Canada's Natives Exercise New Clout On National Scene
A growing political movement is prodding the country to recognize Indian needs - Part 2 of a series
MONTREAL — GAZING out over downtown Montreal from the large plate-glass windows of his 34th-floor office, Bill Namagoose points out a nearby skyscraper occupied by Hydro-Quebec, a utility whose proposed dam projects would flood a large chunk of lands that belonged to his Cree Indian ancestors.
Getting permission to build such dams used to be a cake walk. Not anymore.
Canada's 1 million natives have in the past two years risen to a level of prominence and political power previously unimagined by most Canadians - as well as by most natives. Quebec's Crees were among the first to recognize the new reality.
"If we were riding around on horses and living in teepees it would be romantic, huh?," Mr. Namagoose says of his lobbying efforts to stop the encroaching white man. "Sure I'd rather be at home in my cabin on the Broadback River than at this office every day. But the danger is here. There's no danger for my people up north. This is the 1990s - and this [office] is the state of the art in lobbying and protecting our land."
Swept off their traditional property and onto reserves by English and French settlers in the last century, Canada's natives today are impossible to ignore - laying claim to vast stretches of land and insisting that their "inherent right to self-government" be acknowledged in a new constitution. Political tools
Using the tools of a modern political movement, they are also pushing to remake the country in a way that recognizes their way of life and eliminates government paternalism and oppression. In the United States Indian nations have been legally declared "dependent nations" and live according to their own tribal customs and laws, but Canada's natives frequently have little land or autonomy.
"Indians are looking at Canada right now and deciding whether they want to be part of it," says political scientist Gerald Alfred, a Mohawk who grew up in Quebec's Kahnawake reserve. "Before there was a clear sense of what being a Canadian was. Either you were an English-speaking Canadian committed to Western-liberal values, or, if from Quebec, you were French-speaking, but still committed to the same set of values. Now it's all changing and it's up for grabs."
Native leaders agree that the way natives view Canada is changing, as is the way Canadians view natives.
"Internationally we are growing up as human beings, and in the last two years this has been more pronounced," says Ovid Mercredi, a soft-spoken Cree lawyer who is Canada's foremost Indian leader. "We are entering a new era for humanity where the right to be different is being more broadly embraced - and that process is enveloping the world."
Fragmentation, however, remains a problem for Canada's native peoples. Chief Mercredi's Assembly of First Nations (AFN), for example, represents 512,000 Indians whose status is recognized by the government. But another 32,000 natives are Inuit and 500,000 more are Metis of French-Indian ancestry or non-status Indians, who often live in urban settings apart from any reserve. Even within the AFN, which comprises 633 bands, there is disagreement over goals and policies.
And not every tribe is winning battles against huge corporations. Many other Canadian Indians are light-years behind and only beginning to push their own demands.
"We're pretty much looking at the end - at either the survival or destruction of our tribe," says Jean-Maurice Matchewan, chief of a 450-member band of Algonquins in northern Quebec. (See related story, right.) Newfound clout
Nevertheless Mohawks, Crees, Inuit, and other native groups have used their newfound clout to carve out a new place for themselves and protect their lands.
Lobbyist Namagoose describes how his organization, the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec, worked for years to block Hydro-Quebec's Great Whale dam in the northern part of the province.
Waging a public-relations war, Cree leaders flew to hearings in the US to counter utility executives and spokesmen hired to squelch the Cree message. They hired US consultants to analyze the utility's byzantine financial reports and energy-demand forecasts.
The Crees even shipped birch-bark canoes to Europe and paddled down waterways there dressed in traditional garb to publicize their concerns.
This March, New York state utility officials canceled a $17 billion, 20-year contract to buy Hydro-Quebec's electricity. The broken deal has delayed the dam for years; it may never be built, some analysts say.
Another example of Canadian natives' increasing prominence is Mercredi's stature. In March the Canadian government gave him a seat at the negotiating table during the most recent round of constitutional talks between provincial leaders.
His appearance in ceremonial headdress and a beaded, leather jacket on the March 16 cover of the national newsweekly MacLean's was followed by an Angus Reid Group poll that showed 58 percent of Canadians supporting the idea of native self-government.
"I simply can't imagine an Indian leader in the US having the same clout as Mercredi," says Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian. "He virtually functions as a head of state."
Mercredi and others say two events in the volatile summer of 1990 forced Canadians to face native issues. One was Cree legislator Elijah Harper's stand in the Manitoba legislature in June of that year, when he blocked a crucial ratification vote on the 1990 Meech Lake constitutional accord aimed at keeping Quebec in the Canadian federation. Mr. Harper objected that the accord did not address native concerns.
Then on July 11 a Quebec policeman was killed in a clash with a small group of Mohawks who had set up a roadblock at Oka, near Montreal. The shooting followed a standoff that had begun in March after Mohawks refused to permit construction of a golf course on a tribal cemetery.
Mohawks at the Kahnawake reserve a few miles distant reacted by setting up a barrier on the Mercier bridge - an access route to Montreal for thousands of commuters. The reaction was instant, with news crews, police, and federal troops lining up opposite the Mohawks for 49 days before the crisis was defused in August.
"I have no doubt that the crisis of 1990 brought to the forefront all the concerns that Indian people may have had, and it accelerated the inevitable," says Davis Rice, an elder on the Kahnawake Mohawk tribal council. "I think the federal government looked at this and said `Hey, we better take a more serious look at the problems in Indian country.' " Canadian fairness
"Canadians are reexamining themselves," AFN chief Mercredi says flatly. "I think Canadians have a sense of fairness, and they were shocked by what happened at Oka. Canadian people are seeing the extent to which Indian people feel aggrieved and the extent to which they are prepared to go to defend whatever rights we have."
Mr. Alfred, whose studies have focused on the political development of the Kahnawake reserve, says Oka was a seminal event. "For natives in Canada, it was a symbolic action.... It represented, number one, standing up to the Canadian government, [and] number two, taking action rather than relying on words or arguments. It represented a real change in the way natives in Canada vented their frustration."
Mercredi looks beyond Canada, however, and sees a global change in how natives and non-natives see each other.
"We're becoming a little more compassionate to each other," he said in a recent interview. "We're growing in spirituality that was absent for some time because of the preoccupation with materialism around the world."
Underlying his stand for native rights and self-government, Mercredi says, is a conviction that a broad shift is occurring in individual human attitudes within and without Canada. He sees a rising global sentiment embracing the rights of indigenous peoples along with such concerns as children's rights and the environment.
"It's really a question of identity," he says, his fingers pushed together. "Indigenous peoples are a family within the world community. This experiment we're getting involved in is good for all of us. It will require growth. But in the end, our people will have to come back to an original concept of themselves.
"Our search for wealth hasn't diminished poverty around the world either. So all this idea of economic development for the sake of economic development is losing ground, because people are seeing the results of that kind of destructive planning right in their neighborhood."
Mercredi smiles, then amplifies: "When I say spirituality I don't mean organized religion. I mean a sense of connectedness with the universe, with the world in general. You don't have to be a churchgoer to be a spiritual person. And you don't have to be a churchgoer to know what you have to do to help the human species to survive. This thinking is not something we grew up with, it's something that's evolving."
Though he does not believe Canada's Indian nations are part of the Canadian nation-state, Mercredi says the momentum building toward an acknowledgment in Canada of the native right to self-government will be a breakthrough. He worries now, however, that gains toward self-government made during constitutional talks could evaporate at the last moment - at least in the short term. But in the long run he says he is certain Canada must move forward on Indian rights.
"Nowhere in the world other than in Canada is there such a reconsideration of fundamental values," he says. "Now we have the potential to create a new nation-state that also recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples."