By Michael Harris
Mar 21, 2013
Brace yourself for the Indian Wars, Stephen Harper style.
This federal government doesn’t give a flying fornication about indigenous issues, and the way the stars are lining up, there will be a price to pay for their disdain.
The Indian Wars of history were actually comprised of 40 major military actions against American aboriginals under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Dropping the John Wayne factor from the chronicle, they amounted to a continental eviction notice. It was served on indigenous peoples by wave after wave of European settlers and squatters backed up by the U.S. Cavalry.
In those days, south-side, the gun-to-the-head choices facing indigenous peoples were assimilation, forced relocation to reservations, flight or resistance. Manifest Destiny was the rallying cry to justify the serial massacres designed to convince American Indians to voluntarily exchange their land for treaties that often proved worthless. Sadly, Hollywood and the cowboys got to write the history.
Today, the chief weapon used against aboriginals in Canada is not the repeating rifle or canon. It is the poisoned word innocuously inserted into complex agreements. It is the poisoned image of a people retailed by a federal government interested in only one thing — jump-starting resource development on native land with minimum interference from the owners.
Ironically, the choices facing Canada’s indigenous peoples are not much different than the ones that led the Cherokee Nation down the Trail of Tears, where 60,000 of them died on the way to Oklahoma: assimilation, the reserve, flight or resistance. The economy has now replaced Manifest Destiny as the justification, but the endgame is the same — take what belongs to someone else by diminishing them and their rights as much as possible. The easiest victims of this slow, smothering approach are the ones who are the most trusting.
Even the credulous Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, must now understand the extent to which he has been taken in by the prime minister — and the growing distance between the misplaced passivity of the native leadership and the skepticism and activism of the grassroots Idle No More movement.
Not consulted on the PM’s appointment of the so-called ‘envoy‘ on native affairs, unaware of sneaky changes to the contribution agreements bands sign each year with Ottawa, and still wondering when all those high-level “transformative” meetings will take place, Atleo has been contemptuously tossed aside by his Tory friends.
To his credit, he has begun to speak up. Chief Atleo has asked that First Nations be consulted on any changes to the contribution agreements. Good luck. He has also demanded that Ottawa rescind changes to this year’s agreements, which the government has disingenuously referred to as merely “administrative.” The fact is, they could be interpreted as seriously diminishing indigenous and treaty rights, which is precisely why they were made. If the PM runs true to form, Atleo will simply be ignored.
Someone should tell the masters of the universe in Aboriginal Affairs that Canada’s indigenous people no longer conduct their commerce in beads and pelts, and that their educations go well beyond the diplomas in terror and suffering they got at the residential schools.
Brilliant minds familiar with the native community, people like Wilton Littlechild and Constance Backhouse, have been carefully tracking the federal government’s insidious changes to the language of the contribution agreements. They have written that the federal Justice Department has been experimenting for some time with “replacing the clear non-derogation language with many weaker versions.”
It is very wise of keen observers like Littlechild and Backhouse, and small online outfits like the Wabanaki Press, to watch and report on what justice department lawyers are doing at the government’s behest. After all, Stephen Harper doesn’t give his word, he gives wording. Every word of every sentence of Harper legislation must be parsed.
Even the credulous Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, must now understand the extent to which he has been taken in by the prime minister.
Stephen Harper is not the only prime minister who has tried to outfox indigenous peoples. But as noted in the blog apihtawikosisan, the Harper government is the first to slip a new law onto the agenda, Bill S-8, that actually has an active derogation clause.
It is the most obvious evidence to date that Ottawa is seeking to get around Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982, which offers protection for aboriginal and treaty rights. As the Cree-speaking Metis blogger notes, “the proposed law explicitly states that aboriginal and treaty rights deemed to be in conflict with the law’s stated intention will not be respected. And for the first time, a new law would contradict promises made to aboriginal peoples in treaties as to the interpretive primacy of those treaties.”
What better place to subtly undermine indigenous rights than the very agreements through which Canada’s 600 bands are funded? As reported by Olesia Plokhii in iPolitics, some experts think the Harper government is playing “a game of fiscal extortion and tantamount to nothing less than economic terrorism.”
Though some in the government may see bringing communities like Burnt Church to its knees as a success, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, it has forcibly reminded moderate First Nations peoples that this federal government is not their friend. Cooperation means capitulation and bending to the status quo. Harper is well on his way to radicalizing the First Nations communities across the country.
When a minister like Tony Clement talks about the “once in a lifetime” opportunity to develop the resources of the Ring of Fire in Ontario, he is not talking about fifty years hence — he’s talking about right now. Bottom line? The federal government plans major resource developments long before the ink is dry on any land claims agreements. Every indigenous person in the country knows what that means. With $650 billion worth of resource development looming across the country, it’s now or never when it comes to making their case for inclusion.
Given the Harper government’s blindness to both aboriginals and the environment, how do the First Nations peoples fight back? The media used to be available to them, but many indigenous people are convinced that even the press has become antagonistic, if not occasionally racist. The proof they offer is the appalling treatment meted out to Chief Theresa Spence during the recent Idle No More actions in Ottawa.
That leaves the courts and the streets. The courts have been heroically just in holding governments to the honour of the Crown but famously, and perhaps necessarily, slow. With huge political decisions looming in the short term, including Northern Gateway, mining activities in northern Ontario and offshore drilling in the waters off 34 reserves in Atlantic Canada, that leaves the streets.
And here is the dilemma with that option. Protests are getting to be tricky business. They often involve prior approval, permits, notification of time periods, fees, the imposition of liability insurance on protesters, not to mention infiltration by security agencies, police surveillance and intrusive searches.
The received wisdom these days in government circles seems to be that no protest is peaceful unless it also utterly pointless. Judges in both Manitoba and Ontario have recently granted injunctions against the blocking of roads by native protesters. An Ontario judge, Robert Riopelle, said police charges were warranted against members of the Attawapiskat band for blocking the ice road into De Beer’s Victor diamond mine. Again, the Ontario Provincial Police wisely kept their powder dry.
Protesting has become such an endangered activity that the Human Rights Council of the United Nations is about to hold a special debate on the subject. It already has received nine submissions, including one from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, on protecting the right to social protest as a fundamental democratic freedom.
So here it is: if the government isn’t responsive to native issues, the mass media is unfavourably disposed, the courts are slow, and the right to protest is under pressure — and against all that there is also a resource development juggernaut bearing down on First Nations territory — should anyone be surprised if the earth moves this summer?
No one can say they didn’t see it coming.
Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His eight books include Justice Denied, Unholy Orders, Rare ambition, Lament for an Ocean, and Con Game. His work has sparked four commissions of inquiry, and three of his books have been made into movies. He is currently working on a book about the Harper majority government to be published in the autumn of 2014 by Penguin Canada.
Readers can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.