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The politics of the barricade.

On 11 July 1990, a force of 100 Quebec Provincial Police armed with automatic rifles, concussion grenades, and tear gas assaulted a blockade defended by Mohawks at Oka, a small community near Montreal. The attack ended in a fierce exchange of gunfire and the death of police officer Corporal Marcel Lemay. An inquest decided the bullet that killed Cpl. Lemay came from a Mohawk gun.

The Oka barricade was erected on 11 March by Mohawks from the Kanesatake settlement. Its aim was to halt expansion of a golf course on land the Natives claimed as their own. By the time the Oka Crisis ended on 26 September the federal government had deployed more than 2,500 soldiers around four separate blockades erected by the people of Kanesatake and Kahnawake -- another reserve close to Oka. During the siege, the Canadian and Quebec governments were criticized by international human rights observers for persistently failing to honour preconditions agreed to which might have settled the stand-off peacefully.

In an open letter to the Canadian people released 18 September, the Mohawks outlined the various broken promises made by authorities. "All that we ask," the letter concluded, "is for a process and not promises. All that we have ever received is promises and not action."

In these two sentences the Oka Mohawks summarized the frustration of Canada's Native people -- a frustration which in 1990 erupted into nationwide acts of civil disobedience. Among these were the following:

* At Southern Alberta's Oldman River, RCMP officers were sent diving for cover after being fired on by unseen assailants. Police blamed Peigan Indians protesting construction of a dam on the river.

* In Northern Ontario, Pays Plat band members barricaded the CP Rail mainline in a land settlement dispute.

* In British Columbia, police dragged Stl'atl'imx Nation members from railway tracks to end one of many blockades erected in that province during 1990's summer.

"What our guts wanted us to do was, indeed, show we could bring the country to its knees," said Georges Erasmus, then Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). "It was interesting to capable wereally were of playing havoc all over the place."

Possibly the most profound work of havoc wreaked by Native peoples that year came from one of Canada's few elected Native representatives. Elijah Harper, was a New Democratic Party Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. For 11 days, Mr. Harper stalled efforts by the Manitoba government to fast-track the Meech Lake Accord through the legislature. The Accord was intended to resolve the Quebec sovereignty issue and ensure the province remained part of Canada. But Canada's Native leaders saw nothing in the Accord that advanced their quest for self-government and recognition as a distinct society. Ottawa offered a royal commission on Native issues and an invitation to take part in all first ministers' conferences discussing issues affecting Native peoples. Canada's First Nations did not see this as enough.

Mr. Harper killed the Accord, and Native leaders hailed his actions as evidence that Native people could no longer be ignored. Canada's Native population would no longer passively accept being kept on the fringes of the political process.

Historically, Canada's Native nations had been ignored by successive governments and denied any significant political representation or fair dealings.

In 1975, for example, the Cree and Inuit of the James Bay area of Quebec signed the Northern Quebec Agreement with the federal and Quebec governments. They received various assurances of control over the affected 165,300 [km.sup.2] of land included in the agreement, the right to self-government, and the payment of $225 million over 25 years. In exchange, the Quebec government secured the right to proceed with the $15 billion James Bay hydroelectricpower development intended to net the province multi-billions in revenue from power sold to the United States. In recent years, the deal has been seen as a poor one for the Cree and Inuit peoples and the promises of self-government remain largely unfulfilled by Ottawa.

In British Columbia, until the year following the Oka crisis, the provincial government claimed B.C. Native people had no entitlement to land claims. In 1991, however, after almost two years of roadblocks, demonstrations, and various acts of civil disobedience throughout B.C., the provincial government announced it would negotiate land claim settlements with its Native people.

The victories won by Native people in 1990 and 1991 seemed promising. So, too, did the involvement of Native leaders in the negotiations resulting in the Charlottetown Accord of 1992. The Charlottetown agreement, unlike the Meech Lake Accord of 1990, contained a distinct aboriginal peoples package with specific guarantees. The package did not, however, include a constitutional guarantee that federal financial support--similar to the equalization payments made to provinces -- would be available for Native self-government. Without a constitutional guarantee of this support, Native leaders feared the self-government provision in the Accord would prove to be another of Ottawa's hollow promises.

The Charlottetown agreement went to a national referendum in October 1992. However, the majority of Native people across Canada voted against it. They did so despite the deal being endorsed by most of their Native leaders. Between 60% and 70% of Natives living on reserves voted no.

The no vote clearly showed that ordinary Natives deeply distrusted the Canadian political process. A legacy of broken promises by all of Canada's governments made it virtually impossible to convince Native people to commit themselves to any agreements that would radically alter their historical status. They feared that any new political position they found themselves in would be worse than what they left behind.

As Dennis Surrendi, a commissioner for Metis settlements in Alberta, would tell Native people two years later: "Make absolutely sure you know what it is you want and what the positive and negative aspects of your request might be. Otherwise you might be given the car of your dreams only to find out that you can't afford to run it."

The no vote by Native people in the referendum also illustrated that they are not a single group with common goals and interests. This makes the task of presenting a unified political front at the national and provincial levels a major challenge for Canada's Native leadership. "The new great Canadian fallacy," said Assembly of First Nations legal counsel Jack London, "is that one can expect a [singled] response from aboriginal people."

In 1990 and 1991 that "great Canadian fallacy" led Canada's politicians to believe they must sit down and negotiate seriously with Native peoples. The alternative, they thought, was to face a country torn by blockades, armed uprisings, and political action aimed at disrupting the orderly operation of government.

In the fall of 1992, however, it was realized that such unity within the Native community did not, after all, exist. This was followed by an almost immediate lessening of commitment to resolve political issues, such as land claims and self-government. In some provinces governments embarked upon strategies that seemed intended to show Native people how powerlessness they were. In New Brunswick, a 1993 blockade was erected to protest a plan to impose the province's sales tax on all Native purchases made off reserves. The blockade was attacked by riot police who fired tear gas and beat Native demonstrators with batons. The imposition of the tax, which would bring in only $1 million in annual revenue, was described by most analysts as a measure aimed at punishing the province's Native people.

Similar actions have been taken by provincial governments across the country. In the last federal election scant mention was made of issues relevant to Native people. It seems that in most parts of the country Native issues have again fallen off the political agenda.

An exception to this pattern, however, is British Columbia. There, Native communities are increasingly involved in political discussion and decision making. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, for example, has been a key player in the negotiations to determine the fate of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island's west coast.

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that the blockades never came down in B.C. as they did in most other parts of Canada. In June, 1995, for example, members of the Upper Nicola band mounted an Okastyle blockade of historic Douglas Lake Ranch in the B.C. interior to back up their land claims in that region. Unlike the government response to the Oka blockade five years earlier, no soldiers were called in and the police negotiated an agreement to take down the barricades.

B.C. seems to be the province where Native people are advancing their political power most quickly. The obvious conclusion to draw is that political negotiation is best forwarded by Native people when accompanied by militant actions of civil disobedience.


1. Invite a local Native leader, whether from on a reserve or off the reserve (contact the local Native friendship centre), to talk with your class about their efforts to advance themselves politically.

2. Erecting barricades, occupying land, and taking up arms against the state are all acts of civil disobedience. Discuss what civil disobedience is and what conditions make its use by a group acceptable. For background, you may wish to study the disobedience adopted by Indian-rights leader Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King's civil rights movement in the U.S. in the 1960s, Henry David Thoreau's civil disobedience against slavery in the 1800s, the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70, and the Clayoquot Sound demonstrations of 1993 which resulted in Canada's largest mass arrest in history.

3. Native populations in Canada are distributed in such a way that they can never achieve significant political representation in most provincial legislatures or the House of Commons. One suggestion has been to award them a specific number of seats in the governments of Canada, similar to what New Zealand allows the Maori people. Most Native peoples have rejected this idea because the number of seats would never give them the ability seriously to affect votes on legislation. Some Natives, however, feel they could affect government policy despite their small numbers as they would at least be heard. What do you think? Discuss.
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Title Annotation:Native People - Politics; tactics used by Native Americans to gain rights and political influence
Author:Zuehlke, Mark
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Previous Article:Early graves.
Next Article:Sink the sovereignty canoe?

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