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The following is an excerpt from Resisting the State: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists, by Scott Neigh. Here, Indigenous activist Roger Obonsawin relates his experience with the Liberal government's attempt to assimilate Canada's Indigenous nations, and divisions caused by funding criteria set by the government. The interview (not included here) goes on to cover the development of Native Friendship Centres in Canada's urban centres, and the political struggles that shaped the contemporary reality.
Scott will be in Montreal to launch Resisting the State, along with its companion, Gender and Sexuality, on March 5. The launch starts at 7pm in room S1.255 of the Molson School of Business at Concordia University (1450 Guy, Metro Guy-Concordia). Visit the facebook event for more details.
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This chance to connect with urban indigenous communities came at a moment that meant Obonsawin was able to participate in and learn from important struggles. He said,
The big issue then, and that was in 1969, was the ’69 White Paper. [Then-Indian Affairs Minister Jean] Chrétien had just tabled the ’69 White Paper, which was really about assimilating Indians. We didn’t call it that in those days, “assimilation,” but it was really a termination policy that is being practised to this day.
The White Paper was a policy proposal by the government of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in part in response to the rise of militant indigenous activism in the U.S. and Canada in the late 1960s. It proposed to amend the British North America Act to terminate any legal distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada, abolish the Indian Act, turn reserve communities into municipalities subject to regular provincial jurisdiction, make service delivery to indigenous people just one small part of mainstream services, and break the few remaining lands reserved for indigenous nations down to individual ownership. These proposals denied the very existence of what in legal discourse are called “Aboriginal rights” and even its stron- gest proponents were quite open that the goal was to terminate the treaties. The recognition of indigenous people as indigenous in Canadian law has always been twisted, partial, and inherently colonial, but this would have ended even that minimal and oppressive reflection in settler institutions of indigenous peoples’ inherent rights to collective self-determination and to the land, and of the very status of indigenous nations as nations. The Liberals framed it as a radical and just shift in federal policy, but there was a response of unprecedented strength and unity across the length and breadth of indigenous nations to oppose the White Paper and name it as not a shift in the settler state’s genocidal policy toward indigenous peoples but rather its logical end point. The most visible focus for the opposition was initially the provincial political organizations that indigenous people had built over the preceding decades; a little later the National Indian Brotherhood under George Manuel took the lead. However, there were also significant grassroots stirrings at the same time.
Obonsawin’s role was peripheral, but he brushed up against some of that activity in Toronto and it played an important part in his growing political understanding:
I really started looking at the ’69 White Paper from that perspective, that it was just going to perpetuate the stereotypes, the images, and the poverty that existed. I got involved in some of the demonstra- tions. Very limited, because I was just learning the issues in ’69, and I was going to school so I didn’t have a lot of time to get involved in it.
At that time the Union of Ontario Indians was the only Native organization in Ontario. With the Union of Ontario Indians you could just buy a membership card. I think it was a dollar for a membership card, whether you were Métis, status, non-status. You’d get a card saying that you were a member of the Union of Ontario Indians [uoi].
They were organizing to march to Ottawa. I didn’t go to Ottawa for the marches but I was involved in some of the meetings that led to that.
The marches organized by the uoi, the vigorous leadership on the issue provided by the National Indian Brotherhood, and many other grassroots efforts across the country eventually pushed the Trudeau government to relent — it withdrew the White Paper in March of 1971. However, it is widely recognized, including by Obonsawin, that the underlying logic of the White Paper has remained at the core of federal policy with respect to indigenous peoples ever since. The federal government decided to take a different approach to achieving its goals and offered core funding to a much wider array of indigenous organizations. Obonsawin remembers that this strategy had a significant impact.
The tenor of the meetings changed quite dramatically before the demonstrations and after. Before the demonstration it was more, “How do we organize ourselves to fight this?” They were very effective in organizing to march on Ottawa. After that the tenor of the meetings was more, “How do we access funds to keep our organization going?” That is when splits started happening in the organization. There were people who were very involved but they were not status Indians ... and they were just told, “Oh, they are not going to be part of the organization any more,” because it was just going to be an organization for status Indians. So they took offence to that and they started the Métis and Non-Status Indian Association. Then even the status organization started splitting into smaller groups by treaty areas. It was all based on government criteria for getting funding, so in effect the funding really split us up.
Though alternatives seem unthinkable to many today, Obonsawin recalls that the organizations were quite successful at raising money at the time and had ideas for other approaches that could have been sustainable. For instance, famous Cree musician
Buffy Sainte-Marie organized a concert at Convocation Hall to raise money. They had a pot of money. Wilmer Nadjiwon told me about how they were negotiating with the auto workers union — I think it was the auto workers, one of the big national unions anyway — to have one dollar from their union fees for the Union of Ontario Indians for their operation so that they wouldn’t have to rely on government funding.
Wilmer Nadjiwon, Art Solomon, some of those people were saying [of government funding], “No. As soon as you accept that money we’ll lose what we developed already. They’re trying to split us apart.” They fought that hard and they lost. The government won. To me, that was a very crucial point in our development. We had the potential for being a very unified community. From there, the splits started to happen.