On June 25, 1969, then-Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien announced in the Commons that the federal government wanted to abolish Indian reserves, give the land to the Indians and put them on the same legal footing as whites. Indian leaders reacted angrily, saying that Chrétien’s white paper would destroy Indian culture by eliminating the safeguards contained in federal law and ancient treaties. In fact, native opposition grew so heated and so widespread that Ottawa abandoned the proposal shortly afterward. But to the Indians the episode had been a near-brush with disaster which could happen again. As a result, they began organizing to defend themselves in case it did. Since then, the Indian campaign for political power has gathered steam, especially since 1982 when the Constitution affirmed aboriginal rights and opened the door to a host of land claims.
The result is there is a national Indian lobby and there are Indian umbrella organizations, some militant and all vocal, in every province except Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. Such leaders as George Watts, coordinator of the British Columbia Tribal Forum, and Georges Erasmus, head of the national Assembly of First Nations, fly back and forth across the coun-
try to big-city conferences where Indians in three-piece suits discuss subjects ranging from land claims and cash compensation for the loss of hunting grounds to oil and mineral exploration. Indians hire prominent lawyers, including Vancouver’s Thomas Berger (page 26) and Montreal’s James 0‘Reilly, to argue land claims in the courts, they buy full-page newspaper ads to state their positions and they speak with growing eloquence in television interviews.
Push: All this activity has a single objective: obtaining title to the lands they occupy and the establishment of local self-government. But so far, despite the lobbying and the push for Indian unity, only one band in the entire country has achieved those goals. Last month, the 650 Sechelt were given self-government and title to their 10 square miles of reserves about 50 km north of Vancouver. Jobs in construction, a local federal fish hatchery and their own businesses have given the Sechelt an unemployment rate below the national average, so they are far from typical of the 258,000 Indians who live on 2,250 reserves across Canada. The unemployment rate in some regions reaches 90 per cent. Many of the 280,000 Indians and Métis who live off reserves are even worse off, and Indian leaders, once confident that the
Constitution signalled a new dawn, are becoming both disillusioned and angry.
As a result, when the federal Indian Affairs department announced last fall that it was sponsoring a $1.5million Native Business Summit and trade fair, some Indian leaders denounced it as a waste of money which could be better spent improving the economy of native communities. The summit, heralded in glossy brochures as a step toward “fostering a new era of economic development,” went ahead last month at the Toronto Convention Centre. However, Union of Ontario Indians president Joe Miskokomon, for one, said that the summit would “have a very marginal impact on Indian people in Ontario.”
Wealth: But to most Indians, money alone is not enough, and few know that better than Joe Mathias, the 42-year-old chief of British Columbia’s Squamish band, the wealthiest of British Columbia’s 196 Indian bands.
West Vancouver’s sprawling Park Royal Shopping Centre, the International Plaza hotel and the 507-unit Park Royal Towers apartment complex sit on lands leased from the reserve for annual fees in the millions (the Indians decline to say precisely how much). But negotiation, not money, preoccupies Mathias. “Indian leaders are saying there is a process, a form that can be dealt with, and that’s the constitutional form,” said Mathias. “What that leads to is direct discussions with the federal and provincial governments. The longer they stonewall the issue, the more Indian people are going to get impatient. I guess there are three options available to Indian people in asserting our rights. One is negotiation, another is litigation and a third is confrontation. Nobody wants confrontation—nobody is advocating that.”
But there is confrontation, so far mainly in Western Canada. Last fall more than 70 Haida Indians were arrested for blocking a logging road in support of their ancestral claim to Lyell Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia which, like several other provinces, does not recognize aboriginal title. Said George Watts of the B.C. Tribal Forum: “The lack of progress in resolving issues is already leading to trouble. Last night I got called to an incident between our people and federal fisheries officers. What it came down to was that our people told the fisheries officers, ‘Go ahead and use your guns. We’ll use them right back.’ Our people are at the point of frustration that they’re saying, ‘To hell with it. We’ve been slaves in our own country long enough. We’ve been pushed around long enough and we’re not going take it anymore.’ I see young people, 25and 30-year-olds, who have lived on welfare since they left school. And they’re just not prepared to live like that any longer.”
They may have to. Paul Tennant, an associate professor of political science at the University of British Columbia and a specialist in aboriginal issues, told Mac-
lean ’s: “At the present rate, it would take more than 100 years to settle outstanding Indian land claims in Canada. There is a strong belief among Indians that the provinces are not to be trusted, that they have an assimilation point of view, that they don’t see Indians as separate people.” The provinces have a major role in the land-claims issue: although reserve lands are under federal jurisdiction, non-reserve Crown lands belong to each separate province, which must agree before Ottawa can transfer the land to Indians.
One harsh critic of the provinces is Fred Lennarson, an Edmonton management consultant who became a convert to the native cause several years ago while working for the Alberta Indian Association. Lennarson has since taken up the cause of the Lubicon Lake Cree band in northern Alberta, which was promised a reserve by Ottawa in 1940 but which never received it. In 1984, the World Council of Churches said development by the multinational oil companies could have “genocidal consequences” for the 350 members of the Lubicon Lake band. Said Lennarson: “They’re fighting, politically and legally, and they have been defending their homes with loaded rifles against provincial threats that their homes would be bulldozed if they continued to challenge provincial jurisdiction over those lands. Provincial government surveyors who come in there now are chased out physically. The Cree have their backs to the wall and there is no place else for them to go.” Stares: It is after midnight in the nearly deserted vaulted lobby of Edmonton’s Ramada Q Renaissance hotel. Bernard Ominayak, legs crossed, sits on a richly upholstered chesterfield beneath the stare of a hotel security guard who scrutinizes the jeans and the Indian face under the baseball cap. But Bernard Ominayak is chief of the Lubicon Cree and he stares right back. The security guard wanders away. Ominayak, who is on his way to a meeting of chiefs at Jasper, says: “There is going to come a time when we have to decide whether we are going to have more patience in trying to deal with these governments and the oil companies that are destroying the hunting, everything, or make our last fight and come at them. You might as well be dead as alive and useless.”
For other Indian leaders, the future is not as bleak. Said Georges Erasmus of the Assembly of First Nations: “We are the dominant force in the northern part of most provinces. We’re going to create political institutions there that will reflect our beliefs and our thinking. Within two decades it will be impossible to live in northern Canada and not be, to a certain extent, drawn into native society. Native people will have much to contribute over the next century. It’s our turn.”
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