1996 Mahatma Gandhi Lecture on Nonviolence,

Centre for Peace Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

 

 

NONVIOLENCE AND SELF‑DETERMINATION:
A FIRST NATIONS IMPERATIVE

 

Ovide Mercredi

 

 

Negotiator, activist, lawyer, believer in the Gandhian approach to political activism, Ovide Mercredi has been actively involved in constitutional law and Aboriginal constitutional reform issues since 1983.  He provided three years of leadership and technical advice in respect of the Five Nations opposition to the Meech Lake Accord.  He was elected National Chief if the Assembly of the First Nations in 1991, and was elected to a second term in 1994.  He also led the First Nations delegation during the Charlottetown Constitutional discussions.

 

Chief Mercredi is the co-author, with Mary Ellen Turpel, if  In the Rapids – Navigating the Future of First Nations people in Canada,  Chief Mercredi's lifelong fascination with Gandhi’s philosophy of peace and nonviolence led him to India in 195 to explore firsthand the legacy of the Mahatma's teachings.

Presented at McMaster University, Canada, February 6, 1997

Ovide Mercredi

Inaugural Mahatma Gandhi Lecture on Nonviolence

Centre for Peace Studies

McMaster University

 

I want to begin by thanking Arvol Looking Horse for his song.  He is a traditional man who carries a lot of responsibility for the Lakota people.  His people are helping indigenous peoples in Canada a great deal with the revival of indigenous spiritual thought.  And I want to thank President Peter George (I thought only Indians had two first names!  Maybe the missionaries got to him too!) for his introduction. 

 

I'm going to talk about two imperatives for First Nations in Canada, two things that are essential for their advancement and their well-being.  The first is self‑determination and the second is nonviolence. 

 

"Self‑determination" is not our word, but in our own languages there arc equivalents.  So, for example, in Cree we say [insert Cree word], which can mean anything from self‑responsibility to self‑rule, depending on the context.  If a child were to approach its mother for direction the mother might say Tipaynimisowin, which would simply mean: A You also have self‑responsibility.@ So self‑responsibility in the Cree language is self‑determination in your language.  The problem is that self‑determination has been given particular political meanings in your language.  For example, Quebec is now arguing that self‑determination includes the right to secede, and there's going to be a big debate in the Supreme Court as to whether or not, in international law, self‑determination includes the right to secede.  Meanwhile, what's being said in some circles of government, and also in the populace, particularly in Quebec, is that the First Nations may have the right to self‑determination but they don't have the right to secede.  I wonder why?   Who made this rule?

 

Our self‑determination as a people has to be exercised in accordance with our beliefs as to what it means for us, but in your society we face nothing but pressure to conform, pressure to assimilate to your political thought, to your legal system, to your society.  All the laws that are passed by your parliament that directly affect my people, and all the policies that are enacted by the various departments of the Government of Canada or the provinces, are designed not to enhance the interests and the rights of the First Nations but to narrow them as much as possible so that the federal government and the provinces retain the power over lands and resources.  So our experience has always been that when we try to affirm our self‑determination we run into obstacles.  And the biggest obstacle is the law.

 

The instrument that has been used by the government to insure that they define our right to self‑determination has been the Indian Act.  The Indian Act, for instance, defines who is an Indian.  One of the basic powers or rights involved in self‑determination is to define your own citizenship, your own membership.  But somehow, when it came to First Nations' peoples in this country, someone in the House of Commons decided the power and the right belonged to them.  The Indian Act has also been used by the Parliament of Canada to further restrict our people's right to govern their own affairs.  The Act has given that power to the Minister of Indian Affairs and his bureaucrats.  While the Canadian people are enjoying democratic rights to government, the Indian people are essentially living in a totalitarian regime.  The Indian Act defines what powers we have to make laws‑or rather, what powers we have to make by‑laws.  (A by‑law is something your Mayor or municipal government makes.) For us, as Indian people, self‑ determination is restricted by your parliament so that all we can do is make by‑laws‑rules about dogs in our communities, for example.  Maybe we are given a few other little powers that are not even as extensive as the City of Hamilton's power to make by‑laws.  And the thinking in your society is that unless something is specified in a law, it doesn't exist.  So our inherent right to govern ourselves is interpreted as government delegated to us by parliament.

 

I don't know who told the white parliament that they have this power.  We didn't give it to them and we still say they don't have it.  They just exercise it because they believe they have the right to do it.  Self-determination does not mean being subordinate to another government.  It does not mean having an inferior power to make laws or to make decisions affecting your community and your society.  So the people that I represent believe that as long as we stay in the present legal framework, which is the Constitution of Canada and which recognizes only two sovereign powers ‑ the provinces and the federal government ‑ we will always be controlled by your governments.  No one can argue that living under this control is self‑ determination.  No one can say that your people have an inherent right to govern us.  This is dominance; this is control of another people.  And the fight we have been involved in is about trying to obtain our freedom, which is to say, self‑determination.  We have tried as much as we can to use language your society is comfortable with.  We say that we have the inherent right to govern ourselves because in your language "inherent" means that something belongs to someone.  By calling our powers to govern ourselves "inherent" we are trying to say to Canadians, "they belong to us.@ And if they belong to us, you can't simply take them. 

 

But all the discourse between indigenous people and Canada has been in the context of: "If you want to survive you'd better be like us.  If you don't behave like the rest of Canada you won't advance as a people.@ Of course, most people don't say it like this directly.  They say: "Get an education.  Get a job".  Some less friendly people say: "Get a life."

 

Our efforts have been frustrated for a long time now and we're not really making any progress.  Maybe we're educating a few people but it's not translating into concrete action for us.  Nothing is changing in terms of the power structure in Canada.  All decisions made by the federal government and the provinces are still made in the belief that they have everything now, including the land and the resources.  And when they deal with our people they say: "We'll give you some money for housing.  We'll give you a little money for health.  1f we can afford it we'll give you a little bit of money for infrastructure so you can have running water‑but right now we can't afford it, so you have to wait."

 

In the meantime, our people see others all around them getting wealthy off our lands and our resources.  We see provincial governments rushing to satisfy multinational corporations in a massive handout of our resources.  We do not see the wealth being generated from these resources returning to our people.  What we see is foreign companies, who do not even have any ties to this land, getting wealthy off the resources that belong to the people that I represent.  Your governments argue that these companies create jobs.  You want jobs?  We'll give them to you.  With that land and those resources we can create economic development and through that we can create jobs.

 

The problem is that Canadians in general don't recognize our rights.  Many say: "The fact that you were here first doesn't mean anything to me.@ So after 127 years of Canadian sovereignty it's getting more and more difficult each year to have access to the land and resources that we should have.  Even though the Canadian Constitution was amended to recognize treaty and aboriginal rights, your federal and provincial governments insist that these rights can be diminished by their laws.  So Indian rights in Canada are in a big cage.  Everything we've clone to release them has failed.  All our appeals to your leaders by correspondence, by petitions, by position papers‑all our representations to your committees of parliament on a range of issues‑have been summarily dismissed by your governments, and the people in the communities are not having any opportunities for advancement.  Our conditions are worsening, not improving.  The poverty of aboriginal people is a shame for this country.

 

In spite of this bleak picture‑there is still no desire in Canada to do anything to improve our social and economic conditions.  Can you imagine how we feel, as a people, having to put tip with this on a daily basis?  Hearing our parents talking about their experience of the same thing?  Hearing our grandparents tell us at the dinner table about how much they have lost and how the governments have ignored their appeals for change?  Can you imagine how our young people feel when we talk about these things at home?  We have exhausted all democratic processes in this country.  What more can we do?

 

When I ask what the next step is for First Nations in Canada, the question that comes to mind for many journalists is: "Are you going to advocate violence?@ Why do they raise this question?  Is this what they want?  Is violence the only thing that creates reform in Canada?  And even when I take great pains to explain what I mean by nonviolent direct action, they always come back to the same question: "Are you advocating violence?@ We, as a people, can't afford violence.  How many of you have forgotten Oka?  Oka was about state violence.  It's when we found out that if we got involved in a confrontation with guns the army would be turned on us.  There is no way‑‑1 don't care how brave the Braves are‑they are going to win a battle like that.  It would be devastating to get involved in that sort of confrontation.  But your Canadian politicians have yet to examine what happened at Oka and Gustafson.  Prime Minister Chrétien has never said anything about Oka, or Gustafson, or Ipperwash.  So the question is: Is this the way your governments are going to deal with our people in confrontations'?  Are we going to face the police and the army every time we get involved in direct action?  This is not a rhetorical question.  I have a right as Chief to learn from your leader, the Prime Minister of this country, if that is his policy, if that is the policy of the Canadian government. 

 

We are not comfortable as a people now.  We are not secure.  We do not know what your governments will do if we get involved in direct action.  And how do you feel?  How do you feel as a citizen to have your army and your police pointing their guns at our demonstrators and our protestors?  Is this acceptable?  You see, when the journalists ask, "Are you advocating violence?@ They forget to ask their own leaders the same questions: "Are you advocating violence in dealing with confrontations with aboriginal people?"

 

Why is it that Indians create so much fear in the minds of the general public when they get involved in direct action?  Your journalists get into a tizzy and ask whether we have a policy of violence!   You see, I have provided the answer as a National Chief.  Maybe not all the people 1 represent will agree, but I have given the answer.  But we have yet to hear from Harris, or from the Premier of British Columbia, or from other premiers.  And we haven't heard from the Prime Minister.  Why do we need to know?  We need to know because the next step for us is direct action: nonviolent direct action.  Nothing else is working.  And we need to know if your governments are going to turn their police and the army on us when we get involved in nonviolent direct action.  The position of the First Nations is very simple.  We want justice.  We'd like our land back.  We don't insist on 100%.  Or 111% as a journalist in B.C.  reported.  (I don't know where the extra 11 % came from: they must exist in another dimension in B.C.  The talk shows in B.C.  now believe British Columbia's land mass is 111%.  This makes there even more distinct than Quebec.) Look at it this way.  Your politicians have been broadcasting this figure of $5 billion: we spend $5 billion on Indians.  I should go and hide in shame.  They spend $5 billion on my people!   And your politicians say: "Don't be so dependent on the federal government.@ Our answer is: "We don't want to be dependent on the federal government, so work with us to end this dependency.@ And one of the solutions is: more land for the First Nations.  How much land do the Indian people have right now in this country?  I've heard people argue that we already have too much land.  But when you add up all the reserve lands from coast to coast in this country‑and that's all the Indian people have the right to occupy right now‑it comes to .9% of the Canadian land mass.  (Not even the fictitious 11 % in British Colombia!) Somehow we're supposed to be self‑sufficient on .9% of the landmass of this country.  It's impossible.  You try it! Let Preston Manning try it.  Let Paul Martin try it.  They can't do it.  So the answer is to do something about the fact that the First Nations are landless.  The answer is to expand their land base and to make sure that what land they have has resources in it that can be developed for the self‑sufficiency, the well being, of the people.

 

Your politicians have a very selective memory.  Take, for example, Voisey Bay.  When Premier Wells was there he said to the Innu: "We'll settle with you in terms of your land claim,@ and he included Voisey Bay.  That's before they discovered nickel in Voisey Bay!  Now Captain Canada, Former Federal Fisheries Minister, Brian Tobin, says to the Innu and the Innuit: "That can't make up part of the land claim because it's occupied now by Hudson's Bay Mining Company?  What do the Innuit and the Innu do?  What do they do to assert their right to this territory?  Who will stop them if they try to assert their rights?  Everyone.  Because in Newfoundland the people want jobs.  They want their governments to go ahead with the project because the smelter is going to be located on the mainland, not in Labrador, so it's going to create jobs for the mainland.  The premier's looking at the royalties.  A poor province is going to become wealthy on Innu and Innuit land.  I'm not talking about 1867 here.  I'm talking about 1997.  How do we help these people get justice?  What can you do to make sure they benefit from use of resources that belong to them?  The Innu leader has said: "If we have to, we'll get involved in civil disobedience."

 

Civil disobedience is a term that some people find offensive, and your politicians, whenever an Indian puts up a blockade, begin talking about the rule of law.  Would someone please remind them that treaty and aboriginal rights are affirmed and recognized in the Constitution and they're part of the rule of law?

 

Right now, indigenous people are having a difficult time in this country.  Where do we turn?  To the courts?  Do we turn to the Supreme Court, which said recently regarding a case involving casinos: "An aboriginal right is something that is tied to your culture, to your traditions as a people.  These rights were what you had when we first saw you, and when we first saw you there were no casinos.@ The funny thing is that in 1604, when Champlain landed on Mohawk Territory, he didn't arrive with casinos.  But now his descendants have them!  And Indians can't!  So how can we turn to your court to defend our rights?  We'll lose.  And that's why our people have only two options.  One is nonviolent direct action, and the other is to go international.

 

We have been observing for some time what other oppressed groups have been doing.  They have not restricted their search for justice to domestic affairs.  When it becomes obvious that no progress can be made at home they go to the international community.  So at the end of March and the beginning of April the Assembly of First Nations is organizing its first tour of Europe, its first international tour to expose the real face of Canada.  Not the phoniness called "Team Canada.@ That is not the real face of this country.

 

So we're going to Germany, to Austria, to France, to England, to Scotland.  Why Scotland?  Because they understand the issue of colonization.  And we intend to get people thinking about the decolonization of the fourth world‑the indigenous people.  The Indian movement has to shift its emphasis from letter campaigns, from appearances before Standing Committees, from meetings with members of parliaments.  It has to turn to the international stage to embarrass this country into good conduct.  If we cannot, as First Nations, in spite of all our good efforts, create the kind of change we want domestically, we have to embarrass Canada to become an honourable country.

 

But we don't want the politicians at home to feel left out so we have to make sure that we have organized campaigns of direct action to get the change that we deserve.  The two go hand in hand: direct action and international lobby.  For the First Nations in this country these are the final hopes.  The world is changing whether you realize it or not, and the move toward indigenous rights is the final struggle for decolonization in the world.  The indigenous leaders I have met in my time as National Chief from New Zealand, Australia, Central and South America, from the United States: they all say the same thing.  The nature of our rights is such that we have to go to the United Nations.  We have to insist that the United Nations widen its doors so our people can walk in to represent themselves in the General Assembly.  You see, the United Nations right now is made tap of corporate organizations called nation states; it's not made up of nations of people.  The real nation that requires representation is the Lakota nation, the Cree nation, and so on.  And we want a permanent forum in the United Nations.  We want to represent ourselves as a people in that vehicle that was organized for people of all races to come together.  Until it opens its doors to all indigenous people, the United Nations, like Canada, like the United States, is a private club that doesn't recognize all peoples.

 

I am leaving this job as National Chief in July of 1997.  That is when my term expires, and I gave notice to my chiefs a while back that they should start looking for a new leader, someone who will take the people to the next step.  When I was elected my mandate was limited by the elders.  They said to me in a ceremony that was conducted for me in Wahpeton reserve that my job was simply to explain to Canadians who we are.  To let them know what we want.  To try to get their support for the things that should be done for us.  It wasn't a big philosophical discussion; it was as simple as that.  "Your job is to explain to them who we are.@ I think I've done that.  So I've fulfilled my mandate and my obligations.  But I also know that we need another kind of leader in this country.  What the First Nations people need is someone who is going to unite them.  Someone who is going to bring together all the grass roots people, who is going to inspire our people to act in a progressive way to protect their rights.  Someone who can go to the international community and make a forceful argument for our people.  Someone with a track record, who can take us the next step to the recognition of our rights and freedoms as indigenous people.  I have seen this very clearly.  I have done my job and it's time for me to move on. 

 

But I'm not going too far!