40 years in Indian Country
The last few years saw a significant backpedalling on the meagre gains that have been made
The past forty years have seen dramatic changes among the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. In 1963 the legacy of colonialism was deeply entrenched, Aboriginal peoples were seen as a ‘problem population’ within Canada, Aboriginal rights were widely ignored and unknown, there were few national voices or fora for Aboriginal leaders. In 2003 the struggle to decolonize is being engaged in a wide variety of institutions. Aboriginal people have made outstanding and widely appreciated contributions to Canadian art and culture; Aboriginal rights are enshrined in the constitution; well established major national and regional Aboriginal political organizations provide strong and vocal leadership. While this is not a history of how, ‘every day and in every way things have gotten better and better’, the gains that have been made should be noted as much as we might note how more deeply insidious colonial processes have become.
Three broad themes can be pointed to at the outset. The first is that for the most part the struggles of Aboriginal peoples have been directly focussed on the state rather than capital. Although the state has acted as an agent of capital, working assiduously on many fronts and levels to ‘totalize’ Aboriginal peoples, and although capital itself has been directly involved in some of the resource conflicts that gained prominence, it remains notable that the struggle has been almost exclusively with policies and agents of the state. Secondly, there has been a cycle of escalating violence over the four decades that will be of concern to any who watch this particular politics. From the confrontation on parliament hill in 1974, through to the murder of Dudley George at Stoney Point in the nineties, the state’s willingness to use violence has partly fed renewed Aboriginal militancy with increasingly troubling results. Thirdly, the complexity of this domain can hardly be overstated: Aboriginal peoples’ struggles have involved significant tensions over gender equality issues, an intricate relation between institutions and local communities, serious disjunctures and engagements between the overlapping domains of law and politics, and growing diversification of the Aboriginal communities themselves.
While this begs for theorization, what I have tried to do here is touch on the key events of the last forty years with an emphasis on the indigenous basis of these events.
The Sixties: a historical turning point
In Indian Country, the sixties was a time when sea changes led to crises and conflict, and ultimately a new paradigm in Indian-government relations. The changes that had been made to the Indian Act in 1951, while leaving much of the colonial mechanisms in place, had removed the worst restrictions on status Indians. Importantly, they were free to move from reserves without needing Indian Agent permission and this, with other demographic changes, had led to a substantial migration to urban areas. The perceived ‘Indian problem’ in Canada became a more visible one. At the same time, Aboriginal political activists of earlier decades - Fred Loft, Andrew Paull, Malcolm Norris, John Tootoosis, Jules Sioui - had laid the groundwork for a new generation of dissident political leaders who were prepared to take a more confrontational approach with government.
Government knew that its existing policies were not working. They had hired an academic, Harry Hawthorne, to conduct a national level survey of Indian peoples. His widely discussed report made a strong case for change by making it clear that Indians were at the bottom of the socio-economic scale in Canada.
In the late sixties the new Trudeau government, inspired in part by the civil rights movement in the US (and never appreciating that the structural position of African Americans was quite different than that of Aboriginal Canadians), proposed a drastic policy shift. At its core was removal of Aboriginal rights. Developed under the leadership of then Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretien, the ‘White Paper’ in which the proposal was made became a flash point for Aboriginal activists. The White Paper proposed removing all legal and constitutional markers of Aboriginal difference in the interest of promoting equality rights. Its practical effect would have been to remove Aboriginal rights, the additional rights that Aboriginal people had by virtue of being prior occupants of Canada.
The struggle over the White Paper became a historical turning point. Aboriginal leaders united in the cause of having it repudiated, and their opposition proved so successful they were able to force the federal government to withdraw the proposals. Although colonialism was still the order of the day, and although no positive policy was developed to replace the White Paper, it became the case that a measure of support among Aboriginal peoples became seen as necessary for policy initiatives. For just over 100 years policies were developed at the whim of officials; after 1970 Aboriginal peoples became major players in policy development. An era of consultation, however insincere, partial and otherwise flawed, had begun.
The seventies: fighting back
The new era did not begin smoothly. Aboriginal organizations began to develop, most funded by government but remaining at arms length. By the mid seventies, different organizations to represent status Indians (the National Indian Brotherhood), non-status Indians and Metis (the Native Council of Canada), Indian women (Native Women’s Association of Canada) and Inuit (the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada) had all formed. All acted to a degree as pressure groups and gave voice to a rising set of demands. These would come to form an institutional layer of the struggle between the State and Aboriginal peoples. A further institutional layer came through the courts. Two cases in 1973 at the Supreme Court of Canada level were quite important. The Calder case involved land rights of the Nisga’a Nation. Did the Nisga’a have continuing Aboriginal title to their territory? The court determined that Aboriginal title was a legal concept. Although the Nisga’a lost the case on a technicality, it was a victory at a broader level and lead to the government restarting the treaty process (called comprehensive land claims at the time). The Lavel/Bedard case involved sex discrimination in the Indian Act through the notorious ‘out marriage’ provisions (Indian women losing their status through marriage to non-Indians). The courts rejected the women’s claim to equality rights, a rejection supported at the time by the National Indian Brotherhood. This set the struggle of Native women back at least a decade.
Meanwhile, communities themselves often took the lead in the policy vacuum as the struggle for Aboriginal rights took on local dimensions. A blockade at Kenora over racial discrimination and ownership of Anishinabe Park in the early seventies played a critical role in coalescing the grass roots opposition to colonialism in Canada. This led to a cross-Canada caravan to Ottawa of Indian activists with some non-Aboriginal supporters, ending in a violent confrontation on Parliament Hill with the newly established RCMP tactical division. Misunderstandings among the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists lead to separation and some acrimony between the groups. This acrimony, along with a general failure of the left to develop strong lines of solidarity with the dynamic ‘Red Power’ movement lead by the likes of Vern Harper and Howard Adams, meant a significant lost opportunity for socialism to establish a strong connection with Aboriginal activism.
This lead to a cross Canada caravan to Ottawa of Indian activists with some non- Aboriginal supporters. The far left suffered a significant setback in its relations with First Nations: at the final confrontation between the new RCMP tactical division and the demonstrators on Parliament Hill, the Indian activists found their ‘radical’ white brothers and sisters had disappeared and left them alone to face the police in a bloody confrontation.
Three other significant struggles in the decade involved resource use and illustrated the potential power of Aboriginal peoples. In James Bay, the Quebec government’s plan to ignore the Cree and Inuit whose environment would be effected by proposed hydro-electric development was quickly scuttled: the first modern treaty, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, was eventually negotiated in order to secure Aboriginal co-operation. In the NWT, Dene were successful in preventing the construction of a proposed gas pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley, in part thanks to the success of the Berger Inquiry. In northern Manitoba, hydro- electric development projects went ahead, though a ‘Northern Flood Agreement’ there, effectively a modern Treaty, promised in part ‘the alleviation of poverty’ for the effected communities. The subsequent outright betrayal of the NFA and Manitoba Hydro’s largely successful attempt to buy its way out of that deal (only one community of the original five, Pimicikamak, continues to refuse a buy out package) is an unfortunate example of the state duplicity that ultimately effected each of the three regional struggles. A smaller scale pipeline was built in the Mackenzie Valley in the mid-eighties, below the media horizon, and the James Bay Cree quickly realized their land claim would not be implemented with the spirit of generosity that had informed negotiations.
The eighties: the state hardens to increased resistance
By the late seventies, attention turned from grass roots led initiatives to the struggle over the proposed constitution. Aboriginal leaders recognized that repatriating the constitution in a sense ‘raised the stakes’ around the issue of Aboriginal rights: they would be included and secured, or excluded and likely lost. A great deal of energy went into negotiating and lobbying for the eventual inclusion of sections 25, 35 and 37 in the Canada Act of 1982. The sections ensured that the charter of rights and freedoms could not be used to limit Aboriginal rights (s 25), that Aboriginal and treaty rights were recognized and affirmed (s 35), and more meetings would be held to define and identify those rights (s 37). In all. they represented a significant victory for Aboriginal peoples and ensured that a proposal like the White Paper could not be reintroduced ‹ though government eventually found other ways to sneak it in. This struggle was at an institutional level involving lawyers and leading politicians. To some extent it lead to a bureaucratization of the grass roots movement that had emerged in the seventies.
Three outcomes of the institutional struggle in the decade were the 1983 publication of the Penner Report, a special parliamentary committee report that endorsed the idea of Aboriginal self-government as a new paradigm; the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985 which reduced sex discrimination in the Indian Act and established a process whereby individuals who had lost status (and their children) could regain it; and four meetings between Aboriginal leaders and the premiers and prime minister between 1983 and 1987 whose purpose was to give greater substance to section 35. While the constitutional meetings failed, and the more far reaching of the Penner Report recommendations was not implemented, both the report and the meetings helped generate public support for Aboriginal rights.
The failure of the 1987 first ministers meeting was particularly seen as a betrayal by Aboriginal leaders since within months of the March conference, Mulroney was announcing a new constitutional deal to bring Quebec into agreement with the constitution, the ill-fated Meech Lake accord. The passing of Bill C-31 was a tangible success. For all its flaws, at least after 1985 Indian women who married non-Indians no longer lost their status.
Strikingly, immediately after the passage of Bill C-31, the then Mulroney government initiated cutbacks to two programs of critical importance to the very people regaining status: the off reserve housing program was axed, and the funding for Aboriginal post secondary students was severely restricted.
Three particular struggles gained attention in this decade: the Lubicon Lake Cree (Alberta) struggle to have their land rights recognized, the Innu (northern Quebec and Labrador) struggle to end NATO overflights of their homeland, Nitassinan, and the Teme-Augama Anishnabai struggle (Ontario). In each of these struggles civil disobedience helped generate significant media attention and significant non-Aboriginal support among social activists was generated. Here the record of christians with a social conscience was as strong as that of the secular left. The outcomes of these struggles indicated a hardening of the state in the faced on increased resistance. The Lubicon won a partial victory that was almost instantly erased by a state strategy of splitting the community. The Innu victory over low overflights - government did not build the large flight training facility it lobbied NATO to have - was more due to the fall of the Berlin Wall than the success of the very lively protest movement. Subsequent events in Nitassinan, particularly the Voisey Bay nickel deposit discoveries, have generated a new layer of concern for the Innu. While at Temagami the land ownership case was lost in the courts, they did manage to secure joint management of forestry resources and saved some of the old growth forest in the area.
The nineties: in the shadow of Kanesatake
As the decade began, Aboriginal people got a measure of revenge on the Mulroney regime by playing a role in killing the Meech Lake accord in June of 1990: Elijah Harper’s opposition in the Manitoba legislature alongside that of Newfoundland Premier Wells lead to the demise of that back room deal. Within a month, a conflict at Kanesatake - known widely as Oka - in Quebec had quickly escalated to the point where a provincial police officer had been killed and the army called in. This captured international media attention and galvanized a remarkable wave of civil dissent in Indian country all across Canada, as dissidents watched and worried over the face to face standoff that unfolded. Although the standoff ended relatively peacefully, many of Canada’s open wounds were exposed to the world ‹ racism towards Aboriginal people at Mercier Bridge; failure of institutional vehicles like the land claim process to deal with legitimate Aboriginal land rights; an emergent new militancy in Indian country were all made more apparent.
Kanesatake lead directly to the creation of a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a major institutional process that dominated the early half of the decade and resulted in a five volume, substantial report recommending a drastic change in direction for Aboriginal policy. As might have been predicted, the report was almost entirely ignored by government. Meanwhile, the other major constitutional proposal developed at Charlottetown held more promise for Aboriginal peoples than its predecessor. But Aboriginal people were as divided as the rest of the country regarding it and many were not sorry to see the proposals fail.
Some progress was made in other institutional places. The Supreme Court of Canada attempted to give weight to treaty rights and section 35 of the constitution on two major decisions, Sioui and Sparrow (both 1990). Later in the decade it overturned a racist B.C. court decision involving the land rights of Gitksan and Witsuwit’en peoples (the Delgamuukw case). The federal government officially changed policy to support an inherent right to Aboriginal self- government, a critical stalling point in the constitutional debates of the previous decade, though its vision of self- government remained quite limited at the practical level. The creation of Nunavut, a homeland for Inuit in the far north with the status of a territorial government, was the most promising development at the institutional level but one based on the unique circumstances of Inuit and not a model that could be applied elsewhere.
While all of the earlier grass roots conflicts continued to smolder ‹ the James Bay Cree, in particular, taking an increasingly visible role in opposition to further proposed export based hydro-electric development in their territories - new local level crises developed. A conflict in southern Alberta on the Oldman River did not generate extensive media attention but pointed to the continued disjuncture between ‘development’ planners and First Nations. At Stoney Point in Ontario, a peaceful occupation of state-expropriated reserve lands lead to the murder of Dudley George, one of the Aboriginal activists. And in Gustavson Lake, B.C., an attempt to reclaim traditional spiritual lands quickly escalated into a police blockade and near violence. Interestingly, the media tended to stay away from these conflicts: having devoted significant attention to Kanesatake and the earlier struggles, it is as if it decided only death was enough to generate its sustained attention.
The decade ended with one promising development - a land claim settlement for the Nisga’a nation. The Nisga’a had been responsible for restarting the modern treaty process through the Calder case. But the province of B.C. had consistently blocked attempts to settle their claim by not freeing up so-called provincial crown land. A combination of a change in the provincial position spearheaded by the NDP, and significant changes in the federal government’s land claims policy in the aftermath of Kanesatake, lead to a land claim for the Nisga’a. They also marked the beginning of a treaty process still underway in B.C. in spite of recent provincial government attempts to stop it, and to new land claim deals across the country. While only two comprehensive claims had been settled in the seventies and eighties five, including the Nisga’a, were settled in the nineties. The land claims policy remains focussed on establishing ‘certainty’ of land ownership and each new claim can be said to be a page in the last chapter of the conquest of the Americas that dispossesses Aboriginal peoples of their traditional territories. But at least the First Nations can be comforted by the fact that they have a few more negotiating options.
New millennium, same old story
The last few years saw a significant backpedalling on the meagre gains that have been made. A supreme court decision regarding Mi’kmaw fishing rights, along with Mi’kmaw attempts to assert those rights, led to an unprecedented court ‘clarification’ of its decision and a nasty fight on the Maritime waters, particularly at Burnt Church where significant issues remain unresolved. This year a lower court in B.C. attempted to reverse the Sparrow decision on fishing rights there. Apparently you can overturn judicial hierarchy when it comes to Aboriginal issues. The James Bay Cree signed a 3.5 billion dollar agreement with the Quebec government (seventy million dollars in each of fifty years). Though the community most affected by hydro development, Chisasibi, remarkably showed great courage by voting narrowly against the deal, the other communities supported it enough that it passed. At Grassy Narrows, Ontario, a fire was lit in December of 2002 and a blockade set up to protest clear cut logging in the area. The peacefulness and reasonableness of the demonstrators has meant a virtual media blackout on the blockade, which continues.
Most critically , the state has prepared its first major rewrite to the Indian Act in a half century (the only important changes in the period being those in the mid eighties referred to above). The First Nations Governance Act is effectively a colonial repetition. In the 1880s the state imposed the band council electoral system (in some places forcibly) to ‘teach the Indians about democracy’. In 2003 the government condemns the band council electoral system it invented and wants to impose its newest vision of ‘teaching the Indians about democracy’. Strikingly, the lead up to this legislation involved systematically discrediting the First Nations leadership so their opposition would be muted, effectively turning history back to a pre-White Paper regime of making change with only the most meagre pretense of consultation.
In 1963, the year Dimension was born, Canada was characterized in part by a colonial regime within its borders. In 2003 the colonial regime remains in place, though a determined and multi faceted struggle has won some significant victories. While in 1963 many Canadians would view an Aboriginal ancestor as a skeleton in the closet to be somewhat ashamed of, by 2003 many Canadians scour their closets in an effort to find an Aboriginal ancestor they can claim their own. At the level of cultural politics there has been a shift towards appropriating instead of excluding Aboriginal culture, for better or worse. On the ground, as the last parcels of Aboriginal title are surrendered and the conquest completed - something that will likely happen in our lifetime - and as Canadian energy resources in Aboriginal homelands become increasingly critical to capital accumulation, Aboriginal peoples are very likely to continue to live on a marginal front line of the anti capitalist struggle.
Peter Kulchyski teaches Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, and is a member of the CD editorial collective.
This article appeared in the November/December 2003 issue of Canadian Dimension .