Failure was written across every face as the leading characters trudged into the cavernous meeting room near Parliament Hill last week. After less than two full days of negotiations, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, nine premiers and the leaders of four aboriginal groups had once again failed to find a way of entrenching native self-government in the Constitution. Jim Sinclair, the fiery spokesman for most of the country’s approximately 100,000 Métis, expressed outrage at the result—even accusing Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine of promoting racism because of his unwillingness to compromise. Lamented Sinclair: “By leaving here today without an agreement, we have signed a blank cheque for those who want to oppress us.”
The words “oppression” and “colonization” were used frequently last week as aboriginal leaders pleaded with the country’s top politicians— Quebec’s Robert Bourassa was the only premier not attending—to expand the constitutional rights of natives. While proposals and counterproposals flew back and forth, the negotiators met publicly in the government Conference Centre and privately in hotel rooms and offices, trying to hammer out a formula for guaranteeing native selfgovernment. But the agreement that eluded the same groups in three previous meetings during the past four years once again proved unreachable. Said Tony Penikett, government leader in the Yukon: “Obviously, in the last few days we have had a meeting of bodies, but not of minds.”
The native groups represented at the conference claimed that their very survival as distinct peoples depends upon constitutional entrenchment of their
right to self-government. Otherwise, they said, natives will continue to be assimilated into mainstream Canadian culture or remain in poverty and despair on the fringes of white society. They were seeking control of land, schools and social services so that natives can make their own decisions about their economic and cultural future. Said Georges Erasmus, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations and spokesman for many of the country’s more than 350,000 status Indians: “We must be able to control our own lives on our own lands, using our own resources.”
That message found approval from Chief Simon Lucas of the Hesquiat Band on Vancouver Island as he listened to Erasmus from the back of the conference hall. He had journeyed to Ottawa to listen to the politicians debate his future. He said that he got what he expected—nothing. Said Lucas: “We still eat the sea urchin, we still have clams, we still smoke fish the way our people smoked their fish thousands of years ago.” The politicians, he said, have no appreciation of such traditions: “They only want to recognize the English hierarchy.”
The present Constitution, proclaimed in April, 1982, guarantees “aboriginal rights” but does not define them. By the time last week’s meeting began, there was general agreement that the key lay in entrenching the concept of self-government for hundreds of native groups across the country. But most premiers were reluctant to do that until the details of each self-government agreement could be spelled out. Otherwise, many premiers said, the courts—rather than the politicians—would end up defining selfgovernment for each Indian band or Inuit settlement. Native groups, on the other hand, said that self-government should be proclaimed now—and the details worked out later.
The meeting began on March 26 amid traditional Indian prayers, drumbeats and the smoking of the peace pipe. But feathered headdresses were soon set aside as eloquent native leaders wearing business suits and backed by high-priced lawyers, pollsters and media consultants began the hard bargaining. At first, many appeared optimistic that an agreement would be reached, but that feeling soon dissipated.
Among the premiers, British Columbia’s William Vander Zalm faced the most scorn from native groups. Vander Zalm drew boos from dozens of native spectators after telling them they must share their ancestral lands with all Canadians rather than set up their own mini-states.
But Vander Zalm was not the only premier to take a hard-line position. Alberta’s Don Getty, Newfoundland’s Brian Peckford and Saskatchewan’s Devine were all blamed by native leaders for failing to accept last-minute compromise proposals. Those premiers complained that they were being asked to place the right of self-government in the Constitution without knowing what exactly it meant or what it would cost their treasuries. Vander Zalm noted that his province alone could be forced to negotiate 350 individual selfgovernment arrangements with Indian groups. Each agreement would create a separate nation within the province. Those “nations,” he said, could exempt themselves from federal and provincial taxation while still relying on governments for financial support. Said Vander Zalm: “I have to ask: who will pay and where will the money come from?”
Other premiers, notably New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield, were more conciliatory. Hatfield accused some of his fellow premiers of demanding “a Canadian Tire money-back guarantee” before agreeing to deal with the selfgovernment issue.
The first day of the meeting adjourned amid wide disagreement, unleashing a night of intense last-minute behind-the-scenes lobbying. Federal officials worked through the night until 6 a.m. Friday, trying to draft a compromise proposal that would win the support of the four native groups and the provinces.
The consent of the federal government and seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population are necessary to amend the Constitution. Native groups counted the federal government, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba as immediate allies. They needed only two more provinces, and because hard-line Alberta and British Columbia refused to budge the focus was on wooing Saskatchewan and Newfoundland—both initially deemed to be fence-sitters. Quebec, refusing to vote on amendments to a Constitution that it has not yet endorsed, took only a limited role in the meeting.
Mulroney himself led the lobbying. He spent Thursday evening at his residence at 24 Sussex Drive, furiously working the telephone. Meanwhile, native leaders and provincial politicians prowled the halls and bars of Ottawa hotels, debating and arm-twisting. But it was a wasted exercise. When Saskatchewan and Newfoundland finally jumped off the fence, neither backed the native position.
The meeting ended amid several question marks. No one seemed sure when there would be another round of talks. There was also uncertainty about whether some native groups would carry out threats to go to the courts to seek a ruling that would define their constitutional rights—or appeal to the United Nations for help. But everyone involved agreed that the issue would stay alive, even if the task of resolving it was left to future generations. Said Sinclair: “I may be gone— but our people will be back.”
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