If Idle No More had a scrappy older brother, 1990’s ‘Indian Summer’ would be it.
That historic summer started the moment Manitoba’s iconic MLA Elijah Harper clutched his eagle feather and helped kill the Meech Lake Accord in the province’s legislature.
By the time the leaves changed, Canada had been gripped by a 78-day stand off near Oka, Que., by the Mohawk community of Kanesatake and nationwide protests born of years of frustration. Scholars now contend that summer, especially the Oka crisis, was a “flashpoint event” in Canadian history.
“It demonstrated that we could take a stand together and we could make a difference. We made history,” said former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine of Meech’s defeat. “This was about having a very clear vision, knowing our place in Canada and (being) able to articulate very forcefully and clearly and respectfully the acceptance we were looking for from the rest of the country.”
If Meech proved First Nations wouldn’t be ignored, University of Manitoba political scientist Kiera Ladner said the Oka crisis a few weeks later demonstrated the true cost of ignoring indigenous peoples.
But, a generation later, indigenous people are not much closer to any real form of sovereignty.
Nearly all the issues at play during the summer of 1990 — outstanding land claims, control over resource development on traditional lands, genuine national consultation and everyday poverty and racism — still remain. Any moves toward indigenous self-government have been piecemeal and local — the Nisga’a Treaty in British Columbia and the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation agreement last year in Manitoba, a handful of incremental Supreme Court decisions that stop short of saying First Nations have an inherent right to self-government, local initiatives such as the east-side land-use planning process in Manitoba or even the stalled devolution of child welfare.
In fact, First Nations would argue that, for every step forward, there are steps back. Take for example the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. And, as during the Meech era, there’s significant dissent among indigenous groups. In particular, the Assembly of First Nations and its leadership are often at odds with the grassroots, including many in the Idle No More movement.
The kinds of conflicts that erupted in 1990 still erupt, with little framework to resolve them on a national scale. The idea that mega-constitional meetings might be used as a venue to establish a new relationship between Canada and its first peoples doesn’t appear to be on anyone’s radar.
Meech’s defeat gave rise to the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, another attempt to resolve long-standing disputes over the division of federal and provincial powers. That deal was defeated in a national referendum, but the process that led up to it was very different. This time, aboriginal leaders were at the table when the deal was hammered out. The failed accord also contained a clause approving in principle the concept of aboriginal self-government, and defining it, however imperfectly.
Had it passed, Charlottetown would have been a step forward for indigenous self-government, said Ladner.
Instead, said Fontaine and Ovide Mercredi, another Manitoba-born giant of the era, aboriginal people have yet to be officially recognized as of one of Canada’s founding partners. The status quo of Canada’s two founding nations prevails, and First Nations constitutional issues largely remain about jurisdiction. Are they a federal “problem” or a provincial one?
“Meech was about the future, not just resistance to exclusion on our part,” said Mercredi, who helped negotiate the Charlottetown Accord as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “And the country fell asleep and the leaders of exclusion took over and a vision of a better Canada with indigenous people helping to perfect it has been buried once again in ignorance and shame.”
Instead of endless constitutional debate, many indigenous leaders have turned their focus to documents that typically predate Canada’s collection of constitutional legislation — the treaties. Leaders such as Manitoba’s Derek Nepinak hold those documents as the basis for a modern relationship, but it’s often unclear what the treaties mean in a modern context. Treaty conflicts over land claims, promises for education and health services and resource development take years to resolve. Witness Kapyong Barracks, Winnipeg’s most visible relic of what several southern Manitoba First Nations say is a treaty promise unfulfilled.
In the meantime, defining exactly what self-government might mean remains largely the domain of academics. Is it the creation of a parallel system by individual nations, each with their own education, health, welfare and justice systems, and their own governments that exist, somehow, alongside Canada? Or, are First Nations a kind of third order of government similar to a province or a municipality? Or, since aboriginal peoples will always be Canadian, is it possible to create a common political culture, where indigenous values are embedded and enhanced?
While that debate takes place, largely beyond the public eye, Ladner and Fontaine note that indigenous people are focusing on economic power, and revitalizing their communities from within.
In the years since Meech, aboriginal people have made great strides in the business world, said Fontaine, who now operates his own consulting firm and is a special advisor to the Royal Bank of Canada. There are 40,000 businesses owned and managed by aboriginal people in Canada, he said. More indigenous people are graduating from high school and universities than ever before. They’re being appointed as judges, university presidents and getting elected to office in greater numbers.
And, noted Ladner, the new generation of indigenous activists are looking at rebuilding from the inside, beyond the constraints of Indian Act rules or endless negotiations with government over funding or control. That includes creating their own economic development opportunities such as urban reserves.
“There’s a different political goal than just constitutional change because there a recognition that Canada will never give over the power,” said Ladner. “Political activities are about rebuilding nations… There’s a ‘just do it’ approach.”
— Mary Agnes Welch, with files from Larry Kusch