Last week Commissioner Sidney Lindon released his report into the 1995 police attack on unarmed native protestors at Ipperwash, Ontario, and the shooting death of protestor Dudley George.
The report spreads the blame around, the Ontario Provincial Police, former premier Mike Harris, and a succession of federal governments who failed to settle land claims each getting a portion.
There is no question who was in the right at Ipperwash. The Kettle and Stony Point First Nation had been displaced to make way for an army camp during the Second World War.
The camp had long sat abandoned despite decades of appeals by its owners for the return of the land. The occupation was peaceful, and later spread to a nearby provincial park, which was also a native burial site.
As the report points out, there’s good reason to believe it could all have been settled with peaceful negotiations, had there been good will on the government side.
But these were in the days after the Oka confrontation, where a Quebec policeman had been killed in a standoff over a native burial ground.
Ontario had just elected Mike Harris, one of those right-wing bullies the Canadian political system continually tosses up and inevitably regrets. Harris had been elected on a get-tough-on-everything platform, and here was his first chance to prove himself a real cowboy.
Despite calls for a go-slow approach by police and civil servants, Harris pushed for confrontation. On the night before George was killed he told a high-level meeting, including several members of the OPP, “I want those fucking Indians out of the park.”
Harris emphatically denied the remark, but the commission found his denial implausible, essentially adding perjury to the list of crimes it places at his doorstep.
Harris and his lawyer claim that the report exonerates the former premier because it finds that he didn’t specifically order the police to invade the park that night and fire on unarmed demonstrators.
It’s not clear who was making that accusation, but Lindon endorses equally serious allegations that the former premier pushed for a quick solution, blocked any chance of negotiation, and ultimately bore a large share of the responsibility for the assault on the protestors and the death of George.
The report goes on to say that nothing significant has changed in relations between Canada and its aboriginal people since Ipperwash.
First Nations with perfectly legitimate claims are still ignored until the blockades go up, and then condemned when they do.
When aboriginal people take their claims to court they often win, and then discover that the next challenge is to get the government to uphold the court’s decision.
Last week Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale found that the territorial government had failed to consult with the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation over land disposition, as called for in its land claims agreement. A farmer applied for property in the First Nation’s traditional territory, adjacent to its settlement lands.
Little Salmon/Carmacks opposed the application on the grounds that it interfered with a working trapline, and because of general concerns over wildlife habitat, and possible future effects on treaty rights.
The government’s recently minted Land Application Review Committee ignored Little Salmon/Carmacks’ concerns, and allowed the application.
In court the government claimed it had consulted properly — presumably by reading and then ignoring the First Nation’s letter, and that at any rate it had no legal obligation to consult.
“What kind of consultation can there be,” Veale wrote, “when the government denies any legal obligation?”
Here, the judge puts his finger on the problem facing aboriginal people all over Canada, and the reason native leaders are warning the country to prepare for more blockades this summer.
Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie claimed in the legislature, “We do not view this as a stinging indictment or a rebuke or nothing of the sort…. We view this as the course of due process, as all have the right to access.”
In Veale’s decision, he pointed out the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled governments have a duty to consult with First Nations in a meaningful way. When a judge says you’ve been ignoring the Supreme Court, that’s a rebuke, and Fentie knows it.
Historically, Canada’s wealth has come from the extraction of its natural resources. Fur, fish, timber, minerals, oil — they have all made fortunes for a few and helped bring prosperity to the rest. We took them all from stolen land. We built our cities, farms, and homes on stolen land. In the process, First Nations were banished, impoverished, and disenfranchised.
They are now the poorest people in Canada, the least employed, the most over represented in our prisons, and the most likely to commit suicide and to fall prey to drugs, alcohol, disease, and all the other ails of poverty and dislocation.
There’s no returning the land now; it has 30 million settlers on it who wouldn’t be welcome back in their places of origin. But if it isn’t obvious that we have to start recognizing the land the First Nations still occupy, and sharing some of the wealth we’ve extracted along the way, there’s ample jurisprudence to clarify the matter.
Canada won’t be a fully realized nation until it makes a fair deal with its aboriginal people, a deal that not only compensates for past wrongs, but recognizes present and future rights.
If you’re held up by a native blockade this summer, try not to complain. Try instead saluting the protestors, or stopping to say thanks. They’re working to put your country right.