Nonviolence and Aboriginal Rights

An interview with Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi about his plans to promote nonviolent resistance among Indians

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1996-11-01 12:00:00

OVIDE MERCREDI: Constitutional reform is not an Indian idea, but a white one. However, for us as a people to survive in this white environment, we now have to be involved in changing it. Constitutional change is a way of forcing white society to come to terms with our people's needs and rights. Since the white man is committed to the rule of law, we must use their principle but turn it to our advantage. If we can get acceptance on our terms and change the constitution, we can change white society. That was the goal of all the chiefs who preceded me in the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). But the landscape is changing.

METTA SPENCER: As I understand the situation, the Liberal government opposes any talk of constitutional change and negotiates separately with particular Indian bands instead of going through the Assembly.

MERCREDI: That's true. Their approach is not to deal with the whole, but with segments. Chrétien's strategy is to do confederational reform step by step instead of holistically, which is the preferred course of the First Nations. The holistic approach provides greater opportunity for us to exact our terms, while Chrétien's approach disempowers the people I represent. The premiers and the prime minister, the ministers of health, social services, and environment get together to rearrange the structure, entrenching their hold on our own political machinery, manipulating certain leaders into accepting the Liberal strategy for reform.

The Liberals' two main objectives are national unity and reducing the country's deficit. When it came to national unity, the Liberal strategy has always been to deal, not with the Indian issue, but with the Quebec question. Even when Trudeau was prime minister, the First Nations were outside the patriation of the constitution. Only because of pressure from our people and from outside did they recognize existing treaties and aboriginal rights. So the Liberal government has always seen aboriginal people as wards, inferior to these governments and not worthy of being at the same table with them. That Liberal mind-set still exists in its policies of deficit retirement, which has taken away the focus on the needs of people. When I met with the minister of finance, Paul Martin, I argued with him not to make cutbacks on social spending to aboriginal people because of the disparity of social and economic conditions. His response was "Everybody has to share in the pain." To which I replied, "I'd like you to share in my people's pain and see if you can come up with a solution."

SPENCER: Insofar as they are concerned about national unity, Native people - especially the Crees of Quebec - ought to be their best friends.

MERCREDI: Yes, the Crees and Inuit came to the aid of the national government when it had trouble with the referendum, but there has not even been a thank-you to Matthew Coon-Come. They were just used by the federal government.

SPENCER: Why? Even if the Liberals are ungrateful, they nevertheless could benefit from an alliance. The Crees can influence the situation in Quebec by saying that if Quebec leaves, they won't. Why isn't that statement recognized as an important asset to the federal government?

MERCREDI: Because the Liberals are afraid of strengthening the hands of the aboriginal people by recognizing their power. The aboriginal people in Quebec have more power there than anyone wants to admit. Secession will not happen in the way in which Bouchard wants it to happen because the First Nations have rights under international law that are respected.

SPENCER: And their claim is stronger than Quebec's claim.

MERCREDI: I call it a "prior claim to Quebec." Some of our leaders will say it is a stronger claim, but to be diplomatic, we say it is a prior claim.

SPENCER: Maybe you don't want to say "stronger," but I attended a conference where the Crees showed the documents that they presented to the U.N. Some specialists on secession said, "You have a stronger case than Quebec does."

MERCREDI: The Liberal government fears that, by recognizing our power, they'd be giving us the kind of strength we need to deal with them. It's not just the politicians either. Who runs the Indian people? Not the chiefs and the council. It's the Department of Indian Affairs and the bureaucrats managing the fisheries, Health Canada, and so on. These people advise the politicians. All the lawyers in Justice and Indian Affairs sing from the same song book: Don't let the Indians succeed in getting the term "peoples" into the declaration of indigenous rights, because if they succeed in having that term recognized in international law, then for all international covenants, the laws that apply to peoples will apply to them, including the right of self-determination. Bureaucrats are given vast power to keep Indians from being self-governing.

SPENCER: Are you losing ground?

MERCREDI: Oh, the federal government is in charge. For example, Allan Rock, the minister of justice, is denying Indian people their traditional rights to use guns in hunting. He knows about treaty and aboriginal rights, but he ignores that part of the law and proceeds with his legislation to satisfy people in Toronto and Montreal. Every minister of the Crown has been briefed by the bureaucrats to deny the Indians their rights. My letters, speeches, lobbying efforts, and submissions to parliamentary commissions don't produce any changes. I'll have to resort to something different. When I came to office I was never an advocate of roadblocks. Now I am more sympathetic to them, provided we do it in a way that does not damage property or deliberately hurt anybody.

My own awareness has evolved in the six years I've been here. My experience as national chief has taught me that the only way to produce informed change in Canada is through persistent efforts of our own people. Only those who are prepared for sacrifice get attention from the government.

Take for example casinos on reservations. The Supreme Court of Canada has said this is not part of our tradition. Their idea is that an aboriginal right is one we had at the time of contact. They say, you never had casinos then when we met you. But my view is: You didn't have casinos either when we met you, and now you do. Somehow you can have them and we can't.

Drastic measures appear to be getting attention and my efforts don't. At Kahnawake Indians say, "We're just having a casino for charitable purposes. The proceeds from the casino will go for the needs of the youth of our community. We don't care what the provincial law says; we're going ahead anyway." That's civil disobedience, and nonvio- lent action, so I support that, but I don't think I would support a parallel police force.

SPENCER: In Poland, Solidarity set up parallel institutions. They even printed their own postage stamps. And in the nonviolent part of the Intifada, citizens did set up a parallel police - Palestinian people walking around their neighborhood, keeping the peace. But you'd need a lot of unity in the community for something like that to work. How much is there?

MERCREDI: That depends on the tribe. Some tribes are very unified. But the press plays up the apparent differences in the communities. Our political differences are portrayed as lack of unity. Here in Ottawa if people disagree with each other, that's not disunity but good citizenship - a debate on an issue.

My goal is to take the organization to the people, not just the chiefs. It's a chiefs' organization now. Whatever civil disobedience we get involved in, it has to be directed to improving the wellness of the people. Something that will bring jobs, improve the economy, school system, or home. Or defend what we have against encroachment. For example, in Temagami right now, there's encroachment at the door of the First Nations because of Harris's unregulated forestry development. The people there have to resist. The AFN would not support blowing up a bridge; it does not qualify as a nonviolent act. Spiking trees is not nonviolent either. But preventing the forestry company from exploiting the resources, that's something I can support, even if it means being physically present. It could be a blockage, but it may be something less intrusive - such as occupying the office of a minister of the Crown. After all, that's where the decision is made.

Traditionally we might refer these issues to a committee or hold a rally on Parliament Hill and make speeches. But I think the most effective way of making a point is to force the person making a decision to face up to it. For example, Allan Rock and his firearms regulations. If I'm still national chief, it's for me to protect the right of our people to hunt with guns. When he starts taking my people to jail, that's when I should occupy his office. That's an act of civil disobedience but it's nonviolent and it's directed to the person who's most responsible for the drastic measures they're taking.

SPENCER: A few years ago there was an electoral reform commission. They recommended reserving a quota of seats in parliament for aboriginal voters, no matter what ridings they lived in. Nothing came of the recommendations. I should think that such a proposal would be, maybe not the most important one to you, but a good one.

MERCREDI: I made a submission to that commission on behalf of the chiefs. I said we were looking for more fundamental change than just representation in parliament. Our basic grievance is that a white parliament can make laws for us. Participating in parliament is not crucial for us. We want to govern ourselves as a distinct level of government in Canada, not inferior to Parliament or the provincial legislatures. Sovereign in its own jurisdiction.

SPENCER: But you still would be citizens of Canada, and represented in Parliament.

MERCREDI: I don't have any difficulty with dual citizenship. I can be a Canadian citizen and a First Nations citizen. But right now I can only be a Canadian citizen. The Indian perspective was: We have our boat, you have your boat. But for 500 years you've had your boat but you've also capsized ours. We have to put our boat upright without capsizing yours. These two vessels should sail in the same sea - the state. But the state has been defined according to British tradition. The First Nations vision is totally absent from the nation state Canada. So I insist on altering the state.

SPENCER: If your vision is realized, what will it look like?

MERCREDI: We have to share some things, such as a common criminal law. Our people should have a role in defining criminal law. In the United States, for example, Congress passed a law enabling the Indian people to make minor criminal laws. We can also share a common Charter of Rights and Freedoms that applies to all the citizens of the country, including those of First Nations. The charter would have to change to reflect who we are as a people because there is nothing there to protect social or cultural rights.

SPENCER: Would there be a Canada-wide set of laws for all native people, or would different tribes have different laws?

MERCREDI: My preference would be national laws defined for all the First Nations and then adapted to the Nations, in all their diversity. But to achieve that, we would need a national law-making forum. Today the AFN is a policy-making body for all First Nations in terms of what we take forward to the government. It could become a vehicle for making laws, which could be adapted flexibly to each community.

SPENCER: How much agreement is there on this idea?

MERCREDI: The prevailing opinion right now in Indian politics is for each tribe to have their own institutions for making laws. But I think it will be easier for the first nations to argue for law-making capacity if we do it together as one unit.

SPENCER: How clear are the criteria about which laws would apply to whom?

MERCREDI: The laws would have to apply to everybody in the territory.

SPENCER: On all reserves.

MERCREDI: Not just the reserves. The territory we're talking about should not just be limited to the current reservations. That's less than .9 percent of the land mass in Canada. There's no point in getting self-government for .9 percent of the land mass.

SPENCER: And what about Indians living in cities?

MERCREDI: It's difficult to have your own self-government in the city, but one way our people have dealt with that issue is to expand the delivery of services to our people in the cities. We've done that on child welfare and it works. We have offices in cities to deal with child welfare needs, while collaborating with the agencies that are there in the initial jurisdiction. I cannot envisage self-government in all the cities but I can see a role for our urban people in running their own programs and services.

SPENCER: But if you have distinct laws - say, Indian rules of divorce or inheritance - it becomes important to know who are subject to those laws and whether they can opt out at any given moment. How do you become subject to the jurisdiction of those laws?

MERCREDI: I hope that when we make laws, we will respect individual rights. And there have to be checks and balances in the exercise of power.

SPENCER: A political scientist in B.C. named David Elkins published a book last year suggesting that the time is coming when we can form provinces based, not on territorial boundaries, but on voluntary constituencies. For example, all the francophones in Canada could form one francophone province, regardless of where they live. And so could Indians, even if they are dispersed and don't form a territorial entity.

MERCREDI: I think it's possible. You take the example of child welfare again. In the United States, when a child is apprehended by authorities, they are required by law to notify the tribe, which has the option of having the matter handled inside or outside their jurisdiction. It is possible to have such arrangements in Canada as well.

SPENCER: In Asia, all communities used to be run that way. Communities might live side by side in cities but each had its own social institutions and its own governance. This was true of the millet system in the Ottoman Empire. Similar systems existed in China and India.

MERCREDI: Rights have different practical implications at different periods of history. For example, I ask the premiers: In your own history, when did you first make a law about child welfare? (It was in the 1950s, I think.) If it took you so long to make that law, why do you want me to define for you what our child welfare law is going to be right now? We don't have to predefine everything in order to recognize something. When the BNA Act was being debated by parliament in Britain, the politicians of the time could not define what Canada would become. The same applies to the Indian people. We should not be required to predefine everything before there is recognition. We will evolve the institutions. As we get involved in law-making we'll create the laws that will be good for our own people.

SPENCER: So your upcoming conference is a step toward making that an explicit goal.

MERCREDI: I've always thought that we should deal with white society in a nonviolent, non-aggressive way. That idea comes from my background as an indigenous person and my readings about nonviolent struggle in other parts of the world. But my thinking about nonviolence has expanded because of Oka, where I learned why it's sometimes important to defend ourselves. If we don't, there could be physical genocide. I argue for the right of self-defence when it comes to that.

The people in Tibet also have the right to defend themse ves from extermination, but they choose to do it without guns. We should do it the same way. The Tibetan people are struggling against China and seeking to reclaim their homeland in a nonviolent manner. Because of Oka, Gustafson, and Ipperwash last summer, I have become more conscious of the use of force by the state against our people. So the conference that I'm organizing is to look at the use of violence against first nations. I have invited the chiefs of the communities that have been confronted with police powers, like at Restigouche over the salmon fishery, at Oka, Gustafson, and Ipperwash over traditional lands. I want those chiefs to enter into dialogue with the other side who will be participating, such as the chief of police and the army. We'll talk about these incidents and ask: what is the alternative?

Every act of civil disobedience must maintain our traditions as a people. Jake Thomas will be talking about the Great Law and I have invited some speakers from India to talk about Gandhian nonviolence. That's the second part of the conference - our relationship with Canada.

But the third part has to do with violence within - our violence toward each other. Child abuse, spousal abuse, suicides - all these happen in our society. How do we challenge that violence? We have workshops, some led by traditional healers, some using medical models of healing, and we have workshops on family violence led by a native woman. We have an entire program dedicated to the youth. And a speaker on nontraditional ways of reducing violence.

SPENCER: Inspiring. How much support is there for this?

MERCREDI: I don't know because we've never done it before. Since Confederation our approach has been one of co-existence that found expression through treaties. Our philosophy of nonviolence has never been fully developed in Canada. A native woman is leading a movement against domestic violence, to find nonviolent ways of dealing with whatever is troubling our people so we don't harm one another. There is a lot of support for nonviolence but there will be detractors as well. Some people will say that Chief Mercredi has no heroes that are Indian; he has to go to India to find a nonviolent hero. Actually, Gandhi did not give me ideas about nonviolence. My parents did. My culture did. My hero is over there in that picture - Chief Poundmaker, a Cree chief, a chief of nonviolence.

SPENCER: You are Cree?

MERCREDI: Yes. You see how prominent his picture is.

SPENCER: How can non-aboriginal people support this?

MERCREDI: The conference of nonviolence, it's not just a First Nations event. The leadership is First Nations, but some of those making presentations are not indigenous. We want to learn from them. Non-aboriginal people can help by sharing their experience. People can help us expand our knowledge of people's struggles with governments in India, Japan, or Tibet.

SPENCER: What about solidarity actions?

MERCREDI: Yes. Being there with us. Another step would be in creating an understanding with governments and trying to get acceptance in the public about our tactics. I don't call for money, but if people are involved as a blockade or a sit-in and they haven't eaten for a while they'll welcome anybody bringing food.

I wrote to all the Indian schools in Canada and asked the principals to read out the letter saying that violence is a serious issue in our society so let's see how we can address it in our lives. I'm inviting schools to send students to the nonviolence conference. Later I want to have a series of conferences on nonviolence across the country. Sometime I want to set up an institute of nonviolence for First Nations to produce literature about nonviolence for the communities and schools and to train young people in nonviolent resistance.

I am personally committed to a more serious discussion about issues of nonviolence with state authorities - the premiers or the prime minister - to make them face up to the fact that they have responded in a very irresponsible way to our issues and have sent their police instead of sending negotiators. They might have a strong argument in the case of Gustafson because in that case there was aggression by the people on my side. But even in situations like that, steps can be taken to prevent a military style operation as a way of dealing with people with guns.

Metta Spencer edits Peace Magazine and is a sociology professor. She teaches Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto in Mississauga.

Preventing Adolescent Violence

Peace educator Mary Wynne Ashford conducted a workshop at Mercredi's nonviolence conference entitled "Connectedness and nonviolence: Traditional First Nations wisdom and successful violence prevention programs." Here is her account of what was accomplished.

We began with a prayer by an elder who asked that wisdom guide our discussions to find ways to help our communities heal from the pain and destruction brought by violence. Our group of 20 included students, teachers, elders, and a sleeping toddler. I asked them to help me make a list of sources of meaning and connectedness in their lives because, generally, young people whose lives are rich with meaning are unlikely to be violent. I suggested that we consider ways to help young people increase their connectedness with others, with the Creator, and with the earth, using traditional wisdom.

We found many sources of meaning: relationships with family members, friends, and elders; sense of belonging to Mother Earth; spirituality; relationship to a Higher Being; the longhouse; potlatch; sweats; spiritual dancing; objects imbued with special meaning, especially religious meaning; sense of belonging to a group; knowledge of group history; traditional law, healing and spiritual circles; achievements; and taking a personal stance against injustice and learning to speak out. The importance of belonging to a group and to the earth, and the importance of a web of interconnectedness infused the entire discussion.

I described violence prevention programs used in non-Native communities, then the group put the ideas in a First Nations context. As an example, stress reduction training incorporating relaxation and meditation techniques has successfully reduced school violence in non-Native communities. This approach is paralleled by First Nations practices such as fasts, sweats, and visualisation. I learned that First Nations teachings have many valuable insights to offer the non-Native community as we seek ways to move toward a nonviolent society.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1996

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1996, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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