CANADA

A troubled agenda

Canada’s first nations are choosing a chief

BRIAN BERGMAN June 10 1991
CANADA

A troubled agenda

Canada’s first nations are choosing a chief

BRIAN BERGMAN June 10 1991

A troubled agenda

CANADA

Canada’s first nations are choosing a chief

Eight months after the army enforced an armistice between Indians and whites at Oka and neighboring Quebec communities, the tensions that gave rise to a summer of conflict still fester dangerously. Many native leaders say that despite some conciliatory gestures by white authorities, aboriginal anger is undiminished—not only on the outskirts of Montreal, but elsewhere in Canada. In half a dozen locations across the country, experts say, native frustration over unresolved disputes points towards conflict this summer. Against that dark prediction, a contest among six candidates to succeed Georges Erasmus as leader of the country’s largest and most powerful native organization, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), has acquired importance for all Canadians. Bradford Morse, a University of Ottawa specialist in native affairs, observed that the winner at the leadership convention— on June 11 in Winnipeg—will “hold the aspirations of an entire people in his hand.” And, said Morse, “given the political climate, the election is more relevant to many Canadians than the elections of premiers.”

The new leader will be elected from among a group of men that forms, by any measure, the best-educated and highest-profile slate of candidates in the 11-year history of the assembly, which represents Canada’s 600,000 status Indians. Said Harold Cardinal, an instructor with the native studies department at the University of Sas| katchewan in Saskatoon: “All bring S with them a degree of professional5 ism, knowledge and sophistication 5 that is the mark of a new generation of native leaders.” The candidates:

• Philip Fontaine, 46, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and a strategist in the successful native campaign to derail the Meech Lake constitutional accord last June.

• Ovide Mercredi, 45, Manitoba regional chief of the AFN and a lawyer who was also involved in the Meech Lake fight.

• Bill Wilson, 47, British Columbia regional chief of the AFN and a fiery advocate of native rights.

• Neil Sterritt, 50, a British Columbia landclaims activist who is a Gitksan hereditary chief.

• Michael Mitchell, 44, Mohawk grand chief from Akwesasne, near Cornwall, Ont., a former film-maker and a specialist in education and native culture.

• William Montour, 49, chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ont.

The successful candidate will face a trouble-

some agenda—including the danger that unresolved disputes could tilt relations with the non-native community towards armed confrontation. Still, there have been several positive signs in recent weeks: Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that representatives of aboriginal Canadians—excluded from the Meech Lake round of negotiations—may be appointed to advise a parliamentary committee that will tackle the constitutional issue this fall; a committee of current and former native MPs is studying a proposal to guarantee aboriginal representation in the Commons; and a royal commission on native issues is being formed.

But, in one measure of the slow pace of dealing with native questions, it was only last week that Quebec Public Security Minister Claude Ryan ordered a special coroner’s inquiry into the shooting death of provincial police Cpl. Marcel Lemay last July 11 at the Kanesatake Mohawk reserve near Oka. That killing set off the summer-long crisis that engulfed nearby Kahnawake and other local communities. Ryan also announced that 39 police officers face disciplinary charges related to last summer’s clashes. Meanwhile, the trials of 44 Indians charged in connection with the 1990 troubles are bogged down in a courtroom dispute over language. And settlement of the Oka land conflict that gave rise to the crisis has been delayed while Kanesatake resolved differences over the reserve’s leadership.

In an effort to defuse tensions in that south-

western comer of Quebec, Mohawk leaders and 11 local mayors held a conciliatory meeting last week. But heavily armed Mohawk Warriors continued to man barricades at all roads leading into Kahnawake, a source of frequent confrontations with police.

Elsewhere, militant members of British Columbia’s Mount Currie Band provoked angry clashes this spring with local loggers by blocking roads near Pemberton, 120 km northeast of Vancouver. In southern Alberta, a radical faction of the Peigan band, the Lonefighters, renewed protest demonstrations against the completion of the Oldman River dam, which they say will flood Indian land. In northern Alberta, a procedural dispute delayed the trials of 13 members of the Lubicon Indian band on charges stemming from a long-standing conflict—often violent—over logging and land rights. And in northern Quebec, Cree spokesmen say that they may resort to Oka-like tactics if expansion of the James Bay hydroelectric project proceeds as planned. Declared

Cree Chief Billy Diamond: “It’s a bomb waiting to go off.”

Amid such signs of potential violence, Chief of Defence Staff John de Chastelain told Maclean’s that the military has not developed specific plans to deal with outbreaks of native unrest, adding: “I hope last summer was an aberration.” That hope is plainly shared by many in the native community. Said Cardinal: “I think at all costs the political leadership, whether Indian or white, should be working to avoid a situation where people are looking at each other through the eyesights of a gun.” Meeting that challenge may well be the most difficult task facing the next leader of the Assembly of First Nations.

GLEN ALLEN

E. KAYE FULTON

BRIAN BERGMAN with GLEN ALLEN and E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa