Aboriginal sovereignty article, printed in ‘The Eastern Door’ Nov. 8 2009

16 11 2009

Last  week, the powers of the Indian Act were called upon to impose an elected band council on the Barriere Lake community in Ontario. * Whether or not the Minister of Indian affairs was justified in forcing elections because the deeply divided community cannot settle on a Chief through traditional means, there is no question that Chuck Strahl’s action will cause the question of aboriginal sovereignty to be debated anew in many First Nations communities.

That question is also the inspiration for the week of Aboriginal Sovereignty that took place Oct 25-Nov 1 in Montreal and other major cities across Canada. The week was organized by the coalition Defenders of the Land, with the aim of educating non-Aboriginals about why First Nations fight so fiercely for their rights to self-determination and sovereignty, in a country whose nationality they refuse to adopt.

In Kahnawake, Quebec, community leaders still repeat what has been said many times before: traditional governance is best. Kenneth Deer has never voted in a municipal, provincial or federal election, and is proud of it.

“In most Iroquois communities, there is a voter turnout of about 20 per cent vote in civic elections,” said the Mohawk elder, formerly the editor and publisher of Kahnawake’s newspaper, The Eastern Door. “Most believe longhouse government is the best form of government,” he explained last Sunday to a group of Montrealers visiting the reserve.

About fifty urbanites from the Montreal area toured Kahnawake last Sunday for the final event of Aboriginal Sovereignty week. They learned that Mohawks like Deer consider themselves members of the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy, not citizens of Canada.

When Deer travels, which he does often due to his work over the past 20 years with the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which meets annually in Geneva, he uses a Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) passport. This passport is one example of what Indigenous Sovereignty means to the Mohawk people in Quebec. It is issued by the Iroquois and recognized more often than not by immigration controls around the world. If it’s not acknowledged as legitimate, Deer says he simply doesn’t travel to those countries.

The visit also included a trip to the Mohawk Traditional Council and a talk about traditional versus electoral band council governance by Stuart Myiow Jr.

The week-long series of events also included a panel called ‘Defenders of the Land, Overcoming Canada’s colonial agenda’ with Arthur Manuel, the former chairperson of the Interior Alliance of BC First Nations and Russell Diabo, editor of the First Nations Strategic Bulletin. Chad Katsenhake:ron Diabo of Kahnawake talked about cross cultural training: ‘What you need to know when working with First Nations Communities’. There was also a conversation about the Lower Churchill Dam on Innu land, as well as a workshop titled ‘Colonial Canada 101’ by the Barriere Lake community.

Two documentary screenings were presented by groups at Concordia University: Muffins for Granny about the effects of the residential school system on seven elders, and The Experimental Eskimos, about the attempted assimilation of Inuit boys in the 1960s.

Chad Diabo, one of the members of Defenders of the Land, works for Kahnawake Community Services and helped organize the Montreal events. He said one goal was to “get out to a new population, a new Canadian-Quebecer audience to talk about the issues and the struggles we’re having as Indigenous people.”

Last Thursday, as Diabo helped workers from Concordia’s le Frigo Vert set up the vegan “Anti-Colonialist Feast” at the Native Friendship Centre on St. Laurent Blvd., he said the average Canadian’s perception of native issues is largely negative.

“What gets out to the media is the negative,” said Diabo. “But they don’t seem to talk about [the government’s] policies when they don’t involve us in the decision-making process. They don’t talk about how they shift resources around, or the hoops we have to jump through to get to those resources.”

Defenders of the Land is only one year old, but it has a bold ambition: to force Canada to honour historic treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and to sign and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The non-binding UN declaration was passed 143 to 4 in September, 2007 in the UN’s General Assembly. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States voted against it.

At the time, the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs said the declaration was “inconsistent with the Canadian Constitution, the Charter, several acts of Parliament, and existing treaties.” Strahl cited problems with the wording regarding provisions on lands, territories, and resources.

Australia has since signed on to the declaration, but Canada still refuses on the grounds that it gives preferential rights to certain groups not accorded to others.

Diabo said this week is not about changing government policy however; it’s to inform the public about the daily problems faced by Aboriginals, “such as addictions, socio-economic problems, poverty, (and) poor water treatment,” he said. “Everyday Canadians aren’t told about what daily life is on the reserve– it is horrendous.”

Reactions from non-Aboriginals were largely positive. One student from Concordia University who wanted to remain anonymous said after the Kahnawake tour, “the cool thing about the Iroquois is they have a strong sense of sovereignty in relation to what they want.”

An immigrant from Tunisia, Marouane Tlili said, “We have a lot to learn from them – the Mohawk and other communities close to nature – in this time of multiple crises. We need to be inspired by a different way of seeing life and people, ways that aren’t based on materials and domination.”




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