You could cut the tension with a knife during the closing speeches at a conference in Montreal on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Only one Native person, Ovide Mercredi, was on the panel addressing the standing-room-only crowd at McGill University. Before Mercredi, the 700 delegates listened to a Quebec professor and author, Louis Balthazar, argue that Quebec has the same demands as Native people and has treated them better than the rest of Canada.
Then came a speech by Toronto journalist Andrew Coyne which hushed the crowd. Coyne launched a scathing attack on the Royal Commission’s report.
“The report is nothing less than a fundamental departure from liberal-democratic values, or what are called elsewhere in the world fundamental human values,” he said.
Coyne said he couldn’t “accept the notion of collective guilt or trans-generational guilt,” or the principles of “nation-to-nation negotiations, treaties, reparations, apologies, much less a separate House of Commons (for Native people).”
He called the report “a retreat into cultural and ethnic homogeneity and segregation,” and “a retreat into a traditional culture that is ill-suited to the demands of an industrial economy.”
Coyne, who writes a column in several newspapers, attacked the idea that “whoever is angriest wins.” What’s next, he asked. A separate House of Commons for women?
As Coyne retreated to his chair, several people in the crowd cried, “Shame!” Mercredi’s voice was shaking as he rose to speak next. “You had a chance for 126 years to show your rights would benefit my people and they did not,” he said to loud applause from the audience. “Whoever’s angriest wins? Have you seen my people win anything recently? Are our languages being protected? Are we getting our lands back?
“I don’t have any difficulty with racial government. I see it every day when I go to the Supreme Court to fight a case. They do it in English or French. They don’t do it in my language. I see it every day when I turn on the TV and see the debates in the House of Commons. I think these institutions are racially based. You just go ask the Scottish and Irish people about those institutions,” said the Assembly of First Nations leader.
“The future for our people, I’m sad to say, is going to be resisted at every turn,” he continued. “Canada is rated by the United Nations as the richest country in the world. But the Native people I represent don’t see it that way. The wealth is not being shared with them and the people of this country don’t give a damn.
“I’m a mild-mannered man most times, but there are certain times it doesn’t pay to be mild-mannered. I’m going to follow the advice of the last speaker—the angriest people win—and say if Natives want to be heard, we have to make some noise. Let’s not be ashamed to express our anger.”
Mercredi reminded the audience that the Royal Commission was created because of the Oka Crisis, and that the potential for similar problems has not gone away. He called on Ottawa to live up to its promise to hold a conference on Native issues with First Nations representatives and the provincial premiers.