Behind the headlines about land claims, blockades, and violence lies a basic issue: Indian peoples demand self-government

IN 1680, the missionaries of St. Sulpice gathered their Indian converts from various missions to live and attend school among the wooded hills that rise above the peaceful Lac des Deux Montagnes (Lake of the Two Mountains). Within five years, everyone knew the effort had failed.

``It was believed for a very long time that domiciling the savages near our habitations was a very great means of teaching these peoples to live like us and to become instructed in our religion,'' the Marquis of Denonville wrote to the Marquis of Seignelay in 1685. ``I notice, Monseigneur, that the very opposite has taken place.''

Ever since, the French and English and their Canadian descendants have tried to assimilate the native Indians. And, like the clergy of St. Sulpice, they have failed.

It is no accident that at Oka, on the same land the missionaries once claimed, armed Mohawks set up barricades against police and troops for 78 days this summer. That standoff, a few miles from Montreal, has shone a bright light on 300 years of delays, misunderstandings, and broken promises.

At Oka, the flash point was a golf course that the town's mayor wanted to extend onto land the Mohawks claimed was sacred. Since then, the federal government has bought that disputed land and pledged to give it to the Mohawks. It has also moved to settle other land disputes in recent months.

But the issue runs even deeper than land. The cry from behind the barricades and from native peoples across Canada is: Natives want the right to govern themselves.

``They try to impose laws on us. [But] this is our territory. This is our land,'' says Ellen Gabriel, who was a frequent Mohawk spokesperson during the Oka standoff. ``Native people across Canada have to become more active. We have to start changing things for the future generations.''

``I don't call myself a Canadian,'' adds David DeVeau of the Tobique Maliseet Nation in New Brunswick. ``I am a North American Indian.'' Mr. Deveau is one of several young natives who came to Oka this summer to show support for the Mohawks.

The Oka uprising is the culmination of two years of native activism across Canada.

Other examples include:

The Innu tribe of northeast Quebec and Labrador in late 1988 illegally set up tents at the Canadian Air Force base at Goose Bay. They were protesting low-level flights of military jets, which they said scared people and disturbed caribou populations.

In 1988, when the Nova Scotia government scheduled its annual moose hunt on Micmac Indian land without consulting natives or giving them preference in the lottery, the Micmacs staged their own moose harvest. Canadian police arrested 14 Micmacs for violating provincial hunting laws.

In September 1989, Algonquins in Quebec set up roadblocks and brought logging operations to a temporary halt on traditional Indian hunting grounds.

Other native tribes have also set up roadblocks to protest commercial encroachment on ancestral lands.

Native leaders predict more such moves until the federal government begins to deal with their claims. The government admits that the process has historically been slow. But this spring it initialed an agreement with the Yukon Indians and reached an agreement in principle with the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut, which together would give natives 151,000 square miles of land and US$706 million. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has also pledged to speed up the disposition of Indian land claims.

These land claims are pivotal. Although many Canadians supported the Mohawks' position during the standoff, their support is likely to erode when the scope of native land claims becomes clear. The various tribes lay claim to the northern half of Canada, most of British Columbia and Quebec, and the upper half of Newfoundland.

``In Canada, you do have a sense that the natives haven't been treated fairly,'' says Lydia Miljan of the Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank in Vancouver, British Columbia. ``What's going to happen when the land claims move to British Columbia? ... You aren't going to see too much sympathy for Indian land claims here.''

The tribes are also demanding that they be given virtually the same jurisdiction over the land they claim as the provincial governments have now. And that is especially difficult for Canada to address.

This is a country that struggles endlessly with bipolar disputes over political power (between the federal and provincial governments) and cultural dominance (between its French and English heritages). Canadian officials see federal and provincial governments alone as legitimate and have great difficulty with a third group presenting its own demands for recognition.

On the east side of Parliament Hill here, which Algonquins claim as their own, the Hon. Tom Siddon struggles with the implications of Indian sovereignty. As minister of Indian Affairs, he is in the hot seat. One of the few native members of Parliament has called for his resignation. ``We've treated our Indian communities maybe the wrong way through the old paternalistic approach,'' Mr. Siddon says, ``but more generously than any other nation on this planet.''

IF money alone could resolve the Indian problem, Canada would have done it long ago. This year, the federal government will spend a little more than US$3.5 billion on Indians, the equivalent of $11,264 for each of the 309,000 Indians living on reserves. That far exceeds federal spending per capita in the United States, which comes to a total of US$3.5 billion for an Indian population three times Canada's.

One-third of Indians in both countries do not live on reserves, but the bulk of the expenditures goes to those who do (including, in the US case, those who live near reservations). The biggest items in Canada's Indian budget are education, welfare, housing, and health care.

But Siddon does not budge on the issue of self-government. ``We cannot accommodate enclaves within provincial boundaries, which operate beyond the laws and powers as set out in the Constitution,'' he says.

Constitutional scholar James Mallory says the government's position lacks political imagination. If provinces can operate with a degree of sovereignty within the Constitution, he asks, why can't native reserves?

Native leaders point to the US as a model.

``The United States is comfortable with recognizing that tribal peoples in the United States have the right to govern themselves in many areas,'' says Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. ``In Canada we're light-years away from that.... We have problems getting government to even mouth the words of `nation-to-nation.'''

Even the terminology is different. Indians speak of themselves as belonging to a nation, such as the Cree nation or the Dene nation. Government officials use the term ``bands'' and have installed governing mechanisms called band councils.

At the root of this dispute, natives are demanding that Canada recognize that indigenous institutions existed long before the white man came and remain viable today. That means Canada's Parliament cannot simply give natives their rights, Mr. Erasmus says. It must recognize that those rights existed before Parliament.

The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled in two recent cases that certain aboriginal rights predated the white man and must be honored, such as the right to fish in native lands. Native leaders hope the court will further elaborate on these rights, giving them leverage in negotiations with federal and provincial governments.

Erasmus is prototypical of the new breed of educated, urban native leaders; he is articulate, familiar with Canadian institutions, and adept at manipulating the news media. This is the first generation of leaders to put their peoples' aspirations into language that Canadians can understand.

Siddon and other government officials speak of these leaders as a small group of agitators. But it is apparent from discussions with native leaders and scholars that the native movement is much broader than the political movement represented by well-educated, urban leaders such as Erasmus. It also includes traditional Indians who are pressing for a renewal of their culture.

``There's an old story from the elders that I've never forgotten,'' says Jacob Thomas, a Cayuga chief. He tells about a skunk that gradually invades a ground-hog's den and finally forces him out. ``That's what happened to native people when the white man came.... People have taken too much.''

Mr. Thomas is viewed as a traditional chief on the Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario. He teaches native culture and language to 31 students and sees increasing interest in traditional culture.

In the 1980s, this traditional movement joined forces with the urban native political movement and gained strength, says Martin Dunn, national constitutional coordinator of the Native Council of Canada. The council represents the M'etis, a mixed population of European and Indian ancestry.

Mr. Dunn participated in the constitutional conferences of the 1980s that were supposed to define aboriginal rights. ``There was always a point where it was clear that no matter who we were talking to, they didn't get it,'' he recalls.

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