For many Canadians, the armed standoff at Oka, Que., provided scenes of tragedy and violence more characteristic of Central America, Israel or South Africa. But for Canada’s native people it was, in many respects, just one more battle in a continuing campaign to reclaim a measure of dignity in a continent that they once ruled. Indeed, similarly defiant gestures erupted across the country, as natives in several other communities demonstrated their support for the Oka Mohawks’ blockade.
In a cove in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands, sympathizers in salmon trollers and pleasure boats joined a flotilla of canoes paddled by Haida band members in a protest against heavy fishing by sports fishermen. Supporters on shore fanned bonfires to prevent a helicopter from landing to deliver more anglers to a floating lodge to fish for salmon. In Quebec City, Huron Indians—once sworn enemies of the Mohawks in the fur wars of the 17th
century—mounted their own symbolic blockade in support of the Oka band. And in Calgary, 17-year-old Sarcee band member Heather Meguinis undertook a more individual protest— throwing down her crown as Indian Princess at the Calgary Stampede after organizers gave her a minor role in opening night ceremonies while the non-Indian Stampede Queen and her Princesses enjoyed centre stage. Declared Meguinis: “I am a First Nations person. Why should I be treated like a second-class citizen?” Dashed: Such resentment is resounding across Canada this summer as aboriginal groups rally in their latest attempt to wrest a long-sought measure of self-determination from a federal government that they say has failed them. In June, natives brought their discontent to bear on the Meech Lake accord. But Manitoba Cree MLA Elijah Harper’s action in blocking ratification of the constitutional amendment in the Manitoba legislature may have dashed native hopes of negotiating settle-
ments with Ottawa on a myriad of land claim and self-government issues. For her part, junior Minister of State for Indian Affairs Shirley Martin told one recent gathering of Indian chiefs that the failure of the accord had relegated native concerns to near the bottom of Ottawa’s priorities. “Without Quebec at the table,” said Martin, “progress on all constitutional issues, including aboriginal issues, is blocked for the foreseeable future.” For his part, Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents 440,000 status Indians, said that there is currently an absence of political goodwill on the part of the federal government. “It is difficult to negotiate across a £ table when there is no table.” lt; As a result, many Indian leadx ers predict that their concerns ^ will be addressed in the 1990s I at the end of a gavel in the * Supreme Court of Canada—or, more ominously, at the point of a gun at roadblocks and barricades across the country.
That disheartening development, however, would only magnify a trend that was already well established. Relations between Canada’s aboriginal people and the federal government have been increasingly marked in recent years by political standoffs and dramatic confrontations. In 1985, B.C. Haida Indians stood in the path of logging machines to stop clear-cutting operations on land that they insisted was theirs. In 1988, the Lubicon Cree of northern Alberta set up roadblocks and threatened to dismantle oil wells on the 10,000 square miles that they claim.
Activists: And some observers say that native militancy is evolving into a sophisticated and double-edged force. Still shackled in many of the country’s more than 2,250 reserves by staggering unemployment rates and chronic poverty, native communities nonetheless are producing a new generation that is remarkably well-versed in the tactics of modem political warfare. And whether it is with Molotov cocktails concocted in beer bottles at the barricades in Oka, or with legal arguments for use in multimillion - dollar land claims lodged before the courts, there are Indian activists who are prepared for the job. Said Erasmus: “The next generation is looking very acutely at tactics. There is a renaissance among native and aboriginal peoples. Some of them are far more radical than ever before.”
Fuelling the latest upsurge in native anger and activism is profound dismay among Indian leaders with the federal government. Canada’s natives have long held that they should be required to deal only with Ottawa—“nation to nation” as the Mohawks’ Ellen Gabriel put it last week. And in 1984, the Supreme Court of
Canada ruled that Ottawa has a duty to protect the rights of natives in its dealings with reserve lands. But native critics say that in many instances, the federal government has failed to meet that responsibility.
Last week, native critics had fresh reason to doubt the federal government’s commitment on their behalf. Despite repeated entreaties in the first few days of the standoff at Oka, federal Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Thomas Siddon did not intervene in the charged situation. Instead,
Siddon insisted through his staff that the incident was purely a matter for provincial jurisdiction over law and order. The minister spent the latter part of the week in his Richmond, B.C., riding, leaving department officials in Ottawa to fend off further media inquiries with a terse announcement that Siddon was “closely monitoring” the situation.
Nations: According to James O’Reilly, a Montrealbased lawyer for several native groups, the federal stance has created a growing frustration among native leaders.
“The government considers jurisdiction and power over the Indians a royal pain,” said O’Reilly, who has represented both the Quebec Cree, in their fight against the Quebec government over James Bay, and those in Alberta.
Still, the issues are far from simple or easily solved. At the top of the native agenda is the
insistence that they be recognized in the Canadian Constitution as a fundamental component of the country’s social makeup, with entrenched constitutional protection for their aboriginal rights to self-government. “We see ourselves as nations, different systems of original communities equal to the Canadian government,” said Winston McLean, a co-ordinator for the Saskatchewan Federation of Indian Nations, which represents 70,000 natives in 72 bands.
In addition, native groups are demanding increased funding and jurisdiction over education. Recent inquiries in Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Alberta that catalogued the extent of bias against native people in provincial justice systems have reinforced demands for an entirely separate system of justice for natives, based on traditional laws. There are also insistent calls for guarantees that Ottawa will adhere to ^ treaties signed as long ago as ü the 16th century—and de£ mands that provincial govern-
1 ments do the same.
2 But what native groups want is often at odds with what Ottawa, and the provincial governments, say they are prepared to give. Calls for more spending on native health and education come at a time when the federal Conservative government is concentrating on deficit reduction. Other demands strike many non-Indian observers as simply unrealistic. Federal officials point out, for instance, that the
various aboriginal land claims affect as much as three-quarters of Canada’s territory.
At the same time, settling the land claims and aboriginal rights disputes has proven to be a daunting—and expensive—endeavor for those on both sides of the issues. A cabinet document drafted in the late 1960s suggested that the Canadian government could settle all outstanding aboriginal land claims for $11 million—a figure that has since increased through inflation and re-evaluation to an estimated $4.8 billion. With a federally imposed limit of six comprehensive land claims open for negotiation at any one time, native leaders com^ plain that it would take at 2least 150 years to complete lt; the current caseload. M At the same time, native i attempts to take govemy ments to court to win recognition of other land claims— notably those where Indians allege that specific parcels of land were improperly transferred out of native control— have also carried a high price. A British Columbia Supreme Court case involving the aboriginal rights of the Gitksan Wet’suwet’en tribal council, which claims title and sovereignty over 35,350 square miles of the northwestern portion of the province—an area about the size of Nova Scotia—ended two weeks ago after 314 trial days, at an estimated total cost to both sides of $12 million. “Courts are not the best forum for the resolution of issues such as land entitlement,” said Clifford Wright, commissioner of the Saskatchewan Indian federation.
Impatient: Still other native critics express the concern that Supreme Court decisions could force native groups to accept unfavorable legal intepretations. Many Indian groups, indeed, question the legitimacy of courts established by the authority of the same white governments that many regard as the adversary. Oka Mohawk Lloyd Figie, for one, observed last week that “the problem is going to a white man’s court for Indian justice.” Despite those difficulties, native leaders have not suggested that their people abandon the protracted search for legal, political or constitutional recognition of their long-circumscribed and frequently violated aboriginal rights. But it was plain that without some clear and early successes, the strategies of negotiation and legal argument could prove far less attractive to the emerging—and impatient— new generation of militants than the clear-cut tactics of confrontation.
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