Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: For background on last year's blockades and protests by Native people in Canada, see our earlier commentary in the Albion Monitor, as well as a news article about the British Columbia treaty negotiations.]

Redefining Native Politics in Canada

by Kim Goldberg

Sovereigntists described as "radical fringe," "renegade Indians" or just plain "thugs"

Last year's seemingly random spate of Native blockades over land rights has congealed into a coherent political force with the potential to reshape the land claims process in British Columbia. It has also delineated a growing rift within Native communities as well as the non-Native environmental movement.

It is called the traditional sovereigntist movement. And its adherents maintain that no current government holds jurisdiction over the unceded lands of the original human inhabitants, and no Canadian court has the authority to rule on Native land disputes. It's a position with some foundation in white colonial law, although no Canadian judge has so far been willing to entertain an argument based on the esoteric ruling dating back to 1704. Nevertheless, sovereigntists reject the authority of court injunctions barring them from their ancestral lands. And they reject the authority of the B.C. Treaty Commission, which is currently negotiating land claims with more than 40 Native nations.

The sovereigntist position is not generally shared by the elected leadership of most first nations in B.C. And it is those individuals who are primarily involved in the provincial government's treaty process. The split between hereditary and elected leadership is the leading edge of a much deeper divide separating traditional, earth-centered Natives from those more fully absorbed into the capitalist value system, and whose economic development plans can best be met through the current treaty process.

The sovereigntist movement was finally identified by media when Shuswap Natives refused to leave a ceremonial Sundance site at Gustafsen Lake, B.C., last summer (1995). But even then, the full significance of the sovereigntist movement was always diluted by descriptives like "radical fringe," "renegade Indians" or just plain "thugs."

At the end of the four-week siege when the Natives voluntarily surrendered, the local Cariboo Tribal Council issued a press release echoing the media chorus by dismissing the sovereigntists as "quite simply a case of an individual or a small group deciding to squat on a piece of land..." But actions and alliances elsewhere in B.C. suggest the sovereigntist position is supported by far more than a handful of "squatters."

Growing alliance between Native sovereigntists and environmentalists

In August, around the outset of the Gustafsen siege, eight Native nations and 24 environmental groups signed a declaration supporting "indigenous sovereign nations" and opposing the B.C. Treaty Commission. The Juh-Juh Dids declaration, named for the island in Clayoquot Sound where the groups met, also rejected the B.C. government's kinder gentler logging procedures for Clayoquot (which have not ended clearcutting, as originally announced) and demanded "an immediate end to commercial logging in all remaining primary forests."

The declaration (which was drafted after Native sovereigntists asked environmentalists for help) divided the environmental movement. Such heavyweights as Greenpeace, Sierra Club and Western Canada Wilderness Committee declined to sign on, while Friends of Clayoquot Sound, Rainforest Action Network, Earth Island Institute and other notable green groups did. In their attempts to build Native alliances, B.C. environmentalists have historically dealt with elected Native leaders. Some groups were obviously unprepared to renounce those leaders or the initiatives of the NDP government with a tight provincial election so near.

But the trend to watch is the growing alliance between Native sovereigntists and environmentalists, with non-violent direct action being the strategy of choice. The September 26 police raid and arrests of three hereditary chiefs of the Nuxalk nation plus more than a dozen non-Native members of Forest Action Network who were all defending a remote stand of rainforest in coastal B.C. may well be the shape of things to come.

Kim Goldberg is the British Columbia current affairs columnist for Canadian Dimension.

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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