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Seven: Civilizations Collide

Native Peoples

A major theme of Western history is local subordination by outsiders. Indians and later the Métis provide especially good case studies in alienation because no other groups of Westerners were treated worse, or subjugated for longer, by successive governments in Ottawa. Oddly, native concerns have only rarely been included as part of the western alienation issue, but there is clearly a common cause. This linkage continues despite less-than-warm attitudes demonstrated by western provincial governments of different political colours over the decades.

Until the mid-seventeenth century, prairie, British Columbia and northern aboriginal peoples lived well as hunters and gatherers, some probably as comfortably as Europeans did before the Industrial Revolution. Gerald Friesen, the prairies historian, concludes that between 1640 and 1840 relations between Indians and European fur traders on our plains were notable for" adaptation, peace and cooperation." Cultural autonomy and a real sense of social equality with Europeans prevailed among Indians with only minor setbacks until well after the merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Montreal’s North West Company in 1821. Admittedly, a Métis party led by Cuthbert Grant had killed 21 supporters of the Governor of the Red River Settlement in 1816 ("The Seven Oaks Massacre"), uniting the Métis people in the process, but Lord Selkirk himself re-established the settlement and peace the following year. Selkirk with his strict Scottish sense of propriety also signed a treaty with local Crees, Ojibwas and Assiniboines.

The Métis

The emergence of Western Canada is closely linked with the history of the Métis people. They did not come centuries ago from a distant part of the world: Prairie Canada alone witnessed their birth as a new people.

The Métis nation began in the late eighteenth century as the result of unions between French and English fur traders and Indian women. Indian women were essential for European survival in the West because they made pemmican, moccasins and snow shoes and could act as both guides and interpreters. Their offspring, the Métis, both bilingual and bicultural, became the archetypal voyageurs and were active as interpreters, traders, canoeists and fur packers at numerous western trading posts. During a century and a half, their pivotal role in the fur trade enabled them to become a self-confident community within Western Canada. This was most noticeable at Red River, where in the mid-1820s many Métis began to take up subsistence agriculture as a supplement to the buffalo hunt.

The next two decades in the western interior were prosperous and peaceful. The harmony began to unravel only in the 1840s when corrosive notions of race and class from Victorian England and elsewhere began to seep into the Red River community. Contrary to its earlier practice, the Hudson’s Bay Company, restored as a monopoly in the fur trade, stopped permitting ambitious Métis to enter its officer ranks. The Company governor, George Simpson, stood adamantly against the promotion of Métis even though there were virtually no "European" children in the overwhelmingly native region and most officers therefore had to be brought in from outside. Numerous Métis who would earlier have enjoyed good careers with the company were driven to trade outside the company. Ultimately, when one Métis trader was convicted of illegal trading in 1849 but not fined, the monopoly collapsed because the law enshrining it had become toothless. Approximately 6,000 Métis, divided about equally between French and English-speaking groups, had regained a viable -- if short-lived -- niche in the fur trade and buffalo hunt. A new period of prosperity began as Métis operated a freight service by ox cart between Red River and St. Paul, Minnesota. Their final golden age ended with the decline of the fur trade and the coming of the steamboat.

Disaster for prairie Indians and Métis alike began during the 1850’s, when their region came to be seen in what is now Ontario as a place for the land-hungry to establish a new civilization. George Brown, leader of the Reform party, boomed from his Toronto newspaper, The Globe, in 1856: "Let the merchants of Toronto consider that if their city is ever to be made really great if it is ever to rise above the rank of a fifth rate American town -- it must be by the development of the great British territory lying to the north and west." Was the prairie West with all its inhabitants to become an economic colony to the central provinces in general, and Toronto in particular?

When prairie Canada was sold by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the newly-formed Dominion of Canada in 1869, it was done without even minimal consideration of existing Indian and Métis land claims in the region. Friction quickly followed.

Louis Riel’s first Red River rebellion of 1869-70 led to the reluctant creation of the province of Manitoba by the Macdonald government in 1870. Control of public lands and natural resources within its approximately one hundred square mile area was reserved for Ottawa -- which was not the case for any other existing province -- because the Macdonald government wanted to determine itself precisely how the West would be developed. Although arguments still exist that federal control of prairie homesteading was necessary for a number of years if life was to be breathed successfully into national settlement and railway policies, the future was thus determined for both English- and French-speaking Métis. Central Canadians had essentially ignored their aspirations and needs by making a farce of their provincehood.

Social humiliation for the Métis, who in fact constituted about three quarters of Red River’s 12,000 residents, followed the birth of Manitoba. Degradation came primarily at the hands of those of Colonel Wolseley’s disbanded soldiers who remained in Manitoba and who were openly contemptuous of anyone who was "French," "papist" or a "breed." The new province quickly became a boiling cauldron of animosity. A minority of Métis left for the more hospitable social climate of the western United States. Some left Manitoba to attempt to recreate their former lifestyle along the North Saskatchewan River near Prince Albert; most chose to remain on their farms in Manitoba or to establish new ones on land promised to the Métis.

Following the crushing of the North-West Rebellion in 1885, the Métis were completely routed as a people. Their homes were looted and burned, their cattle were stolen, and the people themselves were dispersed. Many sought entry into Indian bands on the basis of their Indian blood. Some migrated to northern Alberta. Their independent spirit was severely dampened.

The census records tell the story. In 1881, of the 56,500 people in the North-West Territories the overwhelming majority, 49,500, were either Indian or Métis. By 1901, of a total population in the region of 159,000 only 26,304 were listed as Indian or Métis. Many of the missing 23,000 Métis and Indians, concludes the Métis historian Don McLean, had simply "moved on, beyond the reach of the census takers, to the marginal bushlands at the fringe of the Arctic. Others fled to the U.S.A., while many who remained were reluctant to identify themselves as Métis, fearing reprisal and persecution."

In 1901, the highly-respected Father Lacombe and others developed a plan with the Laurier government to establish a Métis reserve in central Alberta. For various reasons, including Métis distrust of both Ottawa and the western branch of the Roman Catholic Church (many felt their church had sided with Macdonald against Riel in 1885), only eighty families were persuaded to move on to the reserve near St. Paul des Métis (later shortened to St. Paul) in northeastern Alberta. Against the wishes of a frail and aging Lacombe, the reserve was later disbanded and settlers from Quebec first arrived to settle on it in 1908.

By the Depression year of 1930, the demoralization of a proud people was complete and their leadership was virtually dormant. Those who had succeeded in the transformed prairie order as farmers and entrepreneurs, concludes McLean, "were coming to be seen in the community as ‘white men’, not Métis."

Since 1945, the progress of the Métis people has been more positive. According to the 1986 census, there are today approximately 150,000 Canadians of Métis origin, about two thirds of whom live in Western Canada. Educational opportunities have improved, and Métis people have entered trades and professions in the West and some have found recognition outside their own region. Douglas Cardinal, for example, is the architect of the new Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Blatantly racist interpretations of Canadian history are being revised. Métis community pride has revived to a considerable degree, and Métis associations have been rejuvenated in both Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Métis rights were entrenched at least in theory in the Canadian constitution, and leaders like Louis "Smokey" Bruyère, president of the Native Council of Canada, are being heard. Bruyère himself notes: "Just before his death, in 1885, Louis Riel predicted it would be three hundred years before the Métis took their rightful place in Canada. We’ve just passed year 100, and Métis are entrenched as an aboriginal people in the Canadian Constitution, the highest law of the land -- not bad for starters." Much remains to be done, but a brighter Métis future is clearly indicated.

While the Métis children of Manitoba won a land grant of sorts from Macdonald, prairie Indians from the 1870’s on were treated as wards of the federal government. Alexander Morris, who arranged the initial prairie treaties for the Macdonald government, revealed much when he said: "Let us have Christianity and civilization to leaven the masses of heathenism and paganism among the Indian tribes; let us have a wise and paternal government faithfully carrying out the provisions of our treaties. [Native people] are wards of Canada, let us do our duty by them." This policy would result in a considerable number of cultural, mental, and physical deaths for Western Indians over the decades.

The changing world of Indians on the Canadian prairies in the second half of the 19th century is caught well in the following description: "A typical Cree youth might have been hunting buffalo and raiding for horses in the 1860’s just as his grandfather had done sixty years before; in the 1870’s, he might have succumbed to the whiskey trade or been struck by an epidemic; almost certainly he would have been removed to a reserve and perhaps even taught the rudiments of agriculture. In the 1880’s, some of his children might have been attending school, and he, having faced starvation for three or four years in succession, might have participated in the violence associated with the 1885 uprising. But nothing within his power could alter the circumstances of his life: the buffalo had disappeared, trains and fences and towns now dominated the plains, and the old ways had disappeared beyond recovery."

The white Canadian invasion of the western plains hit full stride after 1870. Just before that date there were 25-35,000 Indians, another 10,000 Métis and fewer than 2,000 whites on the Canadian prairies. A concerned Macdonald government, which held the constitutional responsibility for Indians and their lands, signed a number of treaties by the end of the 1870’s with as much pomp and ceremony as individual circumstances permitted.

There were probably three major misrepresentations by the officials "negotiating" the treaties. First, they knew the value of the land to be ceded to the Crown whereas the Indians clearly did not. Second, the chiefs and bands had no legal or other knowledgeable advisors. Third, most of the Indians who signed could not really have understood the meaning of many treaty terms or their binding effect on future generations. They were simply swindled.

Prairie Reality

In the 1870s, prairie Indian bands had no choice but to sign treaties because the huge buffalo population, which at its peak had numbered 50-60 million throughout the North American plains, was annihilated between 1874 and 1879. Some token conservation measures were considered in Ottawa and by some of the territorial governments, but nothing worthwhile was done in time to regulate the massacre by the white and native hunters supplying the American hide trade. Indians, who for a century had relied on the buffalo for food, faced starvation in the 1880’s. The Macdonald government did move more quickly to provide emergency rations to Indians, as Friesen points out, than it had to preserve the buffalo. "But," he goes on, "what is striking, in retrospect, is the government’s apparent use of food rations as a means of coercing reluctant Indians into the treaties and, later, as a tool for controlling Indian diplomatic activity."

For example, three major Cree leaders, Big Bear, Piapot and Little Pine, sought to create adjoining reserves for their bands in which they might jointly maintain considerable autonomy. Ottawa’s Indian Affairs Commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, first used food rations as a means of sending each of their bands to different locations on the prairies which were 300 miles apart. When a Cree revolt over the issues of local autonomy and larger reserves seemed imminent in 1883, Dewdney threatened ration cuts: ‘submit or starve’. He abandoned this option only when Prime Minister Macdonald agreed to enlarge the Mounted Police and to amend the Indian Act to permit the arrest of any Indian present on another reserve without the permission of Indian Affairs officials.

When some young Crees and Assiniboines killed nine white men at Frog Lake in Central Saskatchewan during Riel’s NorthWest Rebellion in 1885, Dewdney and Macdonald had the perfect opportunity to crush Cree efforts to win treaty revisions and a single large reserve. Chief Poundmaker of the Crees, who had not approved of the uprising and in fact had ordered his followers not to slaughter a contingent of Canadian soldiers who had attacked them at Cutknife Hill, soon found himself on trial for treason with eighty other Indians. His trial was a caricature of justice. George Denison, a police magistrate and observer of the proceedings, said that the chief was "convicted on evidence that, in any ordinary trial would have ensured his acquittal without the jury leaving the box...." Poundmaker died, broken in spirit, within four months of his release from Stoney Mountain penitentiary near Winnipeg. Centuries of Indian hegemony on the prairies died with him.

The loss of land, hunting and fishing rights, dignity, self-sufficiency and nationhood by Western Indians was both a regional and a national tragedy. In 1895, the Cree Chief Piapot, known for both his humour and his eloquence, put a common Indian view this way: "In order to become sole masters of our land they relegated us to small reservations as big as my hand and made us promises as long as my arm; but the next year the promises were shorter and got shorter every year until now they are the length of my finger, and they keep only half of that."

West of the Rockies, the pattern was similar although both coastal and interior Indians were largely undisturbed by outsiders until the late eighteenth century. British, Spanish and Russian explorers thereafter arrived by sea; fur traders came from the East to establish posts in the early nineteenth century. By the 1860s, British Columbia Indians had been severely weakened by European diseases, and those remaining were terrified of ending upon reserves. The British Columbia government nonetheless set aside reserves for them, although the issue of title would remain unresolved to the present day. Probably again because there was no need for settlement lands, no treaties were obtained by Ottawa from Indians anywhere in the province except in an extreme northern corner. Chief William of the William’s Lake Indian band wrote to The Victoria Daily Colonist in 1880: "I am an Indian Chief and a Christian. ‘Do unto others as you wish others should do unto you’ is Christian doctrine. Is the white man a Christian? This is part of his creed -- ‘take all you want if it belongs to an Indian.’ He has taken all our land and all the salmon and we have -- nothing. He believes an Indian has a right to live if he can live on nothing at all...."

Indian Act

Few prairie Indians realized early on that the aboriginal rights recognized in the solemn treaties signed with Her Majesty the Queen were subject to the Indian Act of the Canadian Parliament, passed in 1876 and still in full force today. As Harold Cardinal, the former President of the Indian Association of Alberta, puts it, "They never understood that the agents who came among them came, not because of the treaties they had signed, but because there had been a piece of legislation called the Indian Act… legislation totally separate, totally remote from the whole treaty-making process."

The Indian Act mandated the federal Indian Affairs Department to control virtually every aspect of Indian life, including economic development, municipal and provincial government matters, politics, land use and education. Cardinal notes that the only power chiefs and councils possess under the Act which does not first require them to seek permission from the Indian agent is controlling weeds on reserves. The legislation purports to protect and encourage Indians, but in fact affords no respect whatsoever for their culture, religion or traditional way of life.

The policy behind the Indian Act was based on two misconceptions: first, Indians were regarded as incapable of managing their own affairs, a view which led to a perceived need for paternalism; second, the values, culture and lifestyles of native peoples were looked upon as inferior to those of the white society. Such views, notes law professor Peter Cumming, "resulted in the virtual destruction of the Indian people. They have been deprived, unlike any other group of Canadians, of the opportunity of learning by self-experience and initiative. They have been placed in the proverbial 1984 welfare state with consequential destruction of pride and ultimately self-identity."

The manner of federal government control and administration of reserve lands is virtually unchanged from that adopted in 1876 when the Indian Act became law. The provisions of the legislation do not allow for aboriginal self-government and self-management. "Today Indian legislation generally rests on the principle that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the state," said the 1876 document of the Department of the Interior. Georges Erasmus, President of the Assembly of First Nations, believes such attitudes towards the native peoples still prevail in the 1980s and views his people as "wards of the government with no real ability to influence their communities."

Native War Records

The contribution of Indians and Natives in both World Wars is of considerable interest. Between 3,500 and 4,000 Indians from a total of 11,500 eligible for service across the country enlisted voluntarily in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I. This constituted a 35% enlistment rate and was at least equal to the ratio of the non-Indian population. Native people also raised approximately $44,000 by the end of the first World War to donate to various war relief funds.

The Indians who volunteered paid a significant price in terms of the killed, wounded and sick. Many of them were decorated for conspicuous bravery. Alberta historian James Dempsey writes: "In summary, the contributions of Indians in the military aspect of the war effort were comparable to that of other Canadians. The major difference was that Indians were not required or expected to serve, but they did so with gallantry and valor."

Returning Treaty Indian veterans did not receive the same assistance as other soldiers. Their lot had not improved and their contribution was soon forgotten. Fred Gaffen in his work on the native peoples’ role in both World Wars, Forgotten Soldiers, describes the problems many Indians faced in obtaining land grants under the Soldier Settlement Act of 1919. He concluded: "only half a dozen grants of free land under the Soldier Settlement Act were given to Indian veterans of the Great War on the Prairies off the reserves." Out of 25,000 soldier settlers to whom land loans were granted, only 224 were Indian soldiers, most of them from Ontario, with their locations on the reserves. Indian veterans on reserves in need of help were to be treated like other Indians on reserves rather than as veterans and were not eligible for War Veterans Allowance. It was not until 1936 that this policy was modified and the Indian veterans on reserves received the same benefits as others. After 1918, the hope of the better future for which they had fought faded away for many Native veterans. Dempsey puts it, "The hopes of the Indians not only did not materialize, but in fact their economic status decreased from what it had been before the war. As a result, the era of the 1920’s has been noted as a time of marked decline for the Indians, economically, numerically and politically."

When World War II began, Canadians of aboriginal origin again responded well. Approximately 3,000 treaty Indians enlisted along with many Métis and non-status Indians. Those who survived and returned were again treated with contempt. Louis Bruyère writes: "One of Canada’s greatest shames has to be how aboriginal veterans were presented medals and decorations via the back doors of legions by the same comrades they fought with. The laws and cultural ignorance of the day made it impossible for aboriginal veterans to sit in taverns and bars with their non-aboriginal buddies and reminisce about the war."

The living conditions of Indian veterans and their families again deteriorated from what they had been before the war. Bruyère: "The families of those Indian men who had to give up their Indian status in order to join the Canadian armed forces and were killed in battle faced new odds because they lost the support systems of the reserves. Wives and children with little or no marketable skills were forced to turn to the welfare system for survival and today you can witness the results. Many of the grandchildren of these people are also on welfare because they had no other role model to imitate or follow." In such circumstances, the demonstrated patriotism among natives from Western Canada and elsewhere borders on the astonishing.

A report prepared by Indian Affairs officials and published in 1980 documented the story of Indian conditions during the previous ten to twenty years. Life expectancy was on average 10 years less than that of the national population. Indian death rates were 2 to 4 times the national average. The number of deaths due to suicide was almost 3 times the national rate. The report concluded that the major causes of Indian deaths were illnesses associated with poor housing and living conditions. In the 19 80’s the native unemployment rate in some regions reaches 90%. Many of Canada’s 700,000 aboriginal people live amid alcoholism, unemployment, despair and suicide.

Recent Trends

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a reawakening Indian consciousness, a rebirth of native pride, a rediscovery of Indian culture and traditions, and a growing desire of native peoples to redefine their place in Confederation. Indians who astonishingly until 1960 were not even allowed to vote in federal elections (unless they relinquished their legal Indian status) sought to reaffirm their right to self-determination. Indian leaders emerged who forcefully expressed their desire to gain equality with other Canadians and at the same time to maintain their heritage.

Since 1977, aboriginal groups have actively sought recognition of their "inherent right to self-government," a right they exercised before Europeans arrived in North America and which many believe has never been extinguished. Claims that political structures were unknown to native people prior to contact with Europeans ignore the fact that most First Nations have complex forms of government that go back centuries.

As religion was an integral part of the aboriginal life, their governments were operated according to spiritual values. Government was often conducted on the basis of traditions modified with pragmatic innovations. The Potlatch, for example, was a West Coast system for calling assemblies. Through ceremonies, songs, dances and speeches, new leaders were installed in office. Ottawa chose to outlaw the Potlatch, and attendance at Potlatch functions was prohibited by law as late as 1951. People who lived according to Potlatch had to practise their religious beliefs clandestinely and were forced to live under a system of government imposed on them.

The House of Commons Special Committee on Indian Self-Government in its 1983 report emphasized the value of the understanding it had gained during the hearings. "All Canadians," it said, "would benefit from similar information so that their understanding of their relationship to the Indian First Nations could be extended. In this way, the popular view of Indians could be corrected. They would learn that Indians were not pagan and uncultured, but peoples who moved from free, self-sustaining First Nations to a state of dependency and social disorganization as the result of a hundred years of nearly total government control." The special committees made 58 recommendations. The first was that the federal government should establish a new relationship with the Indian First Nations, and that an essential element of this relationship must be Indian self-government.

Meech Lake

A fourth and final First Ministers’ Constitutional Conference held in March 1987 in Ottawa focussed on the self-government issue, but failed to produce an amendment to the Canadian constitution. No further meetings are planned, and the prospects of amending the constitution to accommodate aboriginal self-government in the near future are poor.

The 1987 Meech Lake Constitutional Accord is seen by native leaders as having a negative impact on aboriginal peoples. "Aboriginal peoples are left out of any realistic chance of being included in the future constitutional order.... It ransoms our long term future for the short run gains of eleven First Ministers," says Louis Bruyère. Aboriginal leaders have put forward several proposals addressing their concerns which might be accommodated within the framework of the Meech Lake Accord. Hope persists among the native leaders that public pressure on the federal and provincial governments will eventually bring about native self-government.

Northerners, native and white, generally share with natives the sense of being left out by the Meech Lake Accord because they see opportunities for provincehood in the two Territories virtually eliminated. The creation of new provinces in the future requires the unanimous consent of all provinces. "This requirement effectively denies the Yukon’s hope of future provincehood and is unacceptable to Northerners," says the Yukon government leader Tony Penikett.

The fallback position for the Dene, asserts Erasmus, is provincial status for the North because only above the 60th parallel are aboriginal peoples sufficiently numerous to be able to influence their own governments. Otherwise the vast North will remain a storehouse for the future resource needs of Southern Canadians. But how will all ten provincial governments agree to provide status as required by the Meech Lake Accord? The accord, Erasmus goes on, "has made it impossible for us to become provinces." The only other option for Northerners, an attempt to renew the constitutional negotiations, seems equally unlikely to be productive.

In Fort Simpson N.W.T. late in 1987, Pope John Paul II called for more self-government for natives and for a new round of talks so that aboriginal rights may finally be entrenched in the Canadian constitution. He reaffirmed for native peoples the need for a "just and equitable degree of self-governing with a land base and adequate resources necessary for the development of a viable economy for present and future generations." In reply to a question, he said that Canadian natives "don’t have it good," adding that the opportunity to call for the re-opening of the constitutional talks and a just and equitable land-claims agreement were important reasons for his trip.

Northern Blues

An estimated 10,000 Indians and Métis and 17,000 Inuit share 1.2 million square miles with 20,000 whites in the Northwest Territories. In the much smaller Yukon territory, there are currently about 3,000 Indians and Métis and 19,000 whites. Both territories are essentially still colonies of Ottawa, and many of the same practices which troubled Western Canadians earlier are still carried out as a matter of habit north of the sixtieth parallel.

One major native grievance is the continuing attack on hunting and trapping, the traditional way of life and source of livelihood, by animal rights groups in metropolitan Canada. Trapping in fact remains one of the major economic activities over approximately two-thirds of the land area of Canada.

There are many other grievances, one being the relocation during World War II of many Yukon natives from their hunting camps into towns -- some forcibly -- by our federal government. The same thing happened in the Northwest Territories during the 1950s. Effective control of native lives by whites is especially frustrating because there are not enough town jobs in the North and many do not wish to move out of the North.

An important mix of language and aboriginal title issues recently arose east of Yellowknife where the Inuit, representing more than 95 percent of the permanent residents of the vast Eastern Arctic, contend their traditional language of Inuktitut must be entrenched in any land-claim settlement under the Canadian Constitution. The Inuit negotiators are determined that their language, which holds, for example, twenty words for the different types of snow, does not disappear like so many other aboriginal languages because of anglicization. Ottawa’s negotiators have until now refused to consider this, contending in effect that to concede a constitutional language right here would somehow require Ottawa to concede the same to languages spoken by new Canadians in Southern Canada. The Inuit’s persuasive counter is that without constitutional protection the same pressures could result in the same consequences as have appeared over the decades for minority official languages in various provinces. If Ottawa recognizes Inuktitut as an official language in work places, schools and courts only within the land claims area along with English and French, it would also assist more Inuit to find jobs locally. An important language ball is clearly in Ottawa’s court following its recent success in signing a historic agreement with the Dene and Métis of Northern Canada.

Native land claims have emerged in recent years as the focus of the North-South dispute partly because many northern natives see land, in the language of Northerner René Lamothe, as "Mother because she gives life, because she is the provider, the protector, the comforter.... We cannot stand on her with integrity and respect and claim to love the life she gives and allow her to be ravaged." The Edmonton academic Gurston Dacks judges that most northern natives believe a favourable settlement of their land claims would give them within Canada "a meaningful control over the many features of their lives that influence their self-definitions and their collective life as a people."

In the western half of the present Northwest Territories, the Dene and Inuit co-existed with Europeans for many years. No treaties were entered for a long period, most likely because no one in Ottawa thought there was any land in the region worth controlling. Indeed, as Georges Erasmus points out, Treaty No. 8 was made applicable to part of northern British Columbia and part of the territory north of 60 degrees only after the Klondike Gold discovery in 1896, so that Ottawa could open a right of way for thousands of panhandlers streaming north to Dawson City. Only in 1921-22 after oil was discovered at Norman Wells, he adds, was Treaty 11 negotiated with the Dene, presumably so that southern access for oil exploration could be enhanced.

Erasmus, a Dene himself, stresses that aboriginal peoples across the North as well as in Southern Canada had considerable experience with treaties long before the European version arrived. Peace and friendship treaties were common, as were others providing for an exchange of hunting privileges. What was different about the Canadian treaties for aboriginals, says Erasmus, was that the Canadian treaty negotiators, unlike native ones, "could look you in the eye and lie. What made it even worse was that they could do so in front of their own holy men who often observed the discussions." The Northerners thought Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 were peace and friendship treaties of the earlier type.

Only in the late 1960s, when roads within the Treaty 11 land area began to appear, did younger Dene began to question their elders’ view that there was little more than peace and friendship involved. Some elders, trusting in the oral version, simply did not believe the written version of Treaty 11 when it was read to them. Very hard feelings resulted in some communities when it became clear that Dene land title might have been surrendered. When the move to build the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline began in the 1970’s, other northern peoples realized that without reserves or other land bases their futures were gravely threatened. They pushed hard for comprehensive settlements of their claims to win the possibility of economic self-sufficiency through resource royalties.

In the native view, ten years of negotiations ended badly in March 1987, when the federal cabinet indicated that the settlement would consist not of land and royalties but of a cash payment over a 20-year period. That meant only perpetual poverty to many northern natives.

The essential legal demand of the northern aboriginal peoples, including the Métis Association of the N.W.T., the Dene Nation, the Inuit Tapirisat and the Committee for Original Peoples Entitlement (COPE), is that particular areas of the North should be designated as governmental units. Those governments should then be delegated responsibility for some matters of importance to their native residents. The organizations argue that native people enjoy rights to lands occupied by them since time immemorial and that accordingly "the customary law of native people [must] be protected and recognized."

Some observers believe that, if a reasonable accommodation of native views is not recognized quickly by Southern Canadians, Northern Canada could become a new centre of major separatist activity.

A significant breakthrough in longstanding northern land claims was reached in September, 1988, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and representatives of 15,000 Dene and Métis signed an agreement-in-principle. The agreement provides the natives of the Mackenzie River Valley with ownership of 10,000 square kilometres, surface rights to an additional 170,000, and a $500 million settlement in cash. The agreement, which took 15 years to achieve, is welcome. It represents a large step forward in resolving northern land claims even though some critical areas remain to be settled, particularly those dealing with aboriginal rights and self-government. A pattern for future settlements with other northern native groups has been established, and the way is open to settle Canada’s account with our aboriginal peoples honourably.


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