In the neatly kept lakeside bungalow on the Micmac reserve at Eskasoni, N.S., where Wilfred Basque lives with his wife and four children, there are few signs of the violence that the 46-year-old Basque has lived through—and thought that he had left behind. In the 1960s, Basque, with several other equally restless Micmacs, left the Eskasoni reserve to join the United States Marine Corps. He saw two tours of duty in Vietnam. When Basque left the marines and returned to the reserve, he lived more quietly, raising his family and working on veterans’ affairs issues for the Grand Council of Micmacs. But last week, when the Basques watched on TV as Mohawks and members of the Canadian Armed Forces confronted each other in Quebec, they faced new fears. When seven-year-old Nicholas Basque watched the TV news, he asked his father:
“Did Quebec attack the Ul’Nu [The People] yet? Will they come here too?” Said a grim-faced Wilfred Basque:
“I could not tell him it would not happen here.”
Claims: Among many of the estimated 466,000 native Indians living in more than 2,200 reserves scattered across Canada, those emotions of fear and mistrust towards the country’s authorities are commonplace. One reason is the confused and complex legal wrangling between natives and federal and provincial governments over who really owns Canada’s land—and the rights that come with such ownership. All of the current native land claims constitute, in total, more than one-half of the land mass of Canada. As well, Canada’s Indians have more than 500 unsettled specific claims against the government, in which they allege that past treaties, many of them centuries old, have repeatedly been broken. Declared Georges Erasmus, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations: “Canada’s laws
have been put there to extinguish our rights.” In fact, Canada’s Indians appear increasingly to share that conviction, as well as a collective determination to mount a counterattack. Declared one 22-year-old Ojibwa, who spent the past month patrolling a barricade on the Kanesatake reserve carrying an AK-47 assault rifle: “When it comes to native issues, you are bom
into it. So you either put up with what you get, or you do something about it.” Increasingly, natives have chosen to act. Along with the confrontation between Mohawks and Canadian and Quebec authorities in Quebec, Indian groups in other parts of the country have undertaken a series of recent challenges to federal and provincial authority. Among them:
• In southern Alberta, militant Peigan Indians, using heavy earthmoving equipment, began
diverting the Oldman River in order to disrupt a major dam and irrigation project. Last week, the Indians faced a court injunction ordering them to stop. The provincial government, which is building the $353-million dam, says it is needed to supply water to Lethbridge-area farmers and seven small communities. The Peigans, who say that the dam would destroy sacred ground on their reserve, were consulting with lawyers on how to proceed.
• In Labrador, on several occasions over the past decade, the Innu have set up camps on the Canadian Forces base at Goose Bay to protest against low-level jet training flights over their traditional hunting grounds. The Innu say that the noise of the jets threatens their traditional game animals.
• In British Columbia, Indians from three bands of the Stl’Atl’Imx Nation have repeatedly blockaded BC Rail lines and halted the transportation of wood products. Over the past two months, the periodic blockades have cost the railway between $500,000 and $750,000 for each day that the line was closed.
And last week, bands in Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick continued their practice of the past several weeks of throwing up temporary roadblocks or slowing traffic on main highways to dramatize their insistence that the federal and provincial governments act on native complaints.
Along with wanting to assert what they see as traditional rights, native militancy also springs from the knowledge that the majority of Canadian Indians live in squalid, unhealthy
conditions. Federal government figures show that natives can expect to live about eight years less than the national average life expectancy of 76.5 years. The health risks start early in life: a study conducted in 1988 by the Assembly of First Nations showed that infant mortality among natives in Ontario and the Northwest Territories was more than double that of nonnative Canadians. The study cited reasons that included poor nutrition and health problems among mothers, coupled with “inadequate prenatal care, the effects of drugs and alcohol [and] . . . poor housing, lack of sewage disposal and potable water and poor access to medical services.”
For many natives, those problems will be part of their everyday existence for most—if not all—of their lives. In reserves from Labrador to the Pacific, natives endure an array of misery-inducing conditions that include dramatically higher rates of alcoholism, unemployment, disease, violent crime and welfare dependency. Even the most optimistic young natives, growing up with visions of sharing the North American dream, often succumb to despair. Said Howard Jeddore, a carpenter and Micmac band councillor in Eskasoni: “When I was growing up, I had visions of making it, of doing well. But by the time I was 20, the bubble had burst.”
Clinic: In fact, the Eskasoni reserve, 50 km southwest of Sydney in central Cape Breton, is better equipped than many reserves in other parts of the country. Its facilities include a strong and apparently effective local government, a large alcohol and addiction treatment clinic and a junior high school where Micmac language and history courses are taught. But the reserve, which was supplied with running water and electricity only in the late 1960s, also reflects many of the traditional signs of poverty common to native communities. Many of the boxlike, weather-beaten houses in the Micmac reserve, the largest in the Maritimes, with more than 2,200 residents, bespeak poverty. Abandoned cars clutter front and backyards, where grass is a rare sight. Said band councillor Michael Denny: ¡¡I - “When you see your own kids, you feel , like crying. It is hardest on them.” IWjjps Indians across the country say that 5 they face widespread, overt discrimination from non-natives—often rooted in apparent ignorance of Indian customs and rights. In one incident in Winnipeg last June, local police went to the home of Cyril Assiniboine, a celebrated Indian artist and traditional dancer, where two young children allowed them in without a search warrant. The officers seized eagle feathers belonging to Assiniboine on the grounds that he was in illegal possession of the feathers of an endangered species. Two days later, the police acknowledged that Indians are allowed to possess eagle feathers because they have a religious and spiritual significance for
natives. The feathers were returned.
Other encounters between police and natives in Manitoba have frequently been more violent. After a Winnipeg police officer shot and killed Indian activist J. J. Harper in March, 1988, the provincial government called a judicial inquiry into aboriginal justice. That inquiry is scheduled to present its report later this year. But, last month, natives in Brandon demanded that it reopen hearings to examine how police responding to a domestic dispute shot
and wounded a 19-year-old Indian man in the neck.
Critics: Many Indians say that they were suspicious of prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who, shortly after his election in 1968, said that they should move off their reserves and into the mainstream of Canadian society. But since Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government was elected in 1984, some leaders and their supporters say that Indians have grown even more suspicious of Ottawa. Walter Rudnicki, a former director general of policy planning for the federal native affairs department, is among the critics who say that, by giving the provinces more control over native affairs, the federal government has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to deal with Indians. Rudnicki, who resigned from his position in 1986, said that he did so out of disgust. He declared: “I could not live with the directions they were going in. This government seems to be made up of a bunch of hardware salesmen.”
For his part, Mulroney has strongly defended his government’s native policies. Last
week, he cited what he called a historic agreement that gave two northern bands—the Dene and the Métis—ownership of about 72,000 square miles of land in the Northwest Territories, an area larger than the three Maritime provinces combined. But that agreement in principle, which also provided for payment of $500 million over 15 years to the 15,000strong communities, was rejected in July by their annual assembly on the ground that the deal would also abolish some historical aborigi-
nal rights. Mulroney, meanwhile, said his government has “spent more than any other government in the world spends on native peoples.”
But it will likely require many more, similar settlements to quiet the discontent. Said Erasmus: “We do not wish to be told we are being given things, when the fact is that they were improperly taken from us in the first place.” And as Micmac Wilfred Basque sat with his family on the Eskasoni reserve, he said that he worries about the attitude of native young people who feel that they are dependent on welfare handouts. Declared Basque: “How can they be proud of being Canadians when Canada is ashamed of them?” In the increasingly strained confrontation between Indians and other Canadians, that question will demand fresh—and urgent—answers.
ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Ottawa and GLEN* ALLEN in Eskasoni with MAUREEN BROSNAHAN in Winnipeg and DAN BURKE in Oka
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.