Airing the dirty linen in London

Ian Anderson March 8 1982

Airing the dirty linen in London

Ian Anderson March 8 1982

Airing the dirty linen in London


Ian Anderson

Dozing British members of Parliament jerked into consciousness when Margaret Thatcher firmly

assured the Commons last week that she was “not in favor of the decriminalization of Canada.” At least that is what it sounded like. The purifying official record will show the British prime min-

ister referred to cannabis, but a Freudian slip could have been expected. Her government has found itself more deeply mired in the “Canada Question” than it ever wanted—even though Ottawa had declared the way clear after its political accord with nine provinces last November.

Dozens of British MPs were still thrashing out their obligations in patriating a contentious relic called the British North America Act. And there was the Canadian minister of justice, Jean Chrétien, twiddling his thumbs in London while the British kept him waiting—and in the dark.

The Canadian High Commission in London tried to pass off the delays and criticism of Canada as the last harrumph of Empire. Commissioner Jean Wadds’s staff depicted the MPs who had been kicking up the fuss over “Red Indians” as eccentric Commonwealth buffs and featherbrained fringe politicians. In this judgment the High Commission was evidently wrong, as it has been wrong so often in the past 18 months, about the Canadian-style Battle of Britain.

Over the first two votes concerning the Canada act, 70 British MPs have voted against it, almost all of them because they felt rights guarantees for Canadian natives were pathetically in-

adequate. By the time the British finally vote to snip the last legal link with its old colony, at least one out of every six British MPs will have broken party lines to censure Pierre Trudeau’s government on its handling of native rights. There is more here than mere eccentricity at play, says Quebec’s agent-general, Gilles Loiselle, who organized the provincial lobby before the November accord left Quebec isolated. “It is difficult to ask members to fight the nine provinces, the federal government, the

British government and their own party,” he declared. And yet many are doing just that.

What is amazing is that the native lobby in London has proven effective despite crippling internal divisions. The one British MP who has come to symbolize the native cause is no longer on speaking terms with the Saskatchewan and B.C. Indians. The sin Bruce George

has committed is to refuse to embrace what he considers the “tactically inane” strategy developed by Victor O’Connell, a Jesuit-trained Irish ideologue who has emerged as “political co-ordinator” for Sol Sanderson, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians. O’Connell is pushing for a vaguely described notion of semi-sovereign Indian states within Canada.

As far as George and the Alberta In-

dians are concerned, the idea is a nonstarter politically in Britain. Two native lobbies have been working independently for the past four months. Confused British MPs have taken to describing the two Indian groups in their own terms, O’Connell’s faction being referred to as “the Bennites,” after the extreme-left Labour Party faction led by Tony Benn.

The Indians have hurt their cause in Ottawa as well as London. An aggrieved federal government has openly threatened to cut back the research grants for land claims cases that it says bands have subverted into the London legal and lobbying battle. O’Connell will not say how many millions have been spent by the Indians in London to have the British enact the stronger rights guarantees that Ottawa and the provinces ducked. But he does admit his group is deep enough in debt that it will soon launch a fund-raising campaign in Britain. Cynical observers wonder how much British donors will consider sending to a group that claims to be facing “eradication” if Westminster passes the Canada act and yet is based in London’s Park Lane Hotel. An irate O’Connell counters by claiming the luxurious West End hotel “supports the Indians, too” and is charging just $40 a night, about one-third its normal rate.

O’Connell has been keeping Indian spirits buoyant by forecasting imminent splits on the Canada issue both in the Labour leadership and in Thatcher’s Conservative cabinet. Neither scenario appears to have any basis in reality. Labour’s attitude to the Canada act was best ex-

emplified by Denis Healey, the

party’s deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesman. Healey told the Commons at second reading Feb. 17 that he opposed amending the Canada act; then, a week later at committee stage, he attached his name to a native rights amendment—but was absent for the vote on it. In the Byzantine fashion of British politics, he had done his bit for both Canada and Labour Party unity.

In contrast to O’Connell’s impassioned lobbying, Bruce George has concentrated on simply dragging out the

affair for a few extra weeks. “The main use of this debate is to point out that Canada’s record domestically on civil rights is not as good as Canada’s record internationally,” George reasons. “Each time there is a debate there is another stain on Canada’s reputation.” A Labourite representing a constituency in the grimy steel town of Birmingham, George has been a consistent champion of aboriginal causes—from the Laps to the Maoris. His efforts, he admits, “are counterproductive in my own area, where we have 17.5-per-cent unemployment.” But he cannot bury an affinity for native rights causes which arose from a Welsh background where the Welsh language was banned in schools. That fixation with aboriginal causes has led to taunts from other MPs, who greet him in the halls of Westminster with “where-are-your-feathers” jokes.

It was perhaps an indication of British feelings toward the Trudeau govern-

ment that Chrétien and the High Commission have been kept largely unenlightened by Thatcher’s House leader, Sir Francis Pym. When Bruce George struck a deal for a second day’s committee debate in return for no further filibuster, the Canadian delegation in the Distinguished Strangers Gallery had been expecting debate until midnight and beyond. Instead, Pym allowed the House at 10 p.m. to move on to discussion of imports of Chinese slippers. The British made it clear that they have had enough of Trudeau’s “hold-your-nose” bullying and kept Chrétien dangling. He left London the night after the com-

mittee debate, saying Pym had informed him when the committee stage would proceed. But one of his aides conceded that Pym had given no such specific agenda.

The High Commission’s problems with the Indian lobby was compounded by its refusal to meet any of the Indian leaders. It was the same tactic the High Commission strategists used unsuccessfully with the provincial lobby—that is, ignore it. Natives were told they could talk with the Canadian government only in Canada, a counterproductive strategy that kept the High Commission uninformed about such Indian propaganda as O’Connell’s assertion that official Canadian government policy is to force assimilation of the natives. While the Indians met daily with British MPs to press their cause after the November accord, the High Commission merely sent out occasional leaflets.

Ottawa’s self-righteousness on the

matter surfaced again last week when Trudeau denied he was holding his nose as the British debated Canadian treatment of natives. “What I am doing is biting my lip,” he told a press conference. “I have even got a sore here, I’ve been biting it so hard.”

In London, Chrétien joked privately he might spend a weekend in Northern Ireland and return with answers to British problems there. What Chrétien has failed to concede, however, is that many of the British MPs have been unexpectedly well-informed on the native rights question. All they have really done is recite the Canadian govern"ment’s own grim statistics on rates of native income, unemployment and suicide, and then

embroider those facts with the simple opinion that Ottawa could do a better job taking care of its native population. “Trudeau himself pontificates from time to time about the Third World,” says Sir Bernard Braine. “One or two of us simply pointed out he has a problem on his own doorstep.”

While the Canadians have been given no specific date for a final vote in the British House of Lords, Queen Elizabeth’s schedule is being kept open for the weekend of March 27-28. Tentative plans have her proclaiming the constitution act in Ottawa on March 29. The symmetry would be perfect. On that day

115 years ago Queen Victoria, her greatgreat-grandmother, had her clerk initial the British North America Act for her.

The interest of British politicians in Canadian problems has obviously increased since the five-minute debate in which Westminster dealt with the constitution in 1867. The Trudeau cabinet may not welcome it, just as it may prefer that Canadian natives take the acquiescent approach of earlier decades. But things have changed all around. “As a doubt-ridden group of people, the more impact the natives make in a foreign arena is to the benefit of their cause,” Bruce George believes. As a country politician like Chrétien should understand, what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. <£?