Peace & Confederation

By John Bacher | 1991-11-01 12:00:00

Last year's violent events at Oka and Akwesasne have given the Canadian armed forces a new lease on life in the wake of budget cuts occasioned by the end of the Cold War.

Peace activists in North America have conspicuously failed to adopt the imaginative approaches of their European counterparts, who drafted the Prague Appeal and subsequent documents to call for protection of the rights of all nationalities of Europe, in order to reduce the significance of nation states and borders. They recognize that the western hemisphere has been lured into world wars by the ethnic conflicts of Europe. Similar tensions on our side of the Atlantic have not been adequately recognized as dangers to peace.

Injustices to minorities in the Americas have created their own versions of the Balkan powder-keg. Civil wars based partly on the oppression of Indians have rocked Guatemala and Nicaragua and Canadian natives are frequently forced into acts of civil disobedience to assert their rights to a land base for their distinctive cultures. The intolerant actions of U.S. English and the Association for the Preservation of English in Canada, in proclaiming certain regions to be English Only, assaulting the sensibilities of Spanish and French minorities, are examples of the bigotry that wars are made of. Canadians should respond to the present constitutional crisis by making Canada a model of enlightened cultural pluralism.

In fostering cultural pluralism the peace movement can build positively on the Canadian identity, which fused French and Indian cultural traits, in contrast to the intolerance of most Anglo-American colonists. When Canada re-emerged after the fall of New France in 1763, its Quebec Act of 1775 provided full civil rights for Catholics and protection of Indian lands from speculators.

Subsequent events sullied Canada's tradition of cultural pluralism. Francophone minorities and native people suffered injustices in the history of the border changes associated with the Northwest Territories, which originally accounted for all the prairie provinces and most of northern Ontario and Quebec. These areas were carved out of the Territories after English majorities were created, or were transferred to other provinces without the consent of the native majorities living in those regions.

Today Canada is on the verge of breaking with past racist patterns by giving the Yukon and Northwest Territories more of the trappings of full provincial status. However, existing provinces aspire to annex the Territories. Such scheming was behind the Meech Lake Accord's requirement of unanimous consent by the provinces for the creation of new provincial entities. This would be tragic since the Territories are today a Valhalla of Canadian cultural pluralism, with their multilingual Territorial Assemblies.

The career of Louis Riel, leader of the French, Indians and Métis of Western Canada, was a remarkable effort to stop racism in the creation of new provinces. Riel insisted that Westerners were not serfs who came with the land that Canada purchased from the Hudson Bay Company in 1869. In alliance with French Canadian politicians in Ottawa, such as George-Étienne Cartier, Riel forged the Manitoba Act of 1870. It protected native lands and the French language. Riel's execution in 1885, after a government-provoked rebellion of the Métis, was the greatest blow to national unity in Canadian history. Elijah Harper is a figure of historic prominence comparable to Louis Riel, for challenging the Meech Lake accord.

Riel's achievements were undermined by bigoted English extremists who eroded the liberal provisions of the Manitoba Act, even though these had been enshrined in the Canadian constitution through legislation by the British parliament. The Métis were illegally defrauded of their land and the French of their schools. Provisions for French language rights which were imposed by Ottawa on the Northwest Territories were not carried over into the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan because of the intransigence of bigoted English members of the cabinet of the Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. This disaster was compounded in 1911 when lands of the Northwest Territories were annexed to Manitoba with no provision for French language rights. Manitoba later abolished French language rights altogether.

To counter the political damage in Quebec from this affair, the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Robert Borden, carved the territory of Ungava out of the Northwest Territories and gave it to Quebec. This cynical wheeling and dealing traded away the rights of the French and Métis of northern Manitoba for the lands and water of the Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec.

Manitoba's minorities have long struggled to regain what Riel had won in 1870. In the early 1980s it appeared that the province would be forced to translate all its laws into French. To avoid such an expense, the NDP government of Howard Pawley negotiated a settlement out of court with the Francophone minority for access to public services. Unfortunately Pawley's statesmanship was destroyed by the Conservatives' filibusters in the legislature, and a parallel extraparliamentary campaign, which was later revealed to have been orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan. The NDP's measure was eventually implemented by a Conservative government, but its impact was offset by Manitoba's withdrawal of approval of the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Manitoba withdrew after unilingual French signs were enforced through the controversial notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights. Native people in Manitoba have had less success in winning their rights, which are still before the courts. Manitoba's Cree Indians have been devastated by flooding caused by massive hydro dams, which have released mercury into their fishing waters.

The situation is worse for minorities in other parts of western Canada. An NDP member in the Alberta legislature was actually expelled for speaking French.

In Quebec, Henri Bourassa's liberal nationalism was replaced by the fascistic brand of Lionel Groulx, which denied the historic reality of intermarriage between French and native peoples. Groulx stimulated a Quebec-centered nationalism and dreams of the industrialization and hydro development of northern Quebec. This obsession intensified with the election of Premier Robert Bourassa who ignored the terms of transfer of Ungava of 1912 which stipulated that a treaty be made with the Cree and Inuit. When a court ruling momentarily blocked the giant James Bay hydro project, the Cree were forced to sign a modern treaty, as Quebec refused to stop construction before the complicated appeals were resolved by the Supreme Court of Canada. The Cree have used litigation under the rights granted by this contemporary treaty, the James Bay Agreement, to delay construction of this project until environmental reviews can be undertaken.

Such an intergovernmental approach conflicts with the Quebec nationalism expressed in the Allaire report of the ruling provincial Liberal party, which calls for the environment to be an area of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

The simplistic nostrums of the Allaire Report and the Reform Party show the dangers to the value of justice, inherit in most peaceworkers, in the breakup of Canada. Both approaches give greater power to regionally dominant groups to oppress minorities and avoid environmental regulation. Recognition of instruments of cultural pluralism, such as Indian treaties and the Manitoba Act, would be abruptly severed in a bigoted backlash, after which the fragments of Canada without Quebec would be gradually absorbed into the United States.

Canada's constitutional dialogue has suffered from opposition to bilingualism, scorn for the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, and the arrogance of the nationalistic Quebec Federation of Labour, which united with business to promote the James Bay project on the lands of the Cree and Inuit. Peace people have an opportunity to restore some national sanity. Peace activists in western Canada can contribute by pointing out that native representation is more important than the schemes for the country's alteration advocated by the Reform Party. In Ontario, peace activists should regard declarations of "English Only" by municipalities in the same dangerous light as they would view a municipal council's refusal to declare itself nuclear-free. In British Columbia, the ignoring of Francophone rights and native land claims can be challenged. In Quebec, peace activists can point to the need for joint responsibilities for environmental protection in any future association between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Such projects can revive the values of cultural pluralism and ecological integrity into a renewal of the Canadian confederation.

John Bacher is a Canadian historian and an editor at Peace Magazine.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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