BUSINESS WATCH

To Indians, land is not real estate

This country will look like a giant slab of Swiss cheese if native sovereignty claims are accepted

Peter C. Newman September 10 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

To Indians, land is not real estate

This country will look like a giant slab of Swiss cheese if native sovereignty claims are accepted

Peter C. Newman September 10 1990

To Indians, land is not real estate

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

The trouble with Indians is that they insist on acting like Indians. That means the rest of us who judge their behavior by our standards can’t even begin to appreciate their motives or comprehend their tactics.

One of the few social scientists who got as close as any outsider can to understanding the native culture was a University of Chicago anthropologist named Sol Tax. He spent much of his life with North American Indians and, when he had gathered all his research and analysed the results, came to this startling conclusion: “They seem to be waiting for us to go away.”

That’s it. Most Indians regard North American whites as temporary visitors to their nation, and not very welcome ones at that. They see themselves as the Palestinians of Canada, displaced within their own homeland, forced to live in enclaves under the rule of an illegitimate majority of newcomers. The main difference is that they’re armed with Uzi machine-guns instead of rocks.

They see nothing out of the ordinary in demanding recognition of Indian sovereignty over a reserve, region or most of a province. They insist that it’s their land—not our real estate—because they never legally gave it up. Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has flatly declared that ownership of half this country is under dispute, including two-thirds of British Columbia.

Even when there is documentation proving that Indians surrendered territory, some of the treaty provisions their ancestors signed belong to the lowbrow burlesque of Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles. One agreement negotiated around 1870 by Manitoba Lt.-Gov. Sir Adams George Archibald with the Cree, Chippewa and Ojibwa provided that local chiefs and their descendants receive a new suit every three years in perpetuity. As late as 1969, Ojibwa Chief David Courchene accepted as his treaty right a blue serge outfit with red stripes down its trouser legs, complete with brass buttons,

This country will look like a giant slab of Swiss cheese if native sovereignty claims are accepted

gold braid and black bowler hat—all made, incidentally, by the prison tailor shop at Kingston, Ont.

Absurd as that and similar quirks of history may be, no one knows exactly how Indian sovereignty would work. One straightforward explanation was offered to The Ottawa Citizen last week by Brian Maracle, who comes from the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ont. He said that the Mohawks would turn Akwesasne into an independent nation similar to such small European states as Liechtenstein and Monaco. Akwesasne could then generate revenue from tourism and the sale of postage stamps and, as a duty-free zone, become a centre for international banking.

Great stuff. But if we accept Indian aspirations for sovereignty and hand back their 2,234 reserves—not to mention satisfying all of their many other land claims—that would create 2,234 Monacos across the country, carving huge, irregular holes into the Canada we know and love. It would leave us looking like a giant slab of Swiss cheese.

That kind of airy speculation doesn’t help resolve the current impasse, but it does explain why negotiating with the Mohawks has been so difficult. “They demanded what no responsible

government could ever concede: that Canadian laws no longer apply to them and that the Mohawks’ community be recognized as a separate nation-state,” said Bernard Roy, the chief federal negotiator.

According to the Mohawks, that would include the right to enter into free trade arrangements with other countries, exemption from Canadian personal, corporate and sales taxes and the right to levy tariffs on all goods and services passing through their territory. Since Akwesasne is bisected by the U.S.-Canada boundary and includes a small slice of New York state, recognition of the Indian claims would immediately prompt George Bush to send in a peacekeeping force, with Canada contributing three motorboats to patrol the St. Lawrence. But at least after-dinner speakers would forever be robbed of mouthing those upchucking clichés about the world's longest undefended border.

The Indian sovereignty issue is much more than a debating point. It’s the agonized cry of a society grown desperate by its inability to gain a meaningful place on the national agenda. That, in the end, will be the legacy of Oka. The economic plight and social status of our 466,337 Indians can no longer be ignored. According to the Assembly of First Nations, 62 per cent of reserve Indians and 58 per cent of those who have left are on welfare; family income on reserves (at $10,382 a year) is just over half the Canadian average. Native unemployment rates are running between 70 and 90 per cent, and the suicide of young males is five times the white equivalent. Nearly half of reserve homes still don’t have central heating.

Self-government may not cure those human atrocities, but the Indians know that it was our government that caused them. They no longer are willing to remain wards of the state and will not agree to any deal that treats them like naughty children who can be pacified with lollipops. Still, the prospect for Indian sovereignty has never been bleaker. Repeated attempts at federal-provincial conferences since 1984 have failed to produce any agreement to entrench aboriginal self-government in the Constitution. The death of the Meech Lake accord, so fiercely supported by Elijah Harper, now means that Quebec isn’t coming back to the table and virtually no progress can be achieved towards Indian independence without unanimous provincial consent.

Another way to go is for Canadian companies to sponsor joint ventures with Indian bands, using their land base to give them equity participation and other benefits in future developments. George Whitman, a Victoria-based management consultant, is working with Markborough Properties, the real estate arm of the Thomson empire, and a local Indian band to build a shopping centre in British Columbia.

The Indian cry for sovereignty means that they want, above all, to preserve their distinct society. Whether this means that they will also opt out of Canada depends on whether we can bring them into the mainstream of the Canadian economy.

The next move is ours.