A first for First Nations

Dale Eisler August 2 1982

A first for First Nations

Dale Eisler August 2 1982

A first for First Nations



Dale Eisler

It was eight days marked by diverse, even confusing, signals. When delegates to the World Assembly of First Nations (WAFN) in Regina last week were not trading accounts of economic and social oppression, they were lining up to see the glamorous floor-length loincloths of international award-winning Indian designer Tim Sikyea from Fort Resolution, N.W.T. While 65 uninvited supporters of the militant American Indian Movement trudged 260 km from Saskatoon in a symbolic March for Survival, others streamed to a casino to try their luck at the blackjack table. What was billed as the world’s largest gathering of indigenous people managed to attract 2,000 delegates from 24 countries as scattered as Denmark, Brazil and New Zealand. But although the sprawling, ambitious affair, encompassing everything from business and political seminars to powwows, rodeos and an all-Indian trade show, was plagued by late starts, lastminute cancellations of speakers and a shortage of interpreters, its impact seemed reasonably intact.

Suffering from an agenda that tried to offer something for everyone, WAFN still managed to emerge as the first tangible evidence that indigenous people of the world are marshalling their numbers to become a force of the future. Chairman Sol Anderson, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, who worked for two years to make the event possible, declared, “We have launched the cause of aboriginal peoples into an international orbit.” The lift-off was being recorded by 348 members of the media from Canada, the United States, France,

Spain, Norway, Bolivia and Australia.

When the language barriers and diffuse cultures that come with a gathering of worldwide aboriginal people are considered, it is no simple task to find the common thread that binds. But by the final days it had become only too evident: the patience of indigenous people everywhere is wearing thin. The most ominous warning was sounded by David Ahenakew, the respected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada. Considered a moderate voice for years, Ahenakew did not disguise his anger when he put white society on no-

tice. “If this is a democracy, then surely to God there are decent and honest people who care about the first peoples of this country,” Ahenakew said. “If not, then all we’re looking at is revolution, or some very fragmented federalism. We don’t want to see any violence, but it won’t be long. It’s only through the leadership of native leaders that there hasn’t been violence so far.”

Reduced to its basics, the assembly allowed aboriginal people to discover that, while their culture and customs may differ, their problems are not bound by international borders. One of those to realize that common bonds can stretch halfway around the globe was Bob Maza. An Australian aborigine from Canberra, Maza said that he came expecting a dose of culture shock but, instead, found issues facing Canadian natives were the same as those he lives with at home. “I have made many friends in only a few days,” said Maza, eagerly showing the names and addresses he had written down. “In Australia we fight for land claims, just as the Indians do here. The social objectives they have for better health services and the right to self-determination are the same as ours.”

As minorities in their own country in most cases, but counting themselves 200 million worldwide, native people see their quest for self-determination as requiring creation of an international political body. The first halting steps in that direction were taken in 1975 with the founding of the World Council for Indigenous People. The next phase flowed out of the Regina assembly when delegates agreed to meet every four

years under the title of the World Forum for Indigenous People. The decision to scrap the WAFN format painstakingly pieced together by Sanderson and others in the Saskatchewan Federation amounted to a minor slap in the face for organizers of the $1.8-million event. With Canada on the verge of reopening constitutional negotiations on the question of native rights, Sanderson - had hoped to become a central figure in the international movement by turning WAFN into a regular world forum.

Whatever form future conferences take, the hurdles facing indigenous people in Canada and elsewhere are staggering. In Canada, native people have an unemployment rate seven times the national average, their life expectancy is 10 years below thac of whites, they are three times more likely to die a violent death, and alcoholism is at epidemic proportions. In Central America indigenous people are peasants caught in the cross fire of revolution, and few of the handful who attended the assembly would speak publicly for fear of reprisals when they returned home.

As victims—everywhere—of colonization, their political future is rooted in self-determination, an open-ended proposition that is the cornerstone of an International Covenant on the Rights of Indigenous People that was approved by the assembly. The long-range aim is to have the covenant—which defines self-determination in terms of civil, political, economic and cultural rights— ratified by the United Nations. That possibility is, at best, years away, but if countries continue to ignore native peoples’ demands for their rights, says Rudy Ryser of the National Congress of American Indians, “the ferment and the smouldering is going to continue. Indigenous people are on the move all over the world.”

If the assembly were a staging event for a great leap forward, there could not have been a grimier backdrop. On the day after the assembly began, Regina city council passed an antisolicitation bylaw to deal with a growing number of prostitutes actively plying their trade on downtown streets—a problem almost entirely concerned with young native women victimized by their ancestry and locked into a grim cycle of poverty and drug dependency. The city’s estimated 30,000 natives (total population

only 155,000), most living in decaying homes and neighborhoods, brought the work of WAFN into sharp focus as delegates exchanged ideas on what could be done to build an entrepreneurial class of native people to use the free enterprise system to their own benefit and break dependency on government assistance. “Government people have had their hands on native people for too long. We want to manage our own resources,” declared Tagak Curley, president of the Inuit Development Corp., at Rankin Inlet in the Northwest Territories. But the economic answers all seemed irrevocably linked to indigenous people acquiring a land base.

On a propaganda mission of sorts was Indian Affairs Minister John Munro, who explained the Canadian government’s North-South policy and used the gathering as a forum to restate Ottawa’s intention to deal with Indian land entitlements as quickly as possible. Munro pointed to Saskatchewan as a model of what can be done and insisted that the federal government is committed to the Saskatchewan formula, which uses 1976 treaty band population figures multiplied by the historic 128 acres per person set out in early treaties to arrive at an entitlement figure. Munro,

who called the assembly an “organizational wonder,” said he was so impressed by the showing of indigenous people’s strength that he would recommend a special section dealing with the affairs of indigenous people be established in the department of external affairs. But, despite his praise for the gathering, Munro did not promise more than the $150,000 grant to the assembly already approved.

To what degree indigenous people trust the governments of any land as mechanisms to overcome their problems seemed much in question. Nor was there evidence of any greater faith placed in the United Nations as a tool to protect aboriginal rights worldwide. More important for José de la Cruz, president of the National Congress of American Indians, was that the gathering of indigenous people had agreed to an ideology of self-determination. “I don’t give a damn about the UN right now,” argued de la Cruz. “It is critical we agree to our own covenant and turn our attention to the immediate implementation of the covenant’s principles [in our own countries].” That was one thing the assembly achieved, along with the formation of a North American council within the World Council of Indigenous People, a body that will, give political clout to the similar interests of all North American Indians.

But such sophisticated political development was clearly foreign to members of the Elders, who held a simultaneous conference in a teepee encampment at Kinookimaw Beach, 50 km north of Regina. Offering sage advice to those who approached him with the proper offering of a yard of white cloth, a yard of yellow cloth and a pouch of tobacco, Dan Ocsapowaca, 76, said that when he was young he lived in a teepee winter and summer. “It was better then,” he said softly. “Life was simple. I do not blame the white man for the problems we face today. That is why I talk to them about our way of life, so they can learn. It is good when people want to learn.”

It was a different perspective that Ocsapowaca offered to the problems facing indigenous people everywhere. But, if anything, the World Assembly of First Nations pointed to the fact that the old ways have not worked and probably never will. And that in seeking new ways they are saying, in the words of José Morales, president of the World Council of Indigenous People, “We are people who no longer can be ignored.”