Re-posted from the Eastern Door

We have dream, too - Canadian government can learn from the U.S. civil-rights era when it comes to our treatment of First Nations

Canadian AFN National Chief

There's an ongoing crisis right here in this land, a slow, grinding and devastating human crisis that is overtaking our First Nations peoples, right in Canada's own backyard. In Halifax earlier this week I drew a lesson from the situation of American blacks in the 1960s. Here's why.

In the 1960s, state-run white schools in the racist southern United States would not allow black children to register. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case that segregated black schools were not equal to segregated white schools, and that racial segregation was unconstitutional.

The people of Burnt Church, N.B., would recognize the response from the white Southerners: Mobs of angry white people burnt cars and protested violently against the Supreme Court judgment that said that black people had rights.

Did the U.S. Supreme Court back down in Brown v. Board of Education and say it was mistaken because of the angry white mobs? Did the U.S. federal government go around black communities and try to get them to agree to limit their constitutional rights? Did Washington send in troops to beat black people into accepting that they could not go to school? No.

In contrast, look at Canada's experience. Our Supreme Court's partial reversal in the second Marshall decision was a cowardly judicial retreat from impartial interpretation of the law. Obviously, the Supreme Court was intimidated by the intense violent reaction from non-Native Canadians on the East coast, and also possibly from the officers of the Crown. This was a textbook case of recognition of rights being subject to mob rule. When non-Native mobs made their objections violently known, instead of reinforcing its ruling, the Supreme Court heard an additional appeal and beat a retreat.

Now look at the use of government resources. The U.S. government sent in troops - not to challenge the protesters but to escort black children to the schools of their choice, and to protect them from the angry white mobs. Compare this with the ramming of Native boats by Canadian government cruisers, by the uniformed but lawless thugs of the federal Department of Fisheries.

Meanwhile, Canada's First Nations are still in crisis. First Nations peoples endure economic and social disparities that are shocking. Our infant mortality, rates of illiteracy, imprisonment, homelessness, ill health and suicide are through the roof. Unemployment rates in our communities are sometimes 80 per cent.

I was Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree Nation when the name Utshimassits, or Davis Inlet, first came to international prominence. The Labrador Innu had been forcibly removed from their traditional lands on the Labrador mainland to this rocky little island in 1967. The government of Canada had known, for 25 years, firsthand and in full detail, that the Innu were living there without clean drinking water or sanitation, and without any means of subsistence. It did nothing.

Only when six kids attempted suicide on video in 1993 did this catastrophe come to light. Even then, the federal government continued its adversarial approach to the crisis, an approach of denial and minimization of its responsibility. The Indians are to blame, the minister said, they agreed to be moved. The Churches are to blame, the government said, they wanted them all in one place where they could be reached by boat. Nobody in the federal government admitted: Our policies are to blame.

It took an investigation by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which led to a stinging report by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, to force the federal Crown to take steps to return traditional lands to the Davis Innu.

Yet the prosecutions of Innu hunters continued, as did the persecution of the Innu leaders who opposed the destructive, military, low-level flight testing over their caribou grounds. And the exclusion of the Innu from any benefit from proposed mining and hydro-electric mega-developments in their lands continued.

Are we the only ones who can see that these policies and actions, this deliberate dispossession, are the root causes of the human catastrophe facing our peoples? Are we the only ones who weren't surprised when the images of gas-sniffing Innu kids reappeared after eight years?

The root causes of this Canadian human catastrophe are not acts of God. They are the result of deliberate policies, laws, practices and actions of governments, and of courts, and of ordinary women and men. Canada is a G8 country, one of the richest, biggest, resource-rich and most capable countries in the world. It has the capacity to respond to this catastrophe affecting hundreds of thousands of our people - our grandparents, our sisters and brothers, our cousins, our parents and children.

The action of the U.S. government in Brown v. Board of Education shows that when a government wishes to do so, it can act to uphold fundamental human rights, and take effective steps to ensure that those who wish to exercise them are protected against violent mobs.

I realize that what I have been doing here is sometimes called "government-bashing" - federal-government bashing, and provincial-government bashing, and municipal-government bashing. All of these levels of Canadian government have systematically built the conditions that have dispossessed our people through extinguishment of our rights.

But I intend to take a new path. As a First Nations leader, I wish to record that responsibility for the continuance of this harmful status quo now partly lies with us. The poverty and dispossession among our peoples was brought about by government. But if that poverty and dispossession is allowed to continue, the fault will also be ours.

Three issues must be considered. They will ultimately determine the survival of our Nations and Peoples.

First, in Ottawa's policy of the narrowing and extinguishment of our Aboriginal and treaty rights, it has been necessary since 1982 for the federal government to appear to be obtaining our consent. The AFN is constituted as an umbrella organization with a national chief who is, to a significant extent, a figurehead. This historic power imbalance between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown will only change if we think differently about our national organization. Is it just an umbrella, or do we want it to be something more, something capable of asserting and defending our fundamental rights?

Second, what exactly is our approach to our fundamental rights? Are these rights just things that we can legitimately limit; or agree with the Crown - as it is now proposing - never to exercise them again; or just trade or sign them away?

The United Nations has repeatedly advised Canada that its Aboriginal policies are not consistent with Canada's obligations under international human-rights covenants. The UN has asked Canada to ensure that First Nations have an adequate resource base to support our own means of subsistence and to provide for our self-sufficiency. It has also warned that extinguishment or conversion of our Aboriginal rights is a violation of international law. First Nations leadership must engage in frank discussion about our fundamental rights. We must engage in the painful and courageous task of establishing national policies and strategies that draw a clear First Nations line in the sand, beyond which we will never go.

Third, how much do we First Nations leaders believe in this struggle? Would we still conduct it if it meant great sacrifices for each of us? Almost all of our First Nations leaders represent their peoples' status, rights and aspirations with courage and integrity, and I am moved by - and proud to work with - our First Nations leadership. But in a few situations, some of our First Nations leaders are more willing to exchange or surrender fundamental rights for short-term returns. Mostly, these short-term gains are high on the federal extinguishment agenda.

In these circumstances, do we comfort ourselves that every First Nation has the right of self-determination and we cannot question its choice? I believe we must now question this approach. If we don't, the connection between our First Nations peoples and their Aboriginal and treaty rights will only be as strong as the weakest link in the chain. These are important questions. And the survival of our peoples depends on the answers.

Reply to Kenneth Deer, editor of The Eastern Door.

Copyright © 2001 Kenneth Deer/Log Cabin Chronicles/02.01