Racism, First Nations, and the Constitution

By Tony Hall | 1991-03-01 12:00:00

Masked Mohawk Warrior locked in steely gaze with iron-faced Canadian soldier. The shocking TV images out of Oka and Kahnewake blazed nightly into the bewildered eyes of a disbelieving audience.

The aroused passions were by and large contained. Discipline and restraint were the overriding stories in 1990 from the bizarre Indian summer. The Mohawk warriors, heavily armed and often well trained, in the end held back their fire. Hundreds of young men in the Canadian Army, while not without their own belligerents, accepted similar constraints. Even the feared Sureté du Québec, who have failed to account properly for the appalling decision to employ such brutal force in the original assault on the Oka barricades, avoided the ultimate vengeful response to the tragic loss of one of their own.

The reaction of Native people throughout Canada to the confrontation was primarily characterized by the peacefulness of protest demonstrations. While isolated acts of destruction did take place, the prevailing thrust of the activism had more in common with the tactics of Gandhi or Martin Luther King than with those of Che Guevara. For the time being, the Canadian preference for moderation withstood stupendous failures of leadership at the highest level.

Perhaps the most marked exceptions to the story of constraint turned up in the non-Indian population. As Mohawk elders, women, and children left their besieged reserve of Kahnawake, dozens of residents of Chateaugauy and Lasalle savagely threw stones at the escaping vehicles in full view of provincial police officers.

A chilling spectacle unfolded a few days later across the country in Provost, Alberta. Hooded clansmen and swastika-bearing White supremacists openly celebrated their racist creed. they burned crosses, gleefully fired their weapons and shouted their bigoted slogans in full view of the TV cameras.

While the rock throwing in Québec and the white supremacist demonstrations in Alberta mark political extremes, it is difficult to see these incidents as totally unconnected to more broadly based political movements. Alberta and Quebec, the two bastions of the Mulroney mandate, have more and more become political mirror images. Both are home to the mobilized forces of militant unilingualism. Both are hosts to powerful political constituencies who lead the way in the perception that the federal authority in Ottawa is heavily repressive.

The Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois have become primary recipients of this growing wave of anti-Ottawa zeal. While stressing the need for greater regional autonomy, the adherents of both movements often show corresponding impatience with the special need of racial and linguistic minorities in their midst. Both tend to provide a political home for bigotry and xenophobia.

It was especially interesting, therefore, to watch the reaction of the leadership of the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois to those most provocative displays of racial hatred that marked the dangerous summer of 1990. Rather than distancing themselves from the lunatic fringes of the movements they represent, the leading proponents of western alienation and Quebec's sovereignty avoided loud condemnation of the ugly spectacles.

The politics of aboriginality can enhance the politics of federalism. The interests of aboriginal people have always been more aligned with the interest of the central government than those of the states or provinces. In the United States in the nineteenth century, for instance, Georgia's assertion of state rights forced Cherokee relocation just as the state's assertiveness opened land for cotton cultivated by slave. This illegal assertion of States' rights was in direct contravention of a ruling of the U.S. Supreme court. The court's ruling recognized Indian tribes as domestic dependent nations.

Similarly in Canada provincial governments have historically been at the cutting edge of Indian dispossession. With this pattern in mind the imperial authorities specifically charged the federal government with the constitutional duty to protect the Aboriginal interest in Canada. The record of federal authorities as protectors of Aboriginal people, of course, has been far from satisfactory. The defense of Aboriginal interest has simply lacked the political advantage which federal politicians can sometimes acquire by pandering to provincial authorities.

By assuming its responsibility to defend the land, resource and other interests of Aboriginal people against provincial encroachment, the federal government would be acting consistently with a broader duty to safeguard the rights of various sorts of minorities against the electoral force of dominant groups in Canada's regions. From the legalized oppression of Canadians of Asian background in British Columbia to the effort of the government of Québec to quash the Jehovah's Witnesses, this country's history shows that there is sometimes a need for federal government to intervene in provincial affairs as a champion of human rights. The need is suggested even more starkly by a glance at the experience of the United States, where states' rights have been equated with Indian dispossession, slavery and racial segregation in the South.

When the federal authority fails to fulfill its obligation to uphold the constitutionally-entrenched provision of Aboriginal and treaty rights, chaos almost certainly results. Inevitably native groups will defend their dwindling resources. And just as inevitably they will meet the resistance of police . A dangerous cycle of violence will have been set in motion as unaddressed disputes over land and jurisdiction ignite into open confrontation.

By embracing Indian treaties as living agreements that give depth to the Aboriginal-federal aspect of federalism, Canadians will be reclaiming an important dimension of this country's constitutional heritage. This is the single phase of national development that stands opposed to the notion that this country was built in the theft and pillage of other people's resources. Canadians will embrace an aspect of our constitutional heritage that places aboriginal groups more on a footing of equality in negotiations with federal and provincial officials.

What kind of country would we bequeath to posterity by creating a social order on the corpses of extinguished aboriginal societies? By moving in the opposite direction-by entrenching, for instance, permanent places for representatives of aboriginal societies in this country's major institutions-Canada could show that it is rooted in a history that runs back thousands of years.

Tony Hall is the Western President of the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples and a Associate Professor of Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991, page 23. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Tony Hall here

Peace Magazine homepage