This article was originally published in the September 1990 issue of Canadian Dimension.
For the rest of her life Pauline Mitzuk will remember the Aboriginal Solidarity Day held in support of Elijah Harper, two days before the Cree MLA ensured the Meech Lake Accord’s demise.
“I was getting chills all day,” said Mitsuk, an aboriginal woman from Labrador who now resides in Winnipeg. “I felt really proud to be an aboriginal person. I will never forget that day.”
Mitzuk also felt optimism because there was no backlash of the kind that usually occurs when natives speak out for their rights. Instead, there was general support from a large cross-section of Canadians. But when she went home and heard Mulroney on TV, it was as if Harper, and the 5,000 aboriginals and non-aboriginals who crowded the Manitoba legislative grounds, did not exist.
AI Torbitt, Southeast Tribal Resource and Development Council political coordinator, believes the prime minister feared he would empower aboriginals if he acknowledged Harper’s major role in the accord’s failure. It was politically advantageous to pin everything on Newfoundland premier, Clyde Wells. But Mulroney’s tactics, Torbitt said, have only served to further undermine his credibility.
But when she went home and heard Mulroney on TV, it was as if Harper, and the 5,000 aboriginals and non-aboriginals who crowded the Manitoba legislative grounds, did not exist.
The national media’s failure to prod the prime minister on this matter must be called into question as well, especially because Harper’s resistance to the accord did not spring up out of nowhere. Aboriginal leaders had continuously made their opposition to the accord known since the prime minister and premiers brought it forward three years ago. Harper himself, minister responsible for native affairs at the time, made his concerns known to the Pawley NDP provincial cabinet. The Rupertsland MLA had always intended to vote against the accord’s ratification.
On the Sunday after Premier Gary Filmon and the other party leaders returned from the First Ministers’ Conference (FMC) having failed to get recognition of aboriginal rights, Harper met with Phil Fontaine, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) leader. Fontaine was already on record as having refused to accompany Filmon to the FMC because he believed the premier had shifted his focus from aboriginal rights to senate reform.
“(Over breakfast) it became apparent that the thing could be delayed quite legally,” said Torbitt. Organizing for a major native protest began.
Public support was with the aboriginal organizers. But they deserve credit for its extremely effective utilization. In the first place, with the June 23 deadline less than two weeks away, there was no time to call special meetings to seek approval of resistance plans. Instead, organizers tapped into events already scheduled. They met with a committee of chiefs who were discussing the accord and other items.
From there, Harper’s plan of action went to the AMC ‘s executive committee meeting on Monday evening, June 11. On the following Tuesday, general agreement was obtained from the Manitoba chiefs who were attending a health conference which quickly turned its focus to the accord.
At this point, no one believed the accord’s demise was actually possible, but by Tuesday evening it was agreed to seek legal and legislative procedural advice. Gordon Mcintosh, former assistant clerk to the Manitoba legislature, and other prominent lawyers such asJ ack London and Lloyd Stevenson, were retained. They began combing through legislative lawbooks. It started to look like the accord could be stopped altogether.
Meanwhile, phones were ringing off their hooks. Aboriginal groups were receiving hundreds of supporting phone calls and telex messages from across the country. Tremendous pressure was put on Harper. Calls of support came from politicians including Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. Matching those calls were others from federal politicians urging the MLA to reconsider.
Fontaine and other aboriginal leaders made sure that they kept the public focus on the person who was to blame for the crisis: Mulroney. The AMC leader maintained from the outset that aboriginal people recognized Quebec as a distinct society but wanted themselves to be accorded similar recognition.
Aboriginal Solidarity Day
Of equal importance were attempts by Fontaine and other organizers to bridge any divisions between aboriginal groups. This became apparent on the Aboriginal Solidarity Day. “Everybody who was an aboriginal person (from Quebec to the Innu) was mentioned and included on that day,” said Mitsuk. “It felt that solidarity was there and everyone was together and being assertive.” Fontaine mentioned in his Solidarity Day speech, that his aunt’s presence and the memory of his deceased mother had given him strength during the two weeks of most intense work against the accord’s passage.
This was particularly appreciated by feminists in the audience. Women’s groups, the other segment most vocally opposed to the accord since 1987, had by that time been contributing to behind-the-scenes organizing for at least a week. It had been a week in which Harper persistently said “no” to introduction of legislation needed to provide the Manitoba government’s consent to the accord’s passage.
He had also quizzed the government on provincial aboriginal issues and participated in traditional drum ceremonies inside the legislative building.
The legislature became a meeting place for aboriginal activists and their supporters from the very young to the elders. (This despite the security guards’ attempt to keep a group of 55 native people out of the visitors’ gallery.)
“It (the building) was more than marble,” said Jeri Bjornson, member of the Ad Hoc Committee of Women’s Equality Seeking Groups on the Meech Lake Accord. “It is the people’s building and it (really) became the people’s building for a couple of weeks.”
Inside the building’s corridors, meetings were set up by activists and ad hoc committees were hurriedly established. Organizers began to discuss the best way to respond to the fact that the provincial government was bound by law to hold public hearings before the accord could be approved.
It had been a week in which Harper persistently said “no” to introduction of legislation needed to provide the Manitoba government’s consent to the accord’s passage.
The decision was to flood the list of those who wanted to speak at the hearings. Aboriginal organizers sent form letters to native communities informing them of their right to appear. Feminists got on the phones and encouraged women who had never spoken in public before to do so. Sometimes it meant explaining how to register for the hearings and a promise that someone would be there to support the woman when her time came to appear. In the end, 3,792 people (about half of them aboriginals) registered to be heard– an impossibility as the June 23 deadline loomed ahead.
Finally, a group of five got together to organize the Aboriginal Solidarity Day for Thursday, June 21. Flexibility among these organizers contributed to the success of the event, which would normally have taken months to put together. The five speakers originally scheduled to appear grew to over twenty as organizers responded to overwhelming support from groups including Quebec aboriginals, black Canadians and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
Although some Manitoba feminists felt aboriginal leaders should have more strongly acknowledged the lobbying done by women’s groups over the last three years, the final decision was to recognize the aboriginal people’s “moral authority” to stand on their own in opposition to the accord.
“I thought it was important to quietly show our support,” said Bjornson. “Besides we couldn’t have got 5000 people to the legislature.”
Provincial politicians also showed restraint in refraining from any attempts to bask in Harper’s limelight. It must have been tempting, especially within the MLA’s NDP caucus, to grandstand for votes in the next provincial election with the province’s electorate so strongly behind the Cree MLA.
On June 23, it was official. Harper, a politician with roots on the trapline and not in the boardrooms, had used legislative procedural tactics to defeat the accord.
As aboriginal leaders predicted, the sun has continued to shine and the rivers have continued to flow without the Meech Lake Accord. While Harper accepts invitations from aboriginal people across Canada and native leaders meet across the country, Torbitt speculates on options now open.
Torbitt wonders how non-aboriginal support of aboriginals will hold.
Native issues could be prominent for the first time in Manitoba’s Sept. 11 election. Nationally, aboriginal elders could hammer away with renewed strength at concerns such as a lack of adequate housing, racism within the justice system, and funding cuts to native communications. They can do this with the knowledge that, with an estimated $100 million scheduled to be sliced from native programming by the federal govern· ment, they had nothing to lose by standing up to Mulroney. And they know there could be a new prime minister with whom to negotiate in a couple of years.
While both Bjornson and Torbitt hope coalitions between groups lobbying the government will continue in the future, Torbitt wonders how non-aboriginal support of aboriginals will hold. “It’ll be very interesting,” he said. “It will be a challenge to Canadian society to ensure that justice is done.”
With bullet shots from Oka, Quebec ringing in the ears of Canadians who Chretien told to travel across the country this summer, the challenge might amount to choosing between a golf game or a major native uprising in the future.
Tanya Lester writes nonfiction, fiction and poetry on feminist and social issues. She is a Winnipeg Women and Words member and a former memeber of Canadian Dimension collective.