Albion Monitor /Commentary

Oh, Canada...

by Jeff Elliott

Both the United States and Canada try desperately to ignore the problem

Think of some of the most significant news in the past few years: the beating of Rodney King and the events at Waco would certainly be among the top ten. Now imagine these events occurred at the exact same time, and every newspaper, every radio or TV news show is competing to keep the nation abreast of the latest developments, and the nation hangs on every word. But a few miles down the road, you can read a newspaper or listen to a broadcast without hearing either event mentioned at all. The biggest stories of the day have just...disappeared.

Unbelievable? Not at all. This is exactly what happened last month, as important events in Canada were all but ignored by the American press. And it certainly wasn't the first time. We have a blind spot when it comes to our nearest neighbor; should Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa simultaneously burn to the ground, the New York Times would probably run a small story headlined, "Smoky Haze Expected Over Northeast."

Besides America's provincial attitude, there could be another reason why these recent events were neglected. At the heart of each story is the same troubling dispute, one that both the United States and Canada try desperately to ignore. The problem: the rights of the Native people from whom the land was stolen.

Clearcutting had all but destroyed traditional hunting and trapping territory

"The much-predicted Indian revolution in Canada has begun," wrote one Ottawa columnist in early September. At that time, tensions ran high in Canada. More than a thousand miles apart, different groups of Native people were in stand-offs with police, protecting their claims to small scraps of land. Both were surrounded by heavily-armed troops ready to open fire. Already a Native man was dead, and it appeared that there would soon be more fatalities; at least one man promised he would defend their land to his death. A few days after that column was written, three more were wounded in a gunfight with police.

At the same time, there were other confrontations that didn't make Canadian headlines. Some of these were fought in the forests, others on the rivers. Although these events were not as dramatic, they do more to explain the underlying problems.

One battle was fought in the deep woods of British Columbia, just a few miles from the southernmost tip of Alaska. The conflict had been simmering for years, as clearcutting had all but destroyed traditional hunting and trapping territory of a group of Gitksan people. When the timber company obtained a permit from the government in June to cut another 88 acres, the tribe drew the line. "Out of our entire territory, this is the last little piece of forest we have left. The rest is clearcut or alpine," one of the protesters told a reporter. "This particular area is the last remaining stand for our [tribal group]. Now it is threatened."

The group blockaded roads used for logging until the timber company obtained a court order. The province of British Columbia also sought an injunction against the tribe, the Attorney General stating that the government will not tolerate any public inconvenience on the roads.

The only public suffering an "inconvenience," of course, were the loggers, but no matter; the place to discuss the issue was at the bargaining table, the government said, not the barricades. "We are committed to the legitimate land-claims process at the treaty commission table," said the B.C. Attorney General. "As soon as this kind of blockade occurs, the negotiations are off."

Right-wingers claimed that Natives had "special rights" that screwed the hard-working white majority

But like their U.S. counterparts, Canadian Native people say the government doesn't keep its word. Treaties are honored when they serve business interests and conveniently ignored when they don't.

And these laws defining Native rights aren't all dusty 19th century agreements; one of the most controversial is a 1990 ruling by the Canadian Supreme Court. Known as the "Sparrow" decision, the court unanimously said that Native rights were not to be infringed -- unless there were no reasonable alternatives.

In theory, this meant that tribes no longer had to compete with corporations for the same resources. A group that traditionally fished, for example, would be guaranteed that mammoth trawlers wouldn't be allowed to scoop up the season's entire harvest.

But in practice, it was business as usual. On the rivers near Vancouver, five tribes were promised a catch of over 50,000 salmon by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Yet only a fraction of that number were caught by the tribes; many came away empty handed. What happened to those guarantees?

One problem was because 1995 proved a lousy year for salmon; another reason was because of political gamesmanship. Right-wingers in the Reform (conservative) Party claimed that Natives had "special rights" that screwed the hard-working white majority. One politician who hammered on that theme was Member of Parliment John Cummins, a founder of the "Fisheries Survival Coalition." Throughout the summer, Cummins and the Survival Coalition staged media events -- at taxpayer expense -- to press the government into backing away from promises made to the tribes.

Cummins and his group won; soon the tribal fishermen found their salmon allocation given to the commercial fisheries. All they could do was watch helplessly as the food for their children was dredged from the rivers with gill nets.

Clarence Pennier, Grand Chief of the Sto:lo Nation, wrote of the anger and resentment this decision caused in a letter to a Vancouver newspaper. "The Sto:lo chiefs are left trying to explain to our young people that they should still stay within the law. These same young people turn on their televison sets, and every night they see more Survival Coalition protests. In the newspapers, they read more complaints that the Sto:lo enjoy 'racially-segregated commercial fishing,' 'rights based on race' and 'native-only fisheries.' They stay glued to their radios listening for the latest news out of Gustafsen Lake."

It was the events at Gustafsen Lake in central British Columbia that gripped not only the Sto:lo youth, but the entire nation. At the same time of the salmon wars near Vancover, at the same time as the Gitksan logging blockade, at the same time as another conflict in Ontario left a Native man dead, the nation watched as the Canadian army prepared for a bloody siege.

Threats to "hang the red nigger" were allegedly made

Comparisons between Gustafsen Lake and the confrontation at Waco, Texas, are easy to make. In both cases, the police and military mobilized unprecedented forces, more appropriate to waging war. Both events were led by a religious man. But the small group of men and women at Gustafsen Lake were hardly a trained, well-armed bunch like the Branch Davidians. And Percy Rosette was certainly no David Koresh.

As a sundancer, Rosette approached a white rancher in 1988, asking if he could use a small portion of his 18,000 acres for midsummer religious ceremonies. A vision had led him there, telling him that it was a sacred spot. The rancher didn't mind, as long as no one bothered the sport fishermen and hunters who also used the lake and woods.

In the years that followed, Gustafsen Lake gradually became known as a spiritual place. Each July more sundancers gathered to practice their religion, making neighboring whites increasingly nervous.

Then this year, Rosette and his followers built a fence around the site to protect it from being defiled by the rancher's cattle. To the whites it broke the informal agreement between the sundancers and the landowner; this was the last straw.

The fence was more than a fence; the whites saw it as a landclaim. Like Cummins had stirred up hatred against the Native people over fishing rights, other members of the right-wing Reform Party had hinted darkly that there were secret treaty negotiations going on, that the Canadian government was about to sieze ranch land and hand it over to the Indians. A backlash group calling itself the Foundation for Individual Rights and Equality (FIRE) claimed more than 3,000 members, including the rancher who owned Gustafsen Lake. "The so-called land-claims settlements which these governments propose which to negotiate exceed all legal entitlements and will destroy the livelihoods of many citizens and communities," the group said in a recent release.

About a dozen cowboys employed by the rancher confronted the sundancers, ordering them off the land. Threats to "hang the red nigger" were allegedly made to Rosette. One of the cowboys returned later with a bullwhip, promising that a group of ranchers were gathering to burn them out.

So here is another parallel to Waco: none of these events had to happen. If the rancher had simply called the RCMP, the situation would likely have defused. But instead, the confrontation spun quickly out of control. The cowboys bragged of their courageous showdown, gaining support of local racists. At the same time, supporters of the Rosette and the other sundancers came to the defense of their sacred site, bringing guns.

And then the cars of police began to arrive. Then trucks of soldiers. Then tanks. The press rushed into the area, wiring breathless reports across the nation. British Columbia's Attorney General -- who just days before had made his "no public inconvenience" comments about the logging roadblock -- stated, "There is no point in more meetings. I will not negotiate with renegades. There is only one issue here: law and order. There will be no deals, no talk about land ownership. It is not about land. They can give themselves up to the police for protection or face the consequences. The police will use whatever force is necessary to dislodge them."

Tensions increased when two officers were bruised by gunfire aimed at their car, protected from serious injury by bulletproof vests. Things became worse when police and the sundancers engaged in a two hour gunbattle, the mounties firing thousands of rounds. One mountie later compared it to firefights in the Vietnam War. Three Native men were wounded. They did not have the protection of bulletproof vests.

The press eagerly followed the government's lead, calling the group at Gustafsen Lake "thugs," "militants," "radicals," "armed rebels," and "nutbars." A lawyer for the sundancers later complained, "The police have deliberately recruited the media to prejudice this case." Until the confrontation was over, none of the Canadian press noted the threats made by the cowboys that escalated the conflict.

These are the final comparisons to Waco: it became a media event and an plum assignment for hundreds of cops. Reporters and mounties filled the hotel rooms in the small resort town nearby; restaurants were busy night and day. T-shirts were sold to the idle mounties, reading "Camp Overtime." When the Natives at the site surrendered in mid-September, the bill became due: $6 million dollars -- over $250,000 per day, and that is not even counting military costs. All to capture twelve men and women.

Newspapers leaned hard on the "Indians on the warpath" angle but took little notice of legitimate grievances

It is easy to see why the latest news from Gustafsen Lake captivated Native youths. Here was a group standing up for what they believed, against impossible odds. No more standing on the roadside, watching the RCMP dismantle barricades protecting their woods, no more standing on the shore watching trawlers sweep their fish from the river. It was possible to fight back.

While the stand-off at Gustafsen Lake was ocurring in British Columbia, yet another confrontation was in the Ontario headlines. Like at Gustafsen Lake, it found a group of Native women and men defending land against heavily armed police. But unlike the other conflict, a Native man died from a police bullet.

These events took place on the shores of Lake Huron, about 50 miles northeast of Detroit. The lands in question were clearly property of the Chippewa; Canada had acknowledged this, and promised to return it to the tribe -- someday.

Behind the events is a classic example of how Natives have been swindled in this century. Some of their lakefront property went to real estate speculators in the 1920's. A major portion was temporarily leased to the Canadian military in the 1930's, and still more was taken by the government under emergency law when WWII began. It would be a temporary army camp, the government said, and returned at war's end.

The government lied. For more than half a century it remained Camp Ipperwash -- as the military base was called -- despite repeated demands for its return. With its scenic location on the shores of Lake Huron, it became a recreational facility for the army and a summer training camp for cadets.

For decades, resentments simmered at the theft of their homelands. Negotiations for the return of the army base stalled whenever elections brought new politicians into power, and later, the question of how the government would pay for the considerable environmental cleanup required.

Most galling was the treatment of their burial grounds, now part of a regional park. The Chippewa rightly wanted this land too, but the government refused to concede that it was their cemetery.

The Chippewas took matters into their own hands in early September and occupied the park. Within hours, riot police surrounded the area. Two days later in a confrontation with tribal members, Anthony "Dudley" George was killed and a 16 year-old boy was shot twice in the back. The Chippewa were unarmed. Like the press coverage of Gustafsen Lake, newspapers leaned hard on the "Indians on the warpath" angle but took little notice of the many legitimate grievances behind their anger.

Canada has now promised a speedy return of the army base, and after confronted with government documents, agrees that the park was indeed their burial ground. One sticking point: the ultra-conservative government of Ontario still refuses to acknowledge that the graves exist.

The most significant legacy might be an emerging militancy

Besides Ipperwash, Gustafsen Lake, the Sto:lo and Gitksan struggles, there were still other conflicts between Native people and Canada, all during the months of August and September. One is the story of Bella Coola, which we'll feature in a December edition of the Albion Monitor.

In each case, the right-wing of Canada used the occasion to gain further ground, pointing to the incident as proof that Natives intend to steal their land or livelihood. Even the recent debate over Quebec sovereignty was tainted by racist appeals when one of the separatist leaders criticized Quebec women as responsible for the lowest birth-rate among "white races." To no one's surprise, the Cree tribe, which with the Inuit and others claim about two-thirds of Quebec territory, voted almost unanimously against the separatists.

But the most significant legacy of these events might be an emerging militancy on the part of younger Native men and women. "My predecessor, Georges Erasmus, warned in 1988 that if Canada failed to deal with our leadership now, the next generation of leaders would be much more militant," said Ovide Mercredi, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the officially-sanctioned agency which represents all Canadian tribes. "I am truly afraid that day is coming."

Mercredi, who helped negotiate settlements at both Gustafsen Lake and Ipperwash, is seen by some as part of the problem. Also in mid-September, a group of Native protesters occupied AFN offices, complaining that it has not given enough support to natives fighting for land rights. A spokesperson said that Mercredi and all government-sponsored chiefs are government employees whose job is to negotiate forever.

"These guys [at the barricades] don't see the AFN as a legitimate Indian voice," an expert in contemporary Native issues told a Canadian newspaper. "It is the creation of a foreign instrument of oppression."

Unless the events of August and September were a fluke, dangerous times are ahead for Canada. No longer are the Native peoples willing to negotiate for decades, only to have their small gains ignored. The government will have to acknowledge the wrongs of its past and make amends, which is likely to incite the right-wing to further anger and violence.

The Canadian press will have to reexamine its willingness to parrot the anti-Native rhetoric from government and police officials. They could begin by asking themselves a few simple questions: were the events at Gustafsen Lake and Ipperwash really just the actions of isolated "radicals" and "nutbars," or could they be part of an emerging civil rights movement?

One of the Natives involved with the peaceful surrender at Gustafsen Lake watched as the sundancers were taken into custody. "This isn't the end of the story -- it's the beginning," he said. Nearby on a fence hung a banner that promised what the future may hold. It read: "Mohawk Warrior Society." The same banner was reported at Ipperwash. None of the Canadian press seem to notice the connection. After all, there were no similarities between the two protests at all, in their eyes.

Art by Canadian political cartoonist Don Monet, who publishes a superb daily cartoon through the Internet.

Albion Monitor October 30, 1995 (

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