While the Assembly of First Nations was pursuing change at the level of the constitution and philosophy, many Native communities were in crisis. For them, constitutional guarantees would do nothing to help the immediate, acute problems of housing shortages, suicide epidemics, and devastating alcoholism. Instead, they called on a community-based, "roots up" approach to addressing these issues. One of those troubled communities was in Labrador, or Nitassinan, as they call it, an area not covered by any treaty.
The Innu (as the Indian people of Labrador refer to themselves) called attention to their plight in a concerted opposition to the activities of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization jet training facility at Goose Bay. This campaign, which received significant support in the late 1980s from environmental and peace activists on both sides of the Atlantic, led to demonstrations, sit-ins, and criminal trials that helped politicize the quest of the Innu for fair treatment. Another target of their protest in the mid-1990s was the International Nickel Company, which purchased title to the huge nickel deposit at Voisey's Bay. The human side of the politics of exclusion and diminished hope faced by the Indigenous peoples of Nitassinan was underlined by recurring rounds of media attention aimed at chronicling a suicide epidemic of mostly young people at the Innu reserve of Davis Inlet. In 1993, 90 attempted suicides occurred in a community of only 500 people. Then, in the late 1990s, an epidemic of gas sniffing among the youth at Sheshatshiu captured the essence of the human tragedy being played out in the region.
The struggle of the Innu in Nitassinan has given rise to the work of a number of important Aboriginal spokespeople, including Katie Rich, Peter Penashue, Daniel Ashini, and Mr. Justice James Igloliorte, the first Aboriginal judge in Newfoundland and Labrador. Peter Penashue is on record as having said, "just as Israel will have to deal with the PLO... Canada will have to deal with the Innu."In a speech to the Newfoundland Teachers' Association, Daniel Ashini presented a devastating critique not only of the experience of the Innu but also of virtually all First Nations moved off the lands and resources of the Americas to make way for hostile forms of industrial exploitation. He said: "The frontier vision is, for us, a vision of death. It says we have no place in Labrador and Eastern Quebec, except as a rotting heap of humanity clustered in rural ghettos."
Gender issues had been percolating since the 1960s, when Mary Two-Axe Early, a Kahnawake woman, brought her case to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. She pointed out that under the Indian Act, a Status Indian woman who married a non-Indian man would lose her status, but the same was not true for an Indian man who married a non-Indian woman. Early became a lightning rod for the issue, and founded Equal Rights for Indian Women. This organization and its successors (including the Native Women's Association of Canada) supported women like Jeanette Corbiere Laval, Sandra Lovelace, Mary Lou Fox, and others who carried on the legal and political struggle for gender equality in the government's definition of First Nations' citizenship.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 provided a legal tool for their campaigns. Using the Charter, these women demanded and finally received equal treatment under the law. Bill C-31, a bill to amend the Indian Act, was passed in 1985. This legislation eliminated the discriminatory clause and provided that women who had been removed from band lists under it could apply for reinstatement (as could their children).
While many Canadians saw this issue as a straightforward matter of simple justice, it actually posed a fundamental challenge to the concept of Aboriginal rights. The Assembly of First Nations and others had long been arguing that Aboriginal rights were collective rights, but the arguments for women's rights were based on liberal ideas of individual equality, not collective identity. Thus, not all Aboriginal people (including quite a few women) opposed the passage of Bill C-31. Many of the amendment's opponents felt that this legislative enactment consolidated Parliament's subordination of the First Nations even as it undermined the group basis of Aboriginal rights.
The Native Women's Association of Canada took an active role in the campaign against the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, producing television ads and going to court to win the right to official standing in the first ministers' constitutional consultations. Their concern was that recognition of an inherent right to Aboriginal self-government, disconnected from any necessity to adhere to those individual rights outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, would lead to the entrenchment of patriarchal and unaccountable forms of band government on many Indian reserves.
Another difficult issue in the 1980s and 1990s continued to swirl around those parts of Canada where treaties were negotiated but where whole Aboriginal communities had been excluded from the original negotiations. This lack of standing often deprived them and their descendants of any secure land base. The most famous such case is that of the Lubicon Lake Cree Nation in the Peace River district of Alberta.
The Lubicon Lake people were among those Native bands missed by the dominion's negotiators in Treaty 8, which was formalized in 1898 and 1899 following the discovery of gold in the Klondike. In 1940, the federal government moved to create a reserve for the Lubicons, but this initiative was abandoned when the parties could not agree on the size or location of the reserve. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Harold Cardinal and the Indian Association of Alberta attempted to draw attention to the problem, which was becoming particularly acute as the oil and gas industry pushed into the previously isolated ancestral lands of the formerly self-sufficient Lubicons. The Lubicons and their supporters, especially in the World Council of Churches, brought their grievances to the Alberta judiciary and subsequently to the court of public opinion in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Japan. At the centre of this international activism was a very close partnership between the Lubicon Chief, Bernard Ominayak, and his principal advisor, Fred Lennarson. The latter was a highly effective student of the American civil rights movement and of the well-known social activist, Saul Alinsky.
The Lubicons and their supporters pioneered many new frontiers of activism using, for instance, the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics to publicize their issues. Where the federal Crown corporation, Petro-Canada, organized the cross-Canada Olympic Torch Run to "Share the Flame," the Lubicons and their allies organized a parallel event calling on Canadians to "Share the Shame." In a related action that severely polarized the world of professional anthropologists and ethnographers, the Lubicons attached their issues to an exhibit of Native artefacts mounted by the Glenbow Museum, called "The Spirit Sings." This display was designed as the principal cultural event associated with the Calgary Olympics and was designed to travel across the country. The Lubicons called on museums to boycott the exhibit, arguing that is was hypocritical for oil and gas companies, including Petro-Canada and Shell Oil, to sponsor the exhibit, given their own role in the despoliation of Lubicon lands. They asked, how could such enterprises ethically associate their corporate images with the Aboriginal heritage, when they were actively engaged in obliterating the territorial and economic basis for First Nations peoples themselves to express continuity with their own cultural roots?
In the 1990s, the Lubicons broadened the target of their activism from government to a range of corporations whose operations impacted negatively on Lubicon lands. In particular, they targeted the Diashowa company of Japan, a manufacturer of paper products. Working through their allies organized as Friends of the Lubicons, a group that was closely connected to the Aboriginal Rights Coalition supported by Canada's mainstream Christian churches, the Lubicon organized a boycott of Diashowa.
In the late 1990s, the Diashowa corporation took the Friends of the Lubicons to court in an attempt to have the boycott outlawed. The case, which raised fundamental constitutional issues of freedom of expression, drew the support of the Sierra Club's legal defence fund. Many important legal and political debates emerged from this widening of the sphere of Aboriginal activism into the thoroughfares of commerce and corporate imagery. One issue involved the contrast between the easy ability of a foreign company to acquire title to contested lands, and the frustration of Indigenous peoples in their own concerted efforts to assert jurisdictional and proprietary rights. Another issue concerned the judicial determination of whether or not the word "genocide" could lawfully be used to describe the experience of First Nations peoples on the frontiers of industrial development.
James Bay Cree
The Cree peoples, whose traditional hunting territories lie in northeastern Quebec, have formed an especially important centre of Native activism since the early 1970s. In 1973, they challenged in court Hydro Quebec's massive installations in their ancestral lands and waters. Acting on the interpretation developed by F.R. Scott, the famed civil libertarian who in those years was Dean of the Law School at McGill University, the Crees won their case. Their victory can be seen as a reflection of the Canadian judiciary's growing familiarity with the constitutional heritage of Crown recognition of Aboriginal title as codified especially in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
Developments in the courts led Cree and Inuit representatives to negotiate in 1975 the first new treaty in Canada since the adhesion to Treaty 9 had been formalized in 1929. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement represented a major break with the century-long regime of the Indian Act. Through their treaty with the federal government as well as with the government of Quebec, the Cree acquired an infrastructure of self-governing institutions, including an education authority, a health and social services authority, and the capacity to establish business corporations such as Air Creebec. The James Bay Agreement, which was modelled in part on the Alaska Claims Settlement of 1971, established some basic models. These frameworks were replicated, with modifications, in the treaties negotiated with the Inuit and Indian groups in Canada's remaining federal territories in 1984 and throughout the 1990s.
From their relatively strong base of self-governing institutions, the James Bay Crees soon looked to the international community as one site of their lobbying efforts. They gained the status of a non-governmental organization at the United Nations and took part regularly in the annual gatherings in Geneva conducted by the UN's Working Group on Indigenous Populations. This international experience was to prove crucial when, in the early 1990s, the Cree looked to allies in the United States and elsewhere to help them stop an enormous expansion of Hydro-Quebec's dam works. This expansion was known as the Great Whale project. Among the Crees' allies were Robert Kennedy Jr. and the Sierra Club, one of the world's oldest and most influential environmental lobbies. As part of their drive to publicize their opposition to the Great Whale project, the Crees paddled a large canoe named Odayak from their own territory to New York City, where its crew played a high-profile role in that city's Earth Day.
The fight against Hydro Quebec gave rise to the participation on the international stage of Cree leader Mathew Coon Come. Chief Coon Come was especially outspoken in his insistence that the Cree would never allow their ancestral lands to be part of a sovereign Quebec if that province's independence movement was ever to attempt secession from the rest of Canada. On the eve of the Quebec referendum on sovereignty in 1995, Chief Coon Come organized a referendum among his own people. They gave him resounding support for his position vis à vis the possibility of Quebec independence. Mathew Coon Come frequently framed his arguments in very general terms, elaborating his view of the inherent right of all Indigenous peoples in Canada and beyond to exercise self-determination. His eloquence helped win him the top political job in Indian Country. In 2000, he defeated the incumbent, Phil Fontaine, in the contest for the position of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.