COLUMN

The gun barrel created this land

I do not want to see anyone massacred, bnt a really strong show of force at the barricades may be needed to keep casualties down

BARBARA AMIEL September 10 1990
COLUMN

The gun barrel created this land

I do not want to see anyone massacred, bnt a really strong show of force at the barricades may be needed to keep casualties down

BARBARA AMIEL September 10 1990

The gun barrel created this land

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

When I first read about the dispute between the Mohawks and local authorities in Oka, Que., my sympathies tended to fall on the side of the Indians. I’ve spent a good deal of my life fighting “city hall” and its cellulite-ridden bureaucracy, sitting smugly on their forms and rules. My files are filled with letters that I have written asking for explanations or action from various levels of government on various requests that I have made.

I’ve never had much luck in getting a reply. Perhaps, I thought, the Mohawk Warriors have come up with the solution: man the barricades and fight. At least half the problems in our world are the result of people giving in passively to governments that order them around and meddle in areas of citizens’ lives that are simply none of their business.

As the situation worsened, I began to wonder about the actual facts of the dispute: to whom did the disputed land belong in law? This is, surely, a civil matter that the courts could adjudicate. What puzzled me, as I sifted through the voluminous media reports, was that precious little information was being given out on the facts of the case: surely the town council had a basis to its claim and surely there were treaties giving the Mohawks standing in the law. Where were the relevant extracts? What were all our investigative reporters doing when not reporting in excruciating detail the latest grim expression on the face of the police or the most recent difficulty elderly citizens were facing in getting fresh vegetables and milk?

But these questions concerning the response and the responsibility of the media have become academic now. What happened this past week is of far more interest: the Mohawk Indians have declared themselves a politically sovereign nation. This, of course, is the consequence of years of misguided policies in Canada and finally brings the matter into real focus. On this issue, Canada will either have to pull itself out of its misguided politics of multicultur-

I do not want to see anyone massacred, but a really strong show of force at the barricades may be needed to keep casualties down

alism—spawned in the muddled left-lib thought processes begun in the Pearson years—or simply melt down into dozens of little sovereignties.

Being a politically sovereign nation is a perfectly legitimate aim, although I doubt that the Mohawks really understand all that decision would entail. The first consequence, of course, is that one is not subject to the laws of Canada, which may well be their aim. No doubt, they would also like to live in peace and harmony with Canada—and to use its roads, electricity, social services, telephone systems and postal services. But I have not yet heard Georges Erasmus, chief of the natives’ Assembly of First Nations, renounce the use of Canada’s infrastructures.

If the claims of the Mohawks are to be taken seriously, then there is very little to negotiate. The government of Canada must either accept their sovereignty and give away, say, part of downtown Montreal to this new nation, or they will have to fight.

From the Indian point of view, there may well have been all sorts of conditions and promises in the treaties negotiated with them that have gone unfulfilled or been neglected. This ought to be remedied. One can easily

imagine that treaties made in the 19th century with various tribes have been carelessly interpreted and should be re-examined. The basis of all those treaties, incidentally—and indeed the basis of any nation—is that Canada is sovereign. There is such a thing as communityowned land, and if any level of government wishes to expropriate it, compensation must be paid. But if the Indians are claiming sovereignty, then there is simply nothing to negotiate or re-negotiate.

One tends to forget, I think, that during the time the treaties were drawn up, an entirely different ethos prevailed—on both sides. There was plenty of land and it didn’t bother our ancestors if the Indians were left large chunks on the other side of the river where they could hunt and fish. We could open up the West and build our railways without stopping their way of life.

The Indians, for their part, did not realize that in dealing with the French and English, they were dealing with a people on the verge of becoming an industrial civilization. Unlike the relatively advanced Indians in South America, North American Indians for the most part were simply a hunting and gathering culture. The Indians dealt with us as if we were simply another larger tribe. The peace pipe was smoked in the belief that each of us would hunt in their bit of land. We went along with this view.

The question is, how do you handle the matter now? I truly do not know what to say to a people who consider some or all of the laws of the land inapplicable to them. Nor do I want to see men or women massacred, although it seems to me that a really strong show of force now is the only way to keep casualties down to a minimum. One of the worst mistakes, in my view, incidentally, was allowing the UN human rights observers to look into this affair. The matter has no international dimension in which human rights have been even threatened, let alone broken. Indians have a perfect right to take part in mainstream Canadian society, vote, get a job and have full equality before the law, while at the same time maintaining their special status as Indians, which gives them particular rights, privileges and exemptions.

The chickens have come home to roost. The muddled thoughts that have been behind our thinking on “aboriginal rights” have all steamrolled into this: we have forgotten that one cannot forge a nation by encouraging separateness under the rubric of multiculturalism. A person’s roots are a private matter, not a subject of public subsidy.

We encouraged our native people to feel exploited. We rewrote history to eliminate the idea that, in fact, the British conquered this land. But, finally, perhaps something good may come of this muddle. Canada will either have to reassert itself and face the fact that, like every other nation on earth, it is founded on conquest—or it can divide itself up into lots of little nations. Perhaps, at long last, we will bite the bullet and understand that the gun barrel created this country and that once more it will have to be used if Canada is to remain our home and native land.