The Mohawks' Canny Strategy

CANADA'S Mohawk uprising was started by the extremist warriors, but it may benefit natives across the country. Modern Mohawks have worked on the high steel of the skyscrapers of New York City; they're said to have no fear of heights. They have brought home big paychecks. Because they are allowed to cross the US-Canada border at will, many run cigarettes across the line.

Other businesses include gambling casinos and bingo halls on the Quebec reserves and in New York. When white society puts pressure on their illegal smuggling and gambling businesses, the warriors take up arms.

Most of the guns were smuggled from the US. There are tough gun laws in Canada. You need a firearms licence to buy a hunting rifle, almost no one can own a handgun, and weapons such as M-16's, AK-47s, and Uzi's are strictly illegal.

The Mohawks are also canny negotiators who moved quickly when they spotted a weakness in Canada's armour. That weakness was the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional talks. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney didn't want to make a decision on what is a federal matter and risk offending French-speaking Quebecers sensitive about Ottawa treading on their turf.

Mr. Mulroney talked tough, but the Mohawks outfoxed him. They went to the table with their toughest demands, including one for a sovereign country of 5,000 square miles straddling Quebec, Ontario, and New York. Perfect for smuggling. Impossible, said politicians. But it didn't hurt the Mohawks to ask.

Negotiations will now be easier, not just for Mohawks but for native groups across Canada. No sovereign countries will be allowed within Canada (expect maybe Quebec), but natives will get title to their land and self-government.

There are about half a million `status' Indians in Canada, out of a population of 26 million. A status Indian is one who may live on a reserve (about 62 percent do). Another 400,000 live in Canadian towns and cities. Status Indians don't pay income tax for money made on reserves, though unemployment on the reserves ranges from 30 to 80 percent. Native people fill a high proportion of jails in western and northern Canada. Almost all the violence and crime is on the reserve.

The federal government says the natives of Canada are the best treated aboriginal minority in the world. Mulroney, in a speech justifying use of the army against the Mohawks, said the government spends $13,000 for every man, woman, and child on a reserve in Canada. Natives receive subsidized housing, free dental care, and free university education.

Still, Canada's natives want claim to their lands. The Northwest Territories, which stretch from Alaska to Greenland, cover 1.3 million square miles, an area larger than all but a handful of countries but with only 25,000 people, 60 percent of whom are natives. They want the entire Northwest Territories. Even if they accept the government offer of only 230,000 square miles they would, in Mulroney's words, be the largest landowners in North America. Much of it is frozen tundra, but it could be rich in minerals, oil, and gas.

South African Bishop Desmond Tutu came to Canada in August and visited a few reserves, comparing the plight of native Canadians to that of blacks in South Africa. He's wrong. It is true that a visiting delegation from South Africa thought reserves a good idea while on a fact-finding trip in the 1940s. But Canadian natives are free to leave the reserves and free to vote.

Many who stay on the reserves choose the life of hunting, fishing, and trapping, though one reserve runs a computer software business. But for a lot of Canada's native people, life on the reserve is a way to shut out the white man's world.

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