Defenders of the Land: First Nations in Land: First Nations in Land Struggle Gather in Winnipeg

Canadian Dimension, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview
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Defenders of the Land: First Nations in Land: First Nations in Land Struggle Gather in Winnipeg


The contest between Indigneous peoples and the Canadian state for control of Indigenous land and resources is a central dynamic of Canadian history and political economy. Woven into the fabric of the Canadian state right from its inception is a single fundamental policy towards Aboriginal peoples: the disposession of their lands and resources and the extinguishment of Aboriginal title everywhere and by any means possible. Consequent on this is the failure of governments to honour treaties, court rulings and agreements that do not extinguish title, as well as its tinkering with the imposed system of Indian Act governance to ensure the election of too many compliant leaders who will ultimately sign away their lands.

On the ground, compliance is achieved through various forms of discipline including legal harrassment, withholding of service funds and social assistance, meddling in band governance, and police brutality. Despite all this, across the length and breadth of Canada, Indigenous communities remain resilient, with many keeping the fires of their Language and ceremonies burning, fighting to determine their own destinies and protecting their right to live on, and through, the lands their ancestors bequeathed to them.

Activists and leaders from many of these communities gathered in Winnipeg from November 12 to 14 this past fall From the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, Sheshatshiu Innu, Tobique, Kitchenuhmaykoo-sib Inninuwug (KI), Ardoch Algonquin, Six Nations, Moose Cree, Grassy Narrows, Red Lake, Anishinaabek of Gichi Garni, Ginoogaming, Pimicikamak, Pukatawa-gan, Roseau River, Sagkeeng, Lubicon Lake, Athabasca Chipewyan, Fort McMurray, Blackfoot, Gitxsan, Secwepemc and Tsimshian First Nations, activists and leaders of land, sovereignty and environmental-justice struggles converged on the historic Indian and Metis Friendship Centre in Winnipeg's North End to share their experiences and strategies in struggle. Not since the political revival of the 1970s, following the White Paper battles, and the seminal struggles of the Dene peoples in the Northwest Territories, has such a convergence of important Indigenist leadership taken place. The need for it has come as Aboriginal political organizations like the Assembly of First Nations have been coopted and funded into submission and silence on the question of Land struggles and self-determination, leaving grassroots Indigenous activists without a political instrument on the pan-Canadian stage.

At the same time, advances in the ideological arena, including a series of somewhat favourable Canadian court rulings and the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the development of a broad base of non-Indigenous support, have shifted the terrain in favour of more militant Indigenist politics. The weakness of mainstream Aboriginal political organizations, the development of a cadre of Indigenous activists and supporters, the intransigence of the state, and the eruption of struggles across the country suggested to the organizers an opening for the creation of a network that could support Indigenous struggles across the country, doing education work and coordinating responses at the political level.

Representing several generations of traditionalists and activists engaged in direct-action struggles--including or supported by some Indian Act leaders (such as the chiefs or councils of KI, Athabasca Chipewyan, Pukatawagan and Deh Cho); young Native organizers from the Native Youth Movement, the Olympic Resistance Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network; elders like Elizabeth Penashue and Irene Billy; experienced Leaders like Art Manuel and Judy da Silva; and Indigenous intellectuals advocating self-determination and opposition to the policy of extinguishment and the comprehensive Land-claims process--the gathering brought together Leaders of many or most of the active Land struggles in Canada. A significant element of the gathering was the presence of experienced non-Native support groups, including representatives from No One Is Illegal chapters across the country.

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