paper was conceived before Indian views could be collated.

Chrétien disagrees. “I was making judgments while they were talking to me,” the minister says. He insists that the government will respect important treaty rights and negotiate just settlements for land that has been taken away from the Indian and in return for the phasing out of such degrading inanities in ancient treaties as the provision of silk suits and twine. To Cardinal’s charge that he is a naïve newcomer taken in by civil-servant underlings, Chrétien replies, “It’s true that I was not the Minister of Indian Affairs before, so I had much to learn. I visited 30 reserves in six months and was absolutely available in Ottawa. To Harold and all Indians I have said only what I found in my heart. Indians told me, ‘Let us make the decisions.’ Now we want to turn the reserves over to the Indians. Harold has always been against the Department. We want to phase it out. I know that Harold is working very hard for his people. We can disagree. But I am a bit surprised by his attack in the book.” Sum and summary of Cardinal’s political posture, the book could scarcely be more prickly if its jacket were decorated with porcupine quills. Treaties, education, welfare, religion — fork-tongued injustice and hypocrisy in every area of confrontation are bitterly and, on the whole, tellingly attacked. He demonstrates how even those whites who have meant well have done badly by the Indian, and why such sonorous phrases as “our two founding peoples” alienate the first Canadians. “As long as Indian people are expected to become what they are not — white men — there is no basis on which they can meaningfully participate in Canadian society,” he writes. “Before I can be a usefully participating and contributing citizen I must be allowed to further develop a sense of pride and confidence in myself as an Indian. I must be allowed to be a red tile in the [Canadian] mosaic, not forced to become an unseen and misplaced white tile.” □