By the mid-1990s, the ineffectiveness and format of the treaty-making process in British Columbia was generating a movement of hard-line resistance. These activists insisted that Indian nations were sovereign entities subject only to international law, not Canadian or provincial jurisdiction. This AIM-inspired group called itself the Ts'peten Defenders. They combined many of the same arguments first brought forward by AIM during the 1970s with allegations that British Columbia had developed outside the imperial constitution of British North America. The key strategist of the self-declared "Defenders" was Splitting The Sky, a Longhouse disciple of Louis Hall and a keen student of Deskaheh's efforts at the League of Nations. He worked closely with Jones Ignace, a Shuswap elder also known as Wolverine. After the Ts'peten Defenders' controversial lawyer, Bruce Clark, was effectively criminalized for his unorthodox defence of his clients, Wolverine was incarcerated for four years for his role in the armed standoff in 1995 at Gustafsen Lake.

Some see Wolverine's lengthy incarceration as one element of an extensive body of evidence indicating that the standoff at Oka in 1990 brought North America's small-scale, smouldering Indian war to Canada. Prominent among the casualties was Dudley George, a peaceful Ojibway protester who was killed in 1995 by an Ontario Provincial Police officer during a non-violent effort to assert First Nations jurisdiction in an Indian burial ground near Ipperwash, Ontario. In the case of the United States v. James Pitawawankwat, the American judiciary apparently adopted the view that the severity of conflict with the First Nations over land and resources has consistently been downplayed and misrepresented. In Portland, Oregon, during the autumn of 2000, Judge Janice Stewart refused the U.S. State Department's request to extradite James Pitawankwat back to Canada. Pitawankwat is a Native veteran of the Battle of Gustafsen Lake. In overruling the executive branch of the U.S. government, this judicial intervention effectively made Canada's Aboriginal policies the subject of American foreign policy.

In her ruling, the Portland judge discussed the struggle undertaken by Pitawankwat's group. She commented, "To characterize the Ts'peten Defenders as engaged in a mere land dispute or disagreement with government policy is to trivialize the nature of the controversy. Control over land is one of the primary reasons for the existence of government and often is the cause of wars between nations. Given its substantial economic consequences, the Aboriginal title question in Canada clearly is a highly charged issue for both native and non-native people." In recognizing the political character of Pitawankwat's convictions in Canada, the judge compared the Canadian government's disputes with First Nations to conflicts between the Israeli government and the Palestinians, the British government and the Irish Republican Army, and the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists. She determined that "the Gustafsen Lake incident involved an organized group of Native people rising up in their homeland against the occupation by the government of Canada of their sacred and unceded tribal land." The court found further that "the seriousness of the challenge to Canadian jurisdiction over unceded tribal lands is evidenced by the fact that large military forces were deemed necessary to supress the challenge."

Dozens of other protests flared up to large and small effect during the late 1990s. Off the shores of Burnt Church reserve in New Brunswick, for instance, the waters were alive with acrimony between the contending parties riding in three classes of boats. One of these classes of vessel belonged to Native lobster fishers engaged in what they saw as lawful efforts to realize the ambivalent terms of the Supreme Court's controversial decision in the case brought forward by Donald Marshall Jr. Another class of boats belonged to non-Aboriginal fishers who believed the Native fishers were taking lobster out of season and thereby damaging precious breeding stock. The third class of boats belonged to the Federal Department of Fisheries, whose political masters were determined to show that jurisdiction over the fish resources of Canada's ocean coasts are under the exclusive control of Ottawa.

While many of the demonstrations were directed at non-Aboriginal governments and corporations, another category of protest was directly squarely at Indian men and women. These individuals were accused of abusing the money and political power vested in them by the federal government through the machinery of the Indian Act. Band offices were occupied or blocked by residents looking for explanations of how federal transfer payments to Indian bands were being spent. In reflecting on the $6 billion budget of the federal Indian Affairs ministry, Rita Galloway from Saskatchewan, commented, "No one really knows how the money is actually spent. No one can track where its sic] all going... the Indian Act elected leadership] make investments in the name of the band that are really for them. The chiefs and councillors stand up and make flowery speeches, but its sic] just talk. They have absolute power. They've been handed a blank cheque."34 This surge of political energy from grassroots people demanding some financial accountability from their elected leadership caused the Department of Indian Affairs to move quickly and dramatically to avert scandal. By 1999, over one quarter of all Indian bands were placed under the trusteeship of accounting firms hired by the federal government.

Photo of First Day of School, Shamattawa Reserve, MB, 1976.

First Day of School, Shamattawa Reserve, MB, 1976.

The complexities of managing reserve finances created a need for external auditors. This new scrutiny challenged the authority of the band administration on issues ranging from education and transportation to salaries paid to band officials.
UM (PC 18, 18-2933-18).

Unfortunately, the arrival of accounting firms, institutions answerable ultimately not to those First Nations citizens who pushed for the forensic studies but to federal officials, undermined Ottawa's stated aim of advancing Aboriginal self-government. As Tina Fox of the Morley reserve commented, "Our elders say we've been taken right back to the Indian Agent days." Similarly, journalist Gordon Liard editorialized, "When trouble hits the government drops its pretense of partnership and institutes policies and reforms that insulate it from scandal."35

Sporadic attempts were made in the late 1990s to piece together some kind of larger movement or common front from those dissenting voices in Indian Country that viewed the whole regime of the Indian Act as a recipe for cultivating petty corruption, lack of accountability, and dictatorial exercises of power. In the name of self-government, said Rita Galloway, the chief and council of many Indian bands have become "a law unto themselves." When allegations are made that these local elites break the law, Galloway added, the police reply, "these people are the law here. What can we do?"36

Individual and minority rights were being left largely unprotected within the narrow jurisdictional confines of Indian reserves. "The reserves are dominated by power structures. There are no checks and balances," said Okanagan author Jeanette Armstrong.38 Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s, Everett Soop's cartoons and editorials helped to transform his local Blood newspaper, Kanai News, into a very important publication with a wide audience scattered throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. Soop's use of humour and satire to challenge orthodoxy and uncover dishonesty serves as a powerful reminder of the many media available to those legions of thinkers, workers, politicians, and artists who have contributed to the rich heritage of Native activism in Canada.

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge


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