A harder line

LUKE FISHER December 2 1996

A harder line

LUKE FISHER December 2 1996

A harder line

Times change. Five years ago, aboriginal leaders participated at First Ministers’ meetings, complete with sweet grass ceremonies. Support for Canada’s natives, and a willingness to right past injustices, ran high. But recently, aboriginal leaders have found themselves out in the political cold, while an avalanche of native demands has provoked public opposition. According to a poll done by Insight Canada in July, 54 per cent of Canadians believed that natives were being unreasonable with land claims, compared with 46 per cent in 1994. And 40 per cent said that

aboriginal people had only themselves to blame for their problems. Such sentiments have spilled over to Parliament, where the Reform party has led the charge. “More must be heard from the average people in this country,” says Garry Breitkreuz, Reform’s Indian affairs critic and a former principal at a native school in Saskatchewan. “It’s as if they are being deliberately ignored.”

Breitkreuz contends that ordinary Canadians are weary of native demands and armed confrontations—and that someone must speak out for them. Some of his colleagues have decided that words are not enough. Last month, John Cummins, a

Reform MP from British Columbia, spent two nights in jail after protesting against what he called special rights for aboriginals—by fishing in waters reserved for natives. Reformers are confident that last week’s royal commission report will be shelved. And, in fact, the prospect of wideranging concessions to natives is uncomfortable for some Liberals caught between aboriginal demands and growing public anger. Liberal MP Joe Comuzzi, who represents the Northern Ontario riding of Thunder Bay/Nipigon, says he has noted a heightened public hostility towards natives. “There is a real perception that natives simply have an inability to handle

their own resources properly,” he adds.

Such attitudes have aided in the creation of the Foundation for Independent Rights and Equality, whose members across Canada are dedicated to blocking native demands. Some observers say the phenomenon may be rooted in the prejudices of an older generation. “FIRE’S support is from the elderly,” says University of British Columbia professor Paul Tennant. “It is clear that the vast majority of young people are not upset at all.” Reformers dismiss that view and have made clear their intentions to keep the issue alive.

LUKE FISHER in Ottawa