The 29th of June marks the ‘National Day of Action’ for Aboriginal people across Canada. Prominent Native leaders are fed up with the progress of land claims talks at the federal level and the overall abhorrent conditions of Aboriginal reserves and communities, and they want the rest of the country to take notice.
One of the ways Aboriginal leaders and their communities hope to force the Canadian government’s hand is by blocking strategic points that will hurt the economic flow of the country, such as railway lines.
Chief Terrance Nelson of the Roseau River band in Manitoba said he is fed up with what he says is the theft of his people’s natural resources.
“I’ve been trying to get people to realize the extent to which the resources are leaving the country,” said Chief Nelson. “June 29th is not simply a railway blockade. It is a visible and dramatic way to put a stop to the white people stealing our resources. That’s what it’s all about.”
Nelson told the Nation that similar actions were planned last year, but when newly-appointed Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice pleaded for more time to get acquainted with the Aboriginal claims, they decided to act in good faith and postpone it to this year. Enough time has past, however, and Prentice still has not dealt with the backlog of land claims, that are believed to total over 800 and there are some that date back a hundred years or more.
“What we’re saying is Canada has a Gross Domestic Product of over $1 trillion a year,” said Chief Nelson. “They haven’t settled the treaty issue over who has the rights to the resources they’re selling. We tell them ‘you cannot have full benefit over all our lands and resources and expect us to sit by and watch the trains go by filled with our resources. It’s pretty damn clear what the message is,” he said.
“If it was effective to hand out pamphlets on the side of the road that’s what we be doing, but it’s not,” he continued. “There is no leverage on Canada to say ‘you have to deal with the issue.’ Now we are starting to look at what we can do to stop the resources from flowing so that the Canadian government comes to the table.”“The question of who owns the resources is still up in the air. The Supreme Court of Canada has made decisions on the inability to consult the Indigenous peoples when the companies or the federal or provincial government ignored the law. So all these resources are flowing out of the country,” he said.
Nelson said that his people are not asking for anything special, in fact the money given out each year to Aboriginals by the government is a pittance compared to the large numbers the country gains from natural resource extraction on Aboriginal land.
“We’re getting pissed off and we’re saying ‘look guys, we do not live off the good graces of the Canadian taxpayer. We’re telling the Canadian government ‘keep your money, keep your funding and your $9 billion, we want a share of our own wealth.”“It’s not about provincial or federal revenues. It’s about industry and who’s getting the benefits of the resources while the treaties have not been honoured. We don’t need any Canadian government funding. What we need is a share of our own resource wealth and the wealth of our land,” said Nelson.
Grand Council of the Crees Grand Chief Matthew Mukash was supportive of the idea, but says that his leadership cannot risk getting involved because of sensitive talks that are soon to be finalized over Canada’s economic responsibilities under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
“The Grand Council has decided we’re not going to participate in the protest because we’re coming very close to concluding a deal that has been under negotiations for a long time,” said Mukash. “We want to be careful not to upset the government.”
Although Mukash has had his fair share of fights in the past, including the fight for the Great Whale River in 1990, he thinks the Cree position would be better served as observers who support the cause.
“Sometimes it takes an action like that by any group to focus attention on the issues that they want to promote,” said Chief Mukash. “Sometimes it takes attention from the public for governments to respond. Hopefully this protest will serve that purpose. We are just hoping that people won’t get hurt in the process. We’ll watch it and see how it goes.”“It’s understandable that the Aboriginal people of Canada are upset about the status of land claims in Canada,” he said. “It’s been ongoing for centuries. There is a time to take action and to try to get the government to improve the way they handle claims of Aboriginal people here in Canada. I personally hope that whatever happens will bring forth something positive. I hope the government is going to listen.”
National Chief Phil Fontaine was adamant that something needs to be done to address the plethora of problems suffered under the deplorable third-world conditions on Native reserves, but he cautioned those who are looking to throw violence into the mix.
“We haven’t finalized our plan, but we expect there will be some good things happening in different parts of the country,” said the National Chief.
“In Ottawa we’re looking to have a pretty major gathering that will be focused on telling our story to Canadians. That’s what the National Day of Action is, reaching out to Canadians. We want them to be more aware and more knowledgeable of First Nations issues. We’re looking for support from Canadians.”
He also mentioned that in the past, the government has responded to other tactics, such as using the court system to advance Aboriginal rights and entitlement.
“We will continue our negotiations with governments, always hopeful that we will achieve success in the way that we did with the residential school settlement agreement,” said Fontaine.
“That was negotiations coupled with court action. It was a pretty aggressive step to be taken, but we took it and we achieved huge success. It’s the largest settlement in Canadian history.”
Fontaine warned that not all the issues presented would be miraculously resolved on June 29th, but hitting the Canadian public through an economic slow down is definitely a step in the right direction.
“I think people are nervous and anxious,” he said.
“What has captured the attention of Canadians are blockades. The National Day of Action was never about blockades, it’s about the public education and information of Canadians. At the same time it would be wrong for us to suggest that our people don’t have a right to demonstrate or to engage in civil disobedience or to protest.”
A common misunderstanding of Aboriginals and their plight sometimes portrays Natives as greedy and not willing to compromise. But negotiation through strikes or economic sanctions is something the country’s First Peoples have learned from Canadians and powerful labour unions.
“All Canadians have freedom of speech,” he said. “That might include peaceful demonstrations and protests,” said Fontaine, who alluded to the transit strike in Montreal, the CN workers strike and the farmers demonstration in Ottawa as proof that it is not only Aboriginal peoples who have to resort to these tactics.
“We can’t control the actions of individuals, but that’s not to suggest that I wish that (violence) to be the outcome. Of course not. But you can’t ignore history and outcomes from past actions. Oka (crisis) brought us the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the creation of a specific claims body.”
Besides, he stressed, we all live in this country together.
“If we improved our lot as First Nations people, Canada as a country will improve. What’s good for us is good for Canada.”