A newspaper cartoon pinned to a wall in the fourth-floor offices of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in downtown Winnipeg last week showed NDP MLA Elijah Harper firing an arrow into a rubber dinghy afloat on Meech Lake. Aboard the dinghy were Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon. Underneath the cartoon, someone had added the caption “The captains have to go down with the ship.” The cartoon provided a note of levity in what was otherwise a deadly earnest campaign by Manitoba’s native leaders to sink the Meech Lake accord and to force aboriginal concerns to the top of the national agenda.
And by week’s end, it had become clear that the efforts by Harper, Manitoba’s lone Indian MLA, to block passage of the accord in the provincial legislature had become the lightning rod for decades, if not centuries, of native resentment. Declared Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs leader Phil Fontaine: “Harper represents the collective will of the Indian peoples of Manitoba and Canada, and their pain and disappointment over the dishonorable treatment they have received from this nation.”
Fuel: With most natives living in poverty after more than a century during which successive federal governments tried first to conquer, then assimilate and finally accommodate native people, their leaders’ profound impatience added fuel to last week’s battle in Manitoba. Their determined stand against Meech Lake reflected their bitterness over the accord’s accommodation of Quebec’s constitutional demands at the same time as repeated attempts over several decades to enshrine native rights in the Constitution had been unsuccessful.
But, above all, the showdown in Manitoba centred on the natives’ claim that they have been denied respect for far too long. Said John Amagoalik, president of the 30,000-member Inuit Tapirisat of Canada: “Many claim that Quebec has been humiliated. They have not begun to understand the meaning of the word. We have had to live with it for 300 years.” For many native leaders, the timing of the
Meech Lake accord represented not just humiliation, but outright betrayal. Canada’s 11 First Ministers signed the deal on April 30,
1987—only five weeks after the fourth First Ministers’ conference held in the 1980s to attempt to define native constitutional rights ended in failure. Their anger was fuelled by the accord itself, which recognized Quebec as a “distinct society” and declared that franco-
phones centred in Quebec and anglophones in the rest of the country were “fundamental” to Canada.
That, native leaders said, made no allowance for the unique place of aboriginal peoples in Canada’s history. Observed Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations: “The distinct society perpetuates a myth. Canada was not bom when the English and French cultures joined. It was bom when the treaties were signed with the First Nations. We allowed people from Europe to come here and settle peacefully.”
Most native leaders across the country have definite proposals for the kind of accord that should replace Meech Lake. Among their demands: constitutional recognition of natives as a distinct society in their own right and guarantees that native groups will be represented at all First Minister meetings affecting native issues. “We can live with the Constitution without Meech Lake,” said Erasmus. “It only worsens things for us.”
Merit: Indeed, some native leaders said they feared that the Meech Lake accord’s distinct society clause and the right conferred on Quebec to
1 “preserve and promote” that 2 status might be used in the I future to override their own
rights in that province. But other analysts noted that the accord’s overall silence on native rights only continued a trend evident throughout Canadian history. Anthony Hall, a professor of native American studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, recalled that aboriginal people merited only a single clause in the 1867 British North America Act, stating that they— and lands reserved for them—fell under the authority of Parliament. Added Hall: “So right there, the Indians are like the post office or fish. They are an item to be governed—not
people with interests and opinions and languages and cultures to preserve and promote.”
That approach increased the litany of aboriginal complaints. During the past century, many Indians were uprooted from their traditional lands and isolated on reserves. Registered as status Indians under the Indian Act, first passed in 1876, they were entitled to legal benefits such as free education and, later, exemption from most taxes. The needs of nonstatus Indians, Métis and Inuit were left to whatever programs provincial governments eventually deigned to introduce. But even status Indians were treated as less than full citizens—the right to vote in federal elections was not extended to all natives until 1960. Meanwhile, the government attempted to encourage native assimilation. The 1876 Indian Act, for one, stated that if an Indian could prove himself “civilized,” he could move off the reserve and apply for full citizenship.
Potent: But, for the most part, natives resisted the pressure from Ottawa to adapt to white culture. By the 1960s, the social ferment of that decade fuelled a new militancy among Canada’s native leaders. That activism increased in 1969, when Jean Chrétien, then Liberal minister of Indian affairs and northern development, issued his white paper on government policy towards Indians. It proposed dismantling the Indian Act, transferring responsibility for natives from the federal government to the provinces and eliminating Indian status—a suggestion that many native groups denounced as the latest attempt at assimilation. Although the government never translated the proposals into legislation, native leaders responded by introducing a potent new weapon: large land claims, some of which are still before the courts.
Then, in the late 1970s, when the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau launched its drive to patriate the Canadian Constitution, native groups pressed to have their rights entrenched—including the right to self-government. At first, their efforts appeared successful. The patriation package unveiled in January, 1981, “recognized and affirmed” native rights. But then the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in September, 1981, that Trudeau had to obtain “a substantial measure” of provincial support for the package. In the late-night dealing that led to all provinces but Quebec extending that support on Nov. 5,1981, the premiers, wary of the way
that the native clause might be used to challenge provincial control over land and resources, convinced Ottawa simply to delete it.
Native leaders denounced that action as a betrayal. The First Ministers later agreed to reinsert a compromise clause stating that “existing” native rights were recognized—leaving it for future conferences to define those rights. Unappeased, native leaders took their case directly to the British Parliament. They reasserted their special relationship with the Crown—dating back to a royal proclamation of 1763 that gave the imperial government the sole right to reach treaties with Indians in exchange for their lands—and argued that Canada’s First Ministers could not be trusted to look after their interests. Many British MPs responded sympathetically. But, in the end, they followed Trudeau’s advice to “hold their
noses” and send the Constitution to Canada.
Some observers said that native fears about the willingness of Canadian politicians to address their concerns have proven to be well founded. Between 1983 and 1987, the First Ministers held four conferences with the major native organizations. But repeated attempts to entrench the principle of aboriginal self-government in the Constitution ended in failure^
in part because some premiers objected that the concept was too vague and undefined. Still, during the acrimonious debate over the Meech Lake accord, some native leaders continued to hope that their concerns could be addressed. But when the 11 First Ministers met in Ottawa for their marathon week of meetings early in June, their final agreement relegated all such matters to a “second round” of talks. Native leaders said they had again been betrayed— and shifted the battle back to Manitoba.
Racism: To some observers, it seemed fitting that the fight for constitutional recognition of native rights would end up in Manitoba— which joined Confederation in 1870, after Métis leader Louis Riel had established a provisional government in 1869 and forced Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to accede to a list of rights. As a result, Manitoba entered Confederation as a province, not as a territory of Ottawa. More recently, Manitoba’s native leaders have become
among the most militant and outspoken in Canada. In part, that militancy stems from a 1988-1990 provincial inquiry into the administration of justice to native people in Manitoba, which heard testimony about widespread racism in the Manitoba justice system.
At the same time, Manitoba provides a clear indication of the economic and social ills that plague Canada’s natives. According to statistics compiled by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, 85 per cent of the 75,000 Indians that the assembly represents receive social assistance. Two-thirds of those over the age of 15 have an annual income of less than $5,000. Although Indians make up only about five per cent of Manitoba’s population, they account for 22 per cent of the inmates in its federal penitentiaries. They are also three times more likely than non-natives to 15 commit suicide.
g Such statistics help to ex1 plain, in part, why Manitoba’s 5 chiefs said that they had noth5 ing to lose if the Meech Lake 1 accord died. Observed Fon“ taine: “What could be more disastrous for us than the conditions on reserves as they are today—Meech Lake or no Meech Lake?” In that light, last week’s native opposition to the Meech Lake accord was more than just a demand for a foothold in the country’s Constitution. It was also a profound and resounding cry of frustration and anger.
BRIAN BERGMAN with JOHN HOWSE in Winnipeg and DAN BURKE in Ottawa
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