As the Mohawk barriers in Quebec came down last week, at least two critical issues arising from the seven-week-old confrontation remained unresolved: how did the country arrive at such a crisis point, and what has to be done to ensure that it never happens again ? Maclean’s Associate Editor Brian Bergman asked several prominent Canadians with a special interest in aboriginal affairs to comment on those unresolved questions.
JOHN KIM BELL
Born on the Kahnawake reserve, the currently troubled community near Montreal, Bell, 37, is the first North American Indian to become a professional orchestral conductor. Bell has been a guest conductor with London ’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and with the National Ballet of Canada. In 1985, Bell founded the Torontobased Canadian Native Arts Foundation to promote the participation of natives in the arts
through scholarships and grants. His comments-.
Native people have been ignored. The poverty, alcoholism and other social problems they suffer from have not been addressed, and this younger generation is tired of it. They are saying: ‘We are 20 years old and we don’t want to die at 40. Why do we have to live like this?’
I’m really tom. I’m not for violence in any way. And yet, when you see that the real problems and concerns are not being addressed, what do you do?
In the past, government paternalism has been a big problem, taking away the right of native people to decide their own future. Now, the latest approach is self-help. But look at our arts foundation. Big business endorses us. We’ve given out almost $400,000 in grants and scholarships to kids. But while everyone will pat you on the head and say you’re doing the right thing, the federal government, in she years, has not contributed significant dollars. They just look at us blankly and say, ‘It doesn’t say here in the policy that this is what Indians
should be doing.’ In their view, Indians are not journalists and ballet dancers and arts administrators. In the end, for them to change the policy is a bureaucratic nightmare.
I think our native leaders will have to become more unified, and there is going to have to be some cultural evolution. The Indians negotiate everything by 100-per-cent consensus. Well, we don’t do that in Western society. They are going to have to resort to some different kind of management if they hope to have authority.
Born in the Mackenzie Valley community of Fort Good Hope, Kakfwi, 40, served as president of the Dene Nation from 1982 to 1987. He was first elected to the Northwest Territories legislative assembly in 1987. Kakfwi is currently the minister of education and minister of aboriginal rights and constitutional development in the Northwest Territories—the only government in Canada in which the majority of representatives are natives. His comments:
Historically, once the native people of Canada began to lose their political and military power, Europeans basically set them aside. A lot of our leaders today are saying to nonnatives that you have a history of acting as if it’s all your laws and your lands and that we natives are inferior to you as people.
So now, after 200 years in which the federal government refused to act, a bunch of Quebecers say they will take what little land the Mohawks still have and turn it into a golf course. People have to defend what little they have. You try to take the farm away from the family for some stupid reason, and of course they are going to react violently.
Some of us spend all of our time preaching about rights and chasing after constitutional talks so that our right to self-government will be recognized. But here in the North, we are learning to take responsibility over our own affairs. Recently, we set up boards of education in most Dene communities. We’ve turned over the money and they run the schools and hire the teachers. That’s one element of self-government. And some native people were reluctant to do it, saying they weren’t ready. But my attitude is that it’s like swimming: you’ve got to jump in the God damned pool to learn anything.
The Canadian government has to set up a forum. People have to start talking to each other. In Quebec, it’s going to take a long time for the Mohawks and the people of Châteauguay to heal their wounds. But how well they do that—and how well the provincial and federal governments support that effort—will show us, on a small scale, how we can do that across Canada.
Born in Toronto, Yalden, 60, is the chief commissioner of the Ottawa-based Canadian Human Rights Commission. “If there is any single issue on which Canada cannot hold its
head high in the international community, ” wrote Yalden in his latest annual report, released in March, “it is in the area of aboriginal relations. ”
Broken promises, paternalism and arbitrariness are the three main factors in the frustration that has built up over the years. Always having to follow the rules set by the Indian affairs department, natives must have felt increasingly that this was a game of cards in which the deck was stacked against them.
It is paradoxical that federal authorities spend billions of dollars a year aimed at improving the health and well-being of the native population and yet their conditions remain poor and their prospects nil. They are saying, ‘Give us a land base and the financial resources you owe us, and we will run our own affairs.’ Well, we certainly haven’t done a satisfactory job, so we should take up their challenge.
The most pressing need is a political commitment at the highest government levels that will convince native people that they are really going to have a new deal and it’s going to be a fair game. That’s why we’ve been proposing for two years a royal commission on aboriginal rights along the lines of the one on bilingualism and biculturalism. But it must be supported by native people and have people of real clout sitting on it. And there must be a real commitment from the government to act on the commission’s recommendations.
As demonstrated once more in Quebec, the relationship between police and natives in this country is scandalous. There have to be more aboriginal people on police forces. And we can’t keep having a justice system where, when someone a thousand miles away from where we sit is charged with a crime, he’s brought out and tried in a place he’s never been before, in a language he barely understands, following a ritual that to him is as mysterious as the inside of an Egyptian pyramid.
MARLENE BRANT CASTELLANO
Born and raised on the Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve near Ontario ’s Bay of Quinte, Castellano, 55, is currently the chairman of the native studies department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.
Canadian governments have treated aboriginal people as an administrative problem since Confederation. The
strategies have varied from neglect, to delegating responsibility to the Church, to assimilation. But, in the past 20 years, there has been a revolution in the consciousness of aboriginal people. We know we have a tradition and a future, and that it is more than being brownskinned white people.
The federal government has to take the lead
in acknowledging that aboriginal people are unique and that we have the right to relate to the Canadian state in a unique fashion. I think that many Mohawks, including myself, are not sure what the boundaries of our political rights are—and which rights are bottom-line and non-negotiable. But I don’t think separatism is what we’re talking about. Look, Mohawks have aggressively claimed nation-to-nation status since Confederation. But that hasn’t prevented us from fighting with and for Canada in two world wars.
Born and raised in the Mennonite community of Speedwell in northern Saskatchewan, Wiebe, 55, is a professor of English at the University of Alberta. Wiebe has written seven novels, most of them based on Canadian history. He won a Governor General’s Award for his 1973 novel, The Temptations of Big Bear, based on the Cree chief who was imprisoned for leading armed resistance by the natives on the Prairies in 1885. His comments: What’s happening now reminds me £ a lot of what happened in 1870 [the 1 Red River Rebellion] and 1885 [the 5 North-West Rebellion] in the West.
1 John A. Macdonald followed the same % tactics as Mulroney. Native people
2 were complaining, but he did nothing until finally the people became exasperated and broke a law. Then, he sent
in the army. It seems to me to be the ultimate admission of a bankrupt policy when you send in the army against your own people.
You know, Mennonites are traditionally pacifists, and I still hold to that. It’s not right to kill. But there are plenty of ways of killing people, and one of them is by neglect.
I think we’ve just been coasting on this idea of a calm and beautiful Canada. We think the big problem facing us is the weather, for God’s sake. We really seriously have to put the poverty and the broken promises and the despair that native people feel at the top of our political agenda. And we can’t just blithely throw more money in their direction. It’s not a matter of money after a certain point.
I think we’re going to go through some of the convulsions that happened with the civil rights movement in the United States. But as the native people show us that they have been unjustly treated, I have faith that the majority of Canadians will understand and respond. It’s not going to die. □
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