Chief Georges Erasmus National Chief, Assembly of First Nations
A FORK IN THE ROAD
Chairman: Harold Roberts President
"Canada's 700,000 native people must abandon nice-guy politics and become more militant in their struggle to have their rights and deed claims recognized. The time has come for native people to stand up and be counted--even if it means acts of civil disobedience." So said National Indian Chief Georges Erasmus in June of 1988.
Since Europeans first came to the North American continent the indigenous people have had to negotiate from a disadvantaged position; lacking power, technology and wealth.
While native Canadians have enjoyed better protection than, say, natives in Brazil or Iraq (the Kurds) most of the time their voice has been far from effective. True, they were consulted during the Mackenzie Pipeline debate and enquiry in the 1970s, but until 1982 when David Ahenakew successfully established the Assembly of First Nations there seemed to be no common voice.
In 1985 David Ahenakew was succeeded by Georges Erasmus, who claimed, "It's time for a change in this country (from the federal and provincial governments). But mostly we are tired because this country ignores us. We are tired of living with this constant rage because we are never recognized."
He has spent his life working on native and national issues, building consensus, opening doors, increasing the profile of native Canadians.
Born in Fort Rae N.W.T. in 1948, George Erasmus was secretary of the Band Council, Yellowknife, 1969-71. During that period he organized the Community Housing Association. He was a fieldworker with the Company of Young Canadians, becoming regional Staff Director in 1971. Also, from '71 to '75 he was Chairman of University Canadian North. He continued to work for many concerns both nationally and internationally and in 1986 went to Siberia with the Honourable David Crombie to study the economic conditions of the indigenous people living there. In 1987 he was appointed to the Order of Canada and in 1989 Queen's University made him a Doctor of Laws (lions).
Native Canadians have for years tried to challenge governments at all levels to grant rights that they perceive as fundamental "native rights"--hunger strikes for funding of post secondary education, sit-ins to reinforce their claims, fishing with larger than legal nets to challenge provincial laws that over-ride the rights of natives, Elijah Harper, blockades, and finally, last summer, the "stand-off" at Oka.
The events in Quebec and indeed across Canada this past summer have finally brought the "native issues" not only to national but to international attention. When the barricades came down, there was a commitment on the part of Canadians both in Government and out to hear the stories and to negotiate peacefully.
We see Chief Georges Erasmus' visit to The Empire Club of Canada today as part of that process and we welcome him.
Last summer, native people in this country took a very firm stand against the Meech Lake Accord. It was not a stand against Canada It was not a stand against Quebec.
We took a look at the Agreement, and as native people we found the Agreement wanting. We were going to put into the Canadian Constitution the concept that there were two fundamental characteristics of Canada that should be entrenched, embedded in the Constitution. It was following from the concept that there are two founding nations. And one of those was not the original native people. That was something we could not live with. We could not have further entrenched rights for other people in this country that would make us even less able to compete and try to protect our language and our culture. In Quebec, native people could not live with a situation where Quebec was being recognized as a distinct society and there was no ability for the native people there to be able to also protect and have their language and culture flourish. The balance was not there.
Ironically, the one place where native people are in the majority in this country, the North, where by sheer numbers we could govern a public government, there are no provinces. It's still a colony of Canada. Government is still from Ottawa. What was going to happen with the Meech Lake Accord was that the formula for creating provinces was going to require unanimous consent. All ten existing provinces were going to have to agree before a province could be created up there, when not one of the existing ten provinces had to consult another province before it was created. Totally unfair, probably racist. It was not a decision on our part to say no to the aspirations of Quebecers. What we were saying no to was to the vision of the Canada that was going to be created. We could not live with it.
When, after three years, we attempted to change the Accord, it was not possible to amend it. Even in the last weeks we were trying to change the Accord, and we had no problem with Quebec being a distinct society. In fact, I could have personally lived with much stronger language. We wanted to put in the Constitution that Quebec is a nation. I would have had no problems with it at all. What we were after was balance. We wanted to ensure that there was a proper distribution of power in this country. And I think there are a number of ways that that can happen.
For Westerners, we are tired of seeing central Canada completely control the agenda. We are tired of sending members to the House of Commons who virtually get lost because it doesn't matter what national party they are part of, once they start following the party line inevitably they're following the interests of central Canada.
So, for Westerners, the national institutions of Canada must be changed. The Senate has to be elected. It has to be more equal. It will allow smaller provinces, Westerners and Northerners more power over themselves. And in the First House, the House of Commons, we have to free up the members. The members must be able to follow their conscience, follow the wishes of the people that elect them. This will allow Westerners to have more control over their lives. It was absolutely unnecessary for people like David Kilgour to walk away from the party that he chose to run for, just so he could actually do what his people wanted him to do, and what the majority of Canadians wanted him to do, to vote against the GST.
So we must look at changes. The country need not be threatened if we have different political powers in different parts of this country. I'm married to a Newfoundlander. I have been going back and forth to Newfoundland for 15 years. And for the life of me, I don't understand why in 1949, when they decided to give up total sovereignty to become a province in this country, they gave up control of the off-shore and gave up control of fisheries. Fisheries are absolutely paramount to the character and culture of the people living in Newfoundland and Labrador. All you have to do is go to the Island and you'll find that the people living there live on the coast. There is virtually nothing in the inside. You can walk a hundred feet in from the shore and you'll start to walk into open forest. They must control fisheries. Canada will not fall apart if they control fisheries. Quebec, for decades, has felt they have not had enough control over themselves so they can assure themselves of the kind of self-determination that will guarantee that their culture, their language and their unique way of life will continue to flourish. They want more control over their lives. No reason why certain powers that perhaps are not necessary to British Columbia, to Ontario, are provided to Quebec. None at all.
We have come to a fork in the road, where if we are going to continue to be immersed in a status quo, we're just not going to be together very much longer. Or else we are going to be so disgruntled across this country, we're not going to be able to live with each other. We have the ability in this country to create a country that will be envied. We have the potential but we also have the potential to fragment and create many smaller states, and that's absolutely not necessary. What we have here is the ability to bring together two European peoples, complemented by cultures from all around the world, with an indigenous population that has been here for tens of thousands of years. We have the ability to create a culture that will be different from others because we will take from each other and we will give to each other, but we will not have to crush each other. We will not have to make beggars of any of us. We will not have to make people orphans from their culture.
The people that most need to be addressed this time around in addition to Northerners are the native people. We have been impoverished like no other people. We have been without power like no other people. The land that we provided to this country, over six million square miles of land, the majority of that we do not now control. Back in 1970, we had 10,000 square miles of land that comprised all of the Reserve Land in Canada It was 15/100 of 1 percent of the land base, the resource base that we had provided to this country. And people wonder why we're impoverished. People wonder why native people suffer and have high suicide rates, and have all of the other ills of a colonized, oppressed people.
We can be generous in this country. We have the potential to be generous. The people we should most have an open door policy for are the native people. We have done wonderful miracles with people that are fleeing their countries because of oppression. They come here, they've made a new life, and they can forget their past, and they have a bright future for their children. This is considered the land of liberty for most people leaving oppression elsewhere, because their land has been taken away, because they don't have freedoms there. Well the nightmare that you've created for indigenous people here is something we could never, ever have imagined.
The interesting thing is how little you borrow from the United States in this particular area. You borrow from the United States virtually in everything else, except this. You could take those 10,000 square miles of land, and put that on one of the twelve Sioux reserves and it would disappear and there would still be more land. You have impoverished the native people so much here, that ranches, golf courses, far exceed the size of many of our reserves. Most of our reserves are so small, we don't have enough land for more subdivisions for our homes. That has to change. The other way that you have not followed the example of United States, is in the area of recognizing the sovereign rights, the governmental rights, that native people have continued to enjoy.
This country was not settled like United States. l'm a Dene. No conquering army came to the Dene and defeated us. No conquering army came to the Mohawks and defeated them, or any other of the people across this country. We willingly, consciously with our eyes open, thought we had enough resources. Being a peaceful people we arrived at an agreement that provided for our institutions to continue on part of our land and for the institutions of the people coming in to also be placed on our lands. Never in our worst nightmares, did we ever imagine what was going to take place. That for nearly 100 years, from 1867 until 1960, we would be so limited in our activity that we would need passes to get off reserves. We couldn't own businesses. We couldn't run for office. We couldn't vote. We never reached the age of majority. We weren't human beings really. The kind of apologies that native people have watched being provided to other people has been kind of a joke. We provided our support to most of those people, whether it was the Japanese or others, who were seeking apologies. We're still waiting. We're still waiting for someone to tell us that they apologize for what has happened, what is happening, and how it will never happen again.
The government of the United States has recognized that native people continue to enjoy a large degree of their original sovereignty. They have tribal courts, they have tribal governments that have control over their lives. It's not perfect, but when you compare it to Canada, it is light years ahead. Here in Canada, when we sit down with government, and we say that we have the continuing right to govern ourselves, we are met with stares as if we have come from Mars. The first thing they ask is, "What do you mean? Your sovereignty is gone." When we come back to them and say, 'Tell us when it happened, what night, what day, 1867? 1990? When? Did it happen at midnight sometime when we were all asleep?" That's not how this country was settled. This country was settled because native people were prepared to be generous with their lands because we thought it was possible for us to live peacefully side by side.
So now what we want, is we want to put in place, once again, our institutions so that we will make decisions for ourselves. So that we will shoulder the responsibility of whether or not an education system is relevant for our people. We're not going to be satisfied with being provided with school boards that fall under someone else's jurisdiction, that fall under someone else's legislation. We're not going to be satisfied with putting native people on school boards and hiring teachers and using someone else's curriculum and someone else's legislation. We're not going to be satisfied with taking over child care services, social services that belong to somebody else, somebody else's legislation. We want to make our own laws. And we're not talking about municipal governments. Obviously, we have many communities in this country and we have to have municipal governments, but, what we are talking about is, as collectives, as nations, we must have, like Quebec, like Newfoundland, the kind of powers, that are typically enjoyed by provinces that are free-standing.
We don't want an override from the federal government. We want an end to the Indian Act. We want an end to the Department of Indian Affairs. And we want constitutional and legislative change that recognizes fully what the treaties were all about and clearly recognizes that there are in Canada and there have been for a long time, three forms of government--the federal, the provincial, and that of the First Nations. And one of those powers that we will be seeking from the federal government has to be fisheries. in the same way in which it's integral to the character of marine people like Newfoundlanders, Nova Scotians and so forth, to control the fishery, it is absolutely fundamental that aboriginal people control the environment, fisheries, game and the things that happen on our lands.
We see a time, if this works out, when native people will again control a large percentage of their original lands. No one is trying to go back No one is trying to turn any clock back We have no intention of making any attempt at that. But, we do want to nurture and to revitalize our culture. We know we cannot govern all of the land that we used to govern. We realize in real politics that we are the minority population in a country that has 26/27 million people. So we are more than prepared to be practical. We think it is only just that with so few people living in Canada, with all of the land, all of the resources we have, that rather than having the open forests that you have, a large portion, negotiable portion, is back in the hands of native people so that we can have some control over our lives. So that we can create a revenue base that will allow us to have some dignity, a revenue base that will allow us to pay our own way, so that we are not always beggars in our own land, and watching people from everywhere else get rich on our resources.
That's got to end. All across this country, people have been painfully, quietly, putting up with atrocities that should never have happened. Whether it was residential schools where you could not speak your language and where virtually every value of your culture was being negated, or seeing your land being used by corporations from abroad, stripping your resources, shipping them out of the country and jobs with it, and nothing being returned to you.
Patience is coming to an end. The internal suffering is just so great, the loss of life amongst our young people, the internal alcoholism, the glue sniffing, the wife beating, child neglect, all of the social disorders of an oppressed people. Our frustration, our hurt, our pain, our anger, our hate, is forced inside. It cannot go on any longer. Imagine it, like a pot on a burner that is burning on high constantly and you think, well, there's still some water in the bottom, there's still some water in the pot.
The time is here. We must now be sincere. Native people are not a threat to this country. We are not a threat to the sovereignty of Canada. We actually want to reinforce the sovereignty of Canada. We want to walk away from the negotiating table with an agreement that Canada feels good about and native people feel good about, where we can say that we have strengthened the sovereignty of Canada. So not only will Canada talk about how the Crown brought a version of sovereignty here, based in one family that continues to have it forever and ever and ever, but in addition to the original sovereignty, the sovereignty of the people that were here for tens of thousands of years is now also another source of the sovereignty for Canada.
So we're not a threat. We are only a threat if we continue to be ignored and taken lightly. We are only a threat if people don't understand that it is impossible for people to maintain the frustration level without the kind of actions that we've seen this summer. That could have happened anywhere. That could have happened on just about any reserve at some point in a given time. We have situations all across this country where reserves have shrunk, where we have land that has never been negotiated. Ottawa is sitting on Algonquin territory that has never been ceded. And yet we were told, over and over this summer, law and order, law and order. Well, as far as we know, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 stated very clearly, that Tribal Lands in the Americas were not supposed to be developed or harvested until the treaty process was complete, and that is still on the books today.
When we patriated the BNA Act, the Royal Proclamation was intact, and is reaffirmed. So that means that in the Arctic development shouldn't be going ahead and in Labrador, large parts of Quebec, British Columbia, the Atlantic, ironically, parts of Ontario development shouldn't be going ahead. But that's not what's happening. I come from one of those areas. The land is being used as if the native people have already ceded the land to Canada and we're not directly benefiting from it. So those things must be dealt with earnestly. It is not good enough any more to have pious statements that one day, we will deal with these things. The time has to be now. We've got to be serious. The Prime Minister must, in a Speech from the Throne, clarify the promises he made on September 25th. And part of that has to be a process to truly recognize the self-government of native people.
The promises that were being made to the Mohawks were empty. They were told as soon as the guns were put down, the sovereignty of the Mohawks would be directly negotiated. That's not happening at all, and there is no process anywhere in the country to look at how Canada can accommodate the native people and their original sovereignty. That must take place.
We envisage a different Canada. We envisage a Canada where there will clearly be land being governed by native people. And if you enter that land, it will be like entering another political entity. It will be like driving from Saskatchewan to Alberta, and now you are under Alberta's laws and regulations. It will be like that when you enter First Nation governmental soil. It will not have to be a threat. It will not have to be the breakup of Canada. It is not what we envisage at all.
We also envisage ways in which the institutions of native people would complement the institutions of Canada. We want our own justice system. We want to suggest ways to improve the Canadian justice system, but we want our own justice system. And we expect, like the United States again, that there will be much that we will have as our own area of competence. Our final appeal will be a native court system. But, also like the United States, we expect that many matters, particularly those matters that will affect both native people and non-native people, will go to the Supreme Court of Canada as the final Appeal Court. So we definitely see a way to complement Canada. We're not trying to get out of Confederation. We never were a part of it. We're still knocking on the door. Let's hope we get a wonderful reception when the door is open. Thank you.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Dr. Reginald Stackhouse, President, Stackhouse Consulting Incorporated; Member, Canadian Human Rights Commission; Author and a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.