The aftermath of Oka: Indians learn new lessons on the barricades

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The aftermath of Oka

Indians learn new lessons on the barricades

Until this year, any group of Canadian natives holding a news conference in Ottawa was fortunate to attract even a handful of journalists. And, although the reporters asked questions and politely took notes, they usually paid little attention to the issues involved and seldom wrote stories. Then, last week, two months after Manitoba Cree MLA Elijah Harper played a central role in the death of the Meech Lake constitutional accord and seven weeks after Mohawk Indians began their blockades of the Quebec hamlet of Oka and a Montreal bridge, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations called a media briefing at the group’s Ottawa office. Georges Erasmus had no specific announcement to make. In fact, he cautioned reporters in advance that they would hear nothing more than a lecture on the history of native grievances. To his astonishment, more than 30 journalists showed up.

Their interest was a measure of the new influence that native concerns have won on the public agenda. Much of that stature can be traced directly to the native blockade of Oka. As attempts to resolve that standoff again faltered last week, senior federal and provincial politicians and bureaucrats alike were scrambling to devise new responses to the demands of native groups across Canada. And although Indian Affairs Minister Thomas Siddon continued to insist that he would not negotiate “at the point of a gun,” it was clear that Ottawa’s actions were aimed at stifling further native unrest–and at limiting the political damage to an already gravely shaken government.

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At the same time, Indians were also looking beyond Oka. For many of them, the Mohawks had become a potent example. Native groups across Canada who early in the Oka standoff threw up roadblocks in support of the Mohawk Warriors had, by last week, begun to erect barricades to further their own demands. And some of them said that the tactics of confrontation played out at Oka and the Mercier Bridge offered their people a last chance to escape decades of poverty, social disintegration and despair. “If we don’t do anything in the Nineties,” said Regina Crowchild, president of the Indian Association of Alberta, “we will be finished. Our leaders will have gone and our younger generation will be lost.”

For their part, the federal Conservatives faced a more immediate task. Said one senior official at the department of Indian affairs and northern development: “The government’s handling of the Oka situation has been a public relations disaster.” By last week, however, he and other senior Siddon aides were hastily assembling the outlines of what they termed a “good news” offensive that the Tories plan to launch in the fall. One early initiative will take place within weeks, when Siddon is expected to sign a federal-provincial agreement with his B.C. counterpart to jointly negotiate 17 comprehensive native land claims in the province.

Meanwhile, Maclean’s has learned that Siddon plans to seek quick approval from cabinet to eradicate a long-standing irritant to native groups. For decades, successive federal negotiators have insisted that Prairie Indian bands claiming additional land are entitled to base their claims only on the size of their populations when the lands in dispute were first surveyed. For their part, Indian bands have insisted that they now need enough additional land to support their larger present-day populations. Siddon will ask his cabinet colleagues to endorse the Indian position–at a likely cost of tens of millions of dollars. Although negotiations on that and other issues have been under way for years, senior officials acknowledge that they are now under pressure to complete them in time for announcement shortly after the resumption of Parliament on Sept. 24.

Whatever the final outcome at the barricades of Oka, Canada’s Indians are clearly at a crossroads. They must choose between adopting the radical militancy of the heavily armed, unflinching Mohawk Warriors or the patience-testing road of compromise and negotiation. But either way, native leaders predict that their people will emerge from the Oka crisis with renewed energies.

Some groups plainly find the Mohawks’ use of force compelling. Moderate native leaders in Nova Scotia expressed the fears of many last week when they voiced concern that a growing controversy over Micmac hunting and fishing rights, upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1985 but often disregarded, is leading some Indians in that province to form their own Warrior-like society. Noting that some Nova Scotia Micmacs have gone to Oka in a show of solidarity–and to pick up tips from the Warriors at first hand–Sulian Herney, a native activist from Cape Breton’s Eskasoni reserve, observed, “We are going to have to handle the situation with kid gloves.”

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At the very least, most native leaders say that the heated Indian summer of 1990 has dramatically advanced the public perception of native issues and served as a rallying point for a normally fractious community. There have been exceptions to that newfound solidarity: Chief Louis Stevenson of the Peguis reserve, 200 km north of Winnipeg, broke rank last week and called on native groups to dismantle their barricades in the face of growing disenchantment with the confrontations among non-native Canadians. But for the most part, increasingly restless native communities eyed anxious governments, as each warily awaited the other’s next move.

PHOTO : Erasmus: the crisis has given Canadian Indians new energy to pursue their goals

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