A confrontation on the white man’s turf
On the eve of this week’s historic First Ministers’ Conference on aboriginal rights, the federal government released a desolate report about the condition of native peoples —the kind of report to which nonnative Canadians have become numbed. The study by the Canadian Council on Social Development said that Indian children on reserves are five times more likely than white children to be taken from their families by welfare authorities. The starkness of that statistic and the even grimmer studies that show the suicide rate among Indian youths is six times higher than their white counterparts were in sharp contrast to the politics and theories that will monopolize most of the two-day Ottawa event.
Indeed, native leaders feared that instead of identifying the first signposts toward a path out of the familiar landscape of their peoples’ misery, the politicians would do little more than agree to hold more meetings. Snapped a lawyer for the Inuit: “We feel we are going to a seance, not to a solid conference.” And some native leaders openly acknowledged that they would have difficulty in the future preventing violence among the young if some progress cannot be achieved. Certainly the representatives of Canada’s estimated 1.5 million native people have reason to be suspicious. In November, 1981, in the corridor-dealing among federal and provincial politicians trying to reach a historic constitutional agreement, the rights of native peoples were sacrificed. And even though, after growing protests, a clause was reinserted several weeks later that recognized their “existing” rights, native leaders want more. They wanted the conference to initiate a process leading to an amended Constitution, guaranteeing them special status with rights different from other Canadians. And they wanted their rights to be entrenched so that they will never again be vulnerable to the expediencies of politicians.
The Canadian Constitution Act of 1982 made this week’s conference possible. Not only is it the first time that the Constitution can be amended in Canada, it is also, according to the roughly 1,000 native leaders and observers who planned to attend, the first time that Indian, Inuit and Métis people can negotiate their place within Confederation. But those lofty aims faced a number of obstacles. Among them: a number of power struggles between the federal government and the provinces over who will have to give up what to the natives; a perceived lack of commitment among the white leaders in their dealings with native aspirations; political disputes among native leaders themselves and self-destructive schisms within their organizations.
Another stumbling block in the way of achieving a compromise is the inflammatory rhetoric that clouds the possibility of awakening greater public understanding of the issues. The fiery language, in turn, reflects a profound mistrust which is the product of more than a century of broken promises during which the federal government tried first to conquer, then assimilate and finally accommodate native people. But the central difficulty is the inability of Canadian politicians to come to grips with the central question: what, if anything, do the majority of Canadians owe aboriginal people?
That shortcoming is an issue that must be addressed and resolved in a favorable manner, say native leaders, if not at this conference, then soon. Otherwise, they say, violence could replace enlightened treaty-making. Declared George Watts, the 37-year-old president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island: “If we don’t get anywhere, there is a very dangerous generation out there which is soon going to lose patience and resort to violence. Indian people will take the road to confrontation. Sitting in a jail is no worse than sitting on a reservation.” Even Mark Gordon, 29, who is widely viewed as a mild-mannered, well-prepared negotiator for the 25,000 Inuit, underlined the potential hazards if the talks failed to raise some promise of future progress. “There is a very pessimistic generation growing up in the North whose politics are far more radical than mine,” he said. “They will know the government is their enemy.”
The prospects of compromise were severely limited at best. Many provincial governments (whose Crown lands would become part of almost any eventual land-claims settlement) refuse to acknowledge that any debt is owed at all. Still, federal officials involved in native issues hoped that the conference would enable them to begin to determine precisely what is owed, then to take what one federal negotiator described as “a good, hard look at what that means.” Indeed, a senior official in Senator Jack Austin’s social development ministry suggested that the whole concept of “debt” is wrong. “It is a matter of recognizing the natives’ legitimate place in society as the people who were here first,” he says. “But it would be wrong for white people to see this as a guilt trip.” The native leaders themselves, he added, do not frame their demands in terms of righting moral wrongs but rather as gaining economic rights and compensation for violated treaties.
Paul Joffe, a lawyer for the Northern Quebec Inuit, disagreed. “You can talk all you want about giving them a land base, an economic base and cultural values,” said Joffe. “But remember, as a people their language and culture have deteriorated to the point where they are fighting for their very survival.”
The chairman of this week’s negotiations in Ottawa’s Conference Centre, a high-ceilinged, marble-columned former railway station, was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. His companions were to be Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan, Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Munro and the premiers, including Alberta’s Peter Lougheed.
The Alberta leader orchestrated November 1981’s final constitutional phrasing that used the contentious word “existing” when describing aboriginal and treaty rights. “We have tried to find out what the government means by ‘existing rights,’ ” said Indian Association of Alberta President Charles Wood. “The closest we have been able to get is that they consider existing rights to be hunting, fishing and trapping. We think our rights are a hell of a lot more than that.”
Premiers considered more sympathetic to native rights include Ontario’s William Davis, Manitoba’s Howard Pawley and New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield. Noted one Indian leader: “Hatfield believes in the law, and as soon as our rights were recognized he came around. He is not afraid to change his mind.” The wild card is Quebec Premier René Lévesque, who last week privately told native leaders that he endorses certain aboriginal rights. Still, his opinions will have a diminished effect because he refuses to recognize the validity of the constitutional negotiating process itself.
Quebec Premier René Lévesque, who last week privately told native leaders that he endorses certain aboriginal rights. Still, his opinions will have a diminished effect because he refuses to recognize the validity of the constitutional negotiating process itself.
On the native side, the key figures include 49-year-old David Ahenakew, who is national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents approximately 325,000 legally recognized or so-called status Indians. Louis (Smokey) Bruyere, a 34-year-old Métis from northwestern Ontario with Ojibway roots, is president of the Native Council of Canada (NCC). He claims to speak for more than a million Métis and nonstatus Indians. And Charlie Watt, 37, a veteran negotiator in the long struggle to win the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement, is cochairman of the Inuit Committee on National Issues, representing 25,000 Inuits.
The divergence of native organizations reflects their
equally divergent positions on the issues. But the three native groups share broad objectives. For one thing, they want an entrenched ongoing process to define aboriginal rights so that their future will not be forgotten after the conference. For another, they want a statement of explicit rights, which
would include language and culture guarantees, the ability to define membership (ignoring the arbitrary labels of the Indian Act) and land rights, based on traditional use or occupation. They are also seeking a regional land base with a measure of control over resource development, some form of self-government and the entrenchment in the Constitution of all treaties. At the same time, the natives propose a federal program of payments to ensure equal opportunities, economic development and such essential services as housing, schools and running water. They do not want the funds haphazardly funnelled through provincial authorities—which they distrust. And they want to be consulted— some insist upon the right of consent—before any constituer; tional changes affecting their I lives are made.
« The Constitution Act spelled I out the ground rules for the conu ference and specified that it should include the “identification and definition of the rights” of the aboriginal peoples. Still, as Mary Simon, spokesman for the Quebec task force of aboriginal peoples on the Constitution, said: “Whenever we tried to talk about rights with governments over the past year, they looked as if we were crazy. ‘Rights? You want to talk about rights? No. Let’s talk about broad, unenforceable principles.’ Consequently, the specific commitment in the Constitution to deal with our rights at the conference is unlikely to be met.” The Constitution poses other problems as well. It contains the provision that any amendment to the Constitution must be accepted by the federal government and seven out of 10 provinces representing 50 per cent of the population. Any change in the amending formula to allow for native consent would require unanimity. Commented lawyer Joffe: “Some reactionary provinces will be putting on the squeeze because they control the amending formula. They can ensure there are no threatening native gains.” Davis privately confided to Ontario native leaders in January that he believed “very little” could be accomplished in the talks.
should include the “identification and definition of the rights” of the aboriginal peoples. Still, as Mary Simon, spokesman for the Quebec task force of aboriginal peoples on the Constitution, said: “Whenever we tried to talk about rights with governments over the past year, they looked as if we were crazy.
‘Rights? You want to talk about rights? No. Let’s talk about broad, unenforceable principles.’ Consequently, the specific commitment in the Constitution to deal with our rights at the conference is unlikely to be met.” The Constitution poses other problems as well. It contains the provision that any amendment to the Constitution must be accepted by the federal government and seven out of 10 provinces representing 50 per cent of the population. Any change in the amending formula to allow for native consent would require unanimity. Commented lawyer Joffe: “Some reactionary provinces will be putting on the squeeze because they control the amending formula. They can ensure there are no threatening native gains.” Davis privately confided to Ontario native leaders in January that he believed “very little” could be accomplished in the talks.
The atmosphere of suspicion z that preceded the conference g was fanned by a confidential ïmemo leaked to the Canadian S Press in January. It was written by senior government official Dennis Marantz and sent to Senator Austin. Marantz works in the federal-provincial relations office, an arm of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Austin had a central role in organizing the conference. The memo recommended that Ottawa use the talks as a means of “reducing native expectations” and “embroiling provincial governments in the process of discussion and perhaps negotiations.” Observed NCC President Bruyere: “They’re playing their games. It just shows you where their commitment is.”
The native groups themselves have hurt their chances of success by their own internal feuds. Chiefs representing
10,000 Alberta Indians labelled the meeting a “sham” before it began, and New Brunswick Indian leader Graydon Nicholas refused to participate in what he called a “manipulative conference.” However, the most potentially damaging dispute involves a Métis split caused by regional and racial jealousies. A breakaway group initially led by Alberta Métis leaders Elmer Ghostkeeper, Sam Sinclair and Saskatchewan Métis Association President Jim Sinclair (with Manitoba Métis support) filed for an injunction to stop the conference. They claimed that the national alliance of nonstatus Indians and Métis did not represent their unique Prairie roots. Said Jim Sinclair: “The NCC has turned into a melting pot of leftover Indians.” The political damage caused by the divisions worsened when both federal and provincial politicians became involved in the infighting. “We make it clear that we fully support the [western] Métis having their representatives at the conference,” said Saskatchewan Attorney General Gary Lane. “They represent a large segment of the native population and therefore cannot be left out of the process.” To complicate the dispute further, until recently Jim Sinclair held one of the NCC seats on a rotating basis with three other NCC board members. He lost the organization’s support after he told federal Justice Minister MacGuigan that Métis claims were based not on aboriginal
rights but rather on the concept of Métis nationalism. To NCC members like Tony Belcourt, himself an Alberta native, Sinclair’s statement was blasphemous. To give up the position of aboriginal rights—a concept already recognized in the Constitution—and bargain on the basis of Métis nationalism is, he says, “very foolish.” Meanwhile, some of the Métis dissidents formed the Métis National Council and lobbied MacGuigan to give them a voice at the First Ministers’ Conference. Their efforts succeeded late last week, when the minister gave the breakaway group a conference seat in exchange for dropping attempts to win an injunction. Saskatchewan Métis leader Clem Chartier noted, “The Métis have finally won what rightfully belongs to them.”
Other native leaders feared the public discord will harm their cause. The Western provinces will receive the most benefit from Métis disunity, according to a Métis insider. “As far as the Alberta Métis [dissidents] are concerned, I think they have just been suckered by Peter Lougheed,” he said. “Elmer Ghostkeeper tells us that the provincial government will give the Métis everything they want. It is a sad joke.” For Mary Simon it was essential to have unity. “The Constitution deals with fundamental rights which are universal to aboriginal people,” she said. “Our differences could have been worked out on another level at a later date.” For his
part, Métis spokesman Tony Belcourt was concerned that after the conference politicians would charge that the participants could not make progress because the natives were unable to agree on their objectives.
The bitter taste of past failures also cast a damper on the current talks. The examples of injustices against the natives are manifold. In 1980—five years after the signing of the historic $225million James Bay land compensation agreement—a lack of health, education and municipal services promised by the federal and Quebec governments became so desperate that two Cree babies died from gastroenteritis. Then, a 1982 federal report called settlement conditions for the James Bay Cree “deplorable” and criticized an appalling lack of sanitation. In another case of missed potential, the approximately 400 Naskapi Indians of northeastern Quebec have become alienated from the federal government. The Naskapi opposed the James Bay hydroelectric project’s flooding of their traditional lands and, when they learned how to negotiate, they won a $15-million settlement to build a new reserve 13 km from, and dependent upon, the town of Schefferville, Que. The recently announced closing of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada’s operations has put the town in jeopardy and the Naskapi future seems bleak.
The young natives will not wait forever to reach a settlement of their claims. Life expectancy for Indians under a year old is approximately 10 years shorter than that of the national population, and post-neonatal mortality (between four weeks and one year) is twice the national average. Neonatal mortality (within the first 28 days) is 60 per cent higher. Accidents, poisoning and violence are the leading causes of death for Indians (36 per cent of all deaths) and Inuit (24 per cent), according to the latest federal health statistics. Those deaths accounted for 239.3 deaths per 100,000 Indians and 159.7 per 100,000 Inuit, compared to 70 such deaths per 100,000 Canadians generally.
The most incisive of the natives argue that solutions to their crisis can be found only through constitutional changes giving native people greater control over their own lives. They contend that as a result of government intervention even the recent bright spots on the native horizon have darkened. They scoff at such federal attempts to mollify them as the $345-million Native Trust Fund that was announced in late 1981 and never delivered. Details of the fund are still being debated among government officials.
Convincing politicians to concede control of native affairs to the natives themselves will be only the first step toward a settlement. Said B.C. Indian Chief George Watts: “[Control] makes white people nervous. They think that we are going to kick them off their land and pile them into planes going back to Europe. It’s just not true.” Native leaders are particularly upset by the outcry that greeted William Davis’ bid to resolve a Kenora-area conflict between treaty fishing rights and provincial regulations in the natives’ favor. Ontario sportswriters denounced the concessions, and environmental protectionists angrily opposed the scheme. In that case the issue was merely a decision concerning fishing rights, not the potentially far more controversial landclaim settlements.
The opportunity to make real and lasting changes to the fabric of native life was never more within reach than during the First Ministers’ Conference. Most observers agreed in advance that the politicians had a historic opportunity to begin to reverse a century of government policy that at best represented bleeding-heart blundering and, at worst, indicated racism. Last week Inuit lawyer Joffe outlined the natives’ most cherished goal: “If we could only come up with the wording to one significant amendment, we would really have accomplished something,” he said. “It would be a major step forward.” Still, he was pessimistic. The challenge to the nation’s statesmen was nothing less than to transcend the litany of obstacles that cloud significant issues with petty political strutting. But, as native leaders like Inuit Mark Gordon pointed out: “It is urgent that they do so because, for the young, time is running out.”
in Toronto and