By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
IN 1680, the missionaries of St. Sulpice gathered their Indian converts from various missions to live and attend school among the wooded hills that rise above the peaceful Lac des Deux Montagnes (Lake of the Two Mountains).
Within five years, everyone knew the effort had failed.
"It was believed for a very long time that domiciling the savages near our habitations was a very great means of teaching these peoples to live like us and to become instructed in our religion," the Marquis of Denonville wrote to the Marquis of Seignelay in 1685. "I notice, Monseigneur, that the very opposite has taken place."
Ever since, the French and English and their Canadian descendants have tried to assimilate the native Indians. And, like the clergy of St. Sulpice, they have failed.
It is no accident that at Oka, on the same land the missionaries once claimed, armed Mohawks set up barricades against police and troops for 78 days this summer. That standoff, a few miles from Montreal, has shone a bright light on 300 years of delays, misunderstandings, and broken promises.
At Oka, the flash point was a golf course that the town's mayor wanted to extend onto land the Mohawks claimed was sacred. Since then, the federal government has bought that disputed land and pledged to give it to the Mohawks. It has also moved to settle other land disputes in recent months.
But the issue runs even deeper than land. The cry from behind the barricades and from native peoples across Canada is: Natives want the right to govern themselves.
"They try to impose laws on us. (But) this is our territory. This is our land," says Ellen Gabriel, who was a frequent Mohawk spokesperson during the Oka standoff. "Native people across Canada have to become more active. We have to start changing things for the future generations."
"I don't call myself a Canadian," adds David DeVeau of the Tobique Maliseet Nation in New Brunswick. "I am a North American Indian." Mr. Deveau is one of several young natives who came to Oka this summer to show support for the Mohawks.
The Oka uprising is the culmination of two years of native activism across Canada.
Other examples include:
- The Innu tribe of northeast Quebec and Labrador in late 1988 illegally set up tents at the Canadian Air Force base at Goose Bay. They were protesting low-level flights of military jets, which they said scared people and disturbed caribou populations.
- In 1988, when the Nova Scotia government scheduled its annual moose hunt on Micmac Indian land without consulting natives or giving them preference in the lottery, the Micmacs staged their own moose harvest. Canadian police arrested 14 Micmacs for violating provincial hunting laws.
- In September 1989, Algonquins in Quebec set up roadblocks and brought logging operations to a temporary halt on traditional Indian hunting grounds.
Other native tribes have also set up roadblocks to protest commercial encroachment on ancestral lands.
Native leaders predict more such moves until the federal government begins to deal with their claims. The government admits that the process has historically been slow. But this spring it initialed an agreement with the Yukon Indians and reached an agreement in principle with the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut, which together would give natives 151,000 square miles of land and US$706 million. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has also pledged to speed up the disposition of Indian land claims.
These land claims are pivotal. Although many Canadians supported the Mohawks' position during the standoff, their support is likely to erode when the scope of native land claims becomes clear. The various tribes lay claim to the northern half of Canada, most of British Columbia and Quebec, and the upper half of Newfoundland. …