Canada sovereignty threat

September 8, 1995

Huw Richards reports from the International Congress of Historical Sciences meeting in Montreal last week. A strong sense of deja-vu grips Canada as it contemplates the siege of protesting native indians at Gustafson Lake, British Colombia. Five years ago a similar protest at Oka, Quebec, lasted for 78 days and led to the death of a police officer.

For prime minister Jean Chretien in particular this is an issue that will not go away. As Michael Bhriels of Ottawa University pointed out in his presentation to the International Congress of Historical Sciences, meeting last week in Montreal, Chretien was minister for indian affairs in Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government back in 1969 when a White Paper proposing the repeal of the Indian Act and the integra- tion and assimilation into Canadian society was issued.

Faced by protests from aboriginal groups, the government dropped its plans, but with lasting effect. "The debate over the White Paper raised consciousness among indian people and led their organisations to the conclusion that they needed a more complete strategy."

Eventually these organisations began seeking self-determination within Canada. Dr Bhriels pointed to the development of two competing models of indian rights. Successive federal governments, also beset by debates over the repatriation of the national constitution in the early 1980s and periodic eruptions of Quebecois separatism, supported a "contingent" model while Indian groups called for "inherent" rights based on self-government.

Dr Bhriels described how successive attempts to reach a conclusion in the 1970s and 1980s failed. He argued that Indian failure to win self-determination was inevitable as it would ultimately threaten the sovereignty of the Canadian state, demanding a third level of government taking powers from both national and provincial government.

"In a head-on clash of nationalism and sovereignty, aboriginal versus Canadian, it was inevitable which was going to win out, at least in the short run."

One consequence of the debate over the past years has been a "radicalising of discourse". This, and the failure to win self-government by negotiated constitutional means has made direct action protests like Oka and Gustafson Lake attractive to some groups within indian communities.

The Gustafson Lake protest has been disowned by major indian groups - Ovide Mercredi, leader of the Association of First Nations, the organisation Dr Bhriels has been studying, was attempting to mediate last week.

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