The Grand Council of the Crees

Briefing by Ambassador Ted Moses on Indigenous Issues

Briefing by Ambassador Ted Moses on Indigenous Issues for the Heads of Foreign Posts External Affairs, Canada

Posted: 1991-06-21

I welcome this opportunity to speak directly to Canada's diplomatic corps. You represent Canada to the rest of the world, and it is important that you represent the indigenous peoples, our status in Canada, our concerns, our interests, and our aspirations; fully and fairly. There is no better way to do this than to hear from the indigenous peoples themselves.I hope, therefore, that what I say will be understood in the same spirit that I come before you. I am one Cree Indian. The things that I say are my own; but I think that I can fairly say that the Crees of James Bay, and the Indians of Canada would largely concur with my sentiments and conclusions. I will give you an "Indian" point of view, and I hope a valid one.The Indians of Canada are the only peoples in Canada under the direct authority of Parliament. The courts have decided that we are the beneficiaries of a fiduciary relationship with the federal government. We are, if you will, "federal creatures". This relationship was defined in theory to protect us and our lands and resources. It has not protected us.The Indians in Canada are as a group, the most disadvantaged peoples in all of Canada. We have the lowest life expectancy, the worst health, the most deficient education, the poorest housing, and I could go on and on. We still suffer endemically from diseases such as tuberculosis and diptheria, that were eliminated in the general Canadian population about fifty years ago.The Indians, who were originally in full posession of the lands and resources of this land were gradually limited to reserves. But these reservations were initially considerably larger than the "reserves" which survive today. This Indian land, held in federal trust, has been slowly but continually alienated for other purposes; some sold to private interests, some used for military or other State purposes. The meagre reserves which remain today are a living proof of the violation of trust relationship with the Indian peoples of Canada.I raise these issues to that the general situation can be understood. One would think that as the original peoples of Canada, under federal protection, that we would have had an advantage; but it has turned out that the trust relationship gave the federal government the opportunity to utilize our lands and resources, that is our inherent wealth, for its own ends and purposes.The treaties, which by their inherent definition define us as sovereign peoples, were intended to provide additional rights and benefits. It is certainly no secret that the treaties have been regularly violated or simply not respected. There are two schools of thought on this: that old laws and comittment are obsolete and that Indians can no longer expect them to be implemented. The other position, however, is that a comittment is all the more solomn, the authority of law all the more binding because that law has had long standing. In any case, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Canada's first modern treaty, has also been regularly violated and ignored.I was the principal negotiator of that treaty, and I have spent the last fifteen years of my life trying to get the Agreement implemented. Recently the federal government jointed the Government of Quebec and Hydro-Quebec in the Federal Court arguing that the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is only and contract and does not have the force of law. How can such behaviour be justified? The Federal Court found against Canada, and upon appeal from Quebec to the Federal Court of Appeal, the court upheld its original ruling. Quebec is not seeking leave to appeal this judgement to the Suprement Court of Canada. So the Agreement, which is the basis for Quebec's claim that it has the right to build hydro-electric dams in our territory, is under attact by one or more of its government signatories, so that the governments will not be obligated to respect it. As I said, they have never respected it.This gives you some idea where we stand. We are told that the governments want us to respect law and order; but our constant experience is that the governments themselves have not and do not respect law and order when Indian peoples are concerned. That is so much evidence to back this, that recent decisions of the Supreme Court expressly complained of the governments cavellier attitude toward it obligations and comittments toward us. (see Sparrow and Sioui).The government trust, largely embodied by the Indian Act, has not been good for Indians. Ordinary Canadians consider that they live in a democratic country. Consider, that if you are an Indian you live under a totalitarian regeme. This is not rhetoric. I ask everyone here really only one thing before you go to your posting: read the Indian Act; read all of it.The Indian Act places the everyday lives of the Indians of Canada and their lands under to arbitrary authority of the Minister of Indian Affairs. I once brought the Indian Act to a meeting at the United Nations. I wanted a senior delegate from an African State to understand our condition as indigenous peoples in Canada. She was in a meeting and said she was too much occupied to read the whole thing. She asked, "what do you want me to read?" I said, "open it anywhere you want and read one page". She read the section which said that an Indian could not sell or barter cattle without the approval of the Minister. She said, "this is very very familiar to us". She and her country has supported the indigenous position in the United Nations ever since that time. I suggest you read the Indian Act before you attempt to tell others about or status in Canada I repeat, as Indians we live in a dictatorship every bit as real, every bit as offensive as the dictatorship that were recently overthrown in Eastern Europe. I know many Native Canadians who watched the situation in Romania with intensity, sympathy, and understanding. They hope that they too will someday be liberated.Now I know that many of you will find it very difficult to agree with what I have just said, and that you will find many reasons to discriminate between our situation in Canada and the situation in Romainia before the fall of Caucesceau. Do not try to defend Canada in this instance; you will offend me. If you want to find about about victims, ask the victim. Caucesceau also argued that he was doing the best thing for his people. Don't offend my by asking Indian Affairs if things have improved for the Indians of Canada. I am fed up with Canada's explanations about us to the United Nations. If you are asked about the situation of the Indians in Canada, please call upon the the Indians to reply. If our situation is an embarassment to Canada it should be an embarrassment. But please tell the truth.Canada's "national interests" will best be served when there is no longer anything to be embarrassed about. Until then, let us not desguise the facts and deny the reality of a situation that neeeds to be redressed. We go to the United Nations because we want to solve problems. We do not want to argue the truth. We do not want to be the ones to properly quote the Constitution of Canada, to tell the United Nations that the Canadian Consitution really does refer to "the indigenous peoples"! Our problems, Canada's problems will only be solved when the political will and the understanding come together. Do not tell the United Nations that Indian health is improving, or that millions of dollars have been allocated to Indian Education. Do not tell the United Nations have much money has been spent on the Crees of James Bay since the signing of the Agreement.Somehow, along the way, Canada seems to have decided that the "national interest" and our interests as indigneous peoples can not be the same. I think that is a mistake. Most Indians, at least, still think that Canada can work. That, given our history, is an extremely optimistic position on our part. But consider this: Imagine a Canada where the Native peoples live as long as everyone else, where they have the same quality of housing, where they are educated; native doctors, lawyers, accounts, scientists. Imagine a Canada were the Native peoples have a fair share of the wealth, were they live on lands, and have a share of the resources that would permit them to participate fully and equally in the economy. Would that not be in the "national interest". Why must the government oppose us? Any why are you so threatened by the idea of self-determination? The international law regarding self-determination was intended to protect peoples against exactly the kind of exploitation that has characterized our history. The International Covenants state that peoples "may not be denied their own means of subsistance". That is exactly what has happened to us; our means of subsistence has been denied. The protection of subsistence rights is specifically a derivative right in the Covenants. If you do not have self-determination, you do not have the right to enjoy the use of your own resources, or the protection against denial of subsistence. Our history shows that we need these protections, and that the laws of Canada have be inadequate to provide the necessary protections.Indians do not ask that their inherent right to self-determination be respected because they want to separate from Canada. We demand that our self-determination be respected because our internal right of self-determination has be historically denied. You have not taken care of our health and education; you have not defended our land base; you have not protected our wealth. It is a fundamental principle of democracy that a people can best look after their own interests. No wonder we have not done well!This is not criticism for the sake of complaint. It is important that you understand that our democratic freedoms and even some of our fundamental freedoms have been denied. Ovide Mercredi, our new National Chief, said, "we do not need anyone's permission to take care of ourselves". That does not mean separation from Canada; it does mean that we are sovereign peoples who have the rights to chose the kind of relationship that will insure our survival as distinct peoples.The ultimate test of self-determination is whether a people has suffered under discrimination, has had equality under law, and has exercised internal self-determination. The indigenous peoples constitute the majority of the population over at least nine-tenths of the territory Canada claims. The non-natives live in a narrow strip just North of the border with the United States. Our claim to self-determination would have considerably more validity in international law than the cliam by the Province of Quebec which controls its own wealth and has sent several Prime Ministers to Ottawa. Our condition argues for our right. It would be in Canada's national interest to work vigourously on behalf of the Native peoples.This leads me the practical issue of the constitutional implementation of self-government. We are looking for a constitutional amendment that will enshrine the right of the aborignal peoples of Canada to govern themselves, if possible, within the Canadian Confederation.To be meaningful, self-government must be supported by a land base, an absolutely essential component to guarantee the continuity of the indigenous peoples, their communities and institutions. So far, the land claims process has been a grudging exercise to provide an absolute minimum in land and compensation to Indians who are perceived as standing in the way of development. The process is a clear failure. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement has not been respected, the Lubicon claim, although fifty years old, has not been settled, the Dene Agreement has disintegrated, and the Minister of Indian Affairs has offered to "buy out" and cancel the Northern Flood Agreement, another terrible example of blatent non-performance.Once again the national interest has been misperceived by the Canadian authorities. An equitable and generous land claims process leading to the continutity of our culture, our economies, and our identity and ability to survive is possible within Canadian Confederation. It is the failure to reach some kind of accomadation with the Native peoples that we all have to fear. So far, all Canada has offered is "caring concern". That is not good enough. We need to say, "for goodness sake, solve it".After constituional recognition has been achieved, negotiations will immediatly follow to see what each of the indigenous peoples wants in respect of their own identity and needs. We do know what we want in the constitutional negotiations, and our objectives are reasonable and achievable. The problem is that the present impasse leads to confrontation and an adversarial relationship between the indigenous peoples and Canada.Under these circumstances it makes good sense to consult with the indigenous peoples. If you want to know what we want, ask us and we will tell you. Do not ask Indian Affairs, and do not set conditions based on years and years of misinformed aboriginal policy. In the meanwhile, enactment of policies set out by the Department of Indian Affairs should stop until there is a consensus on these policies from the Indians, the people who are being governed. This is another way of saying that we want democracy. I hope there is nothing wrong with asking for that.Indian people tend to get blamed for their own condition. I think that is not only unfair, but also dishonest. Our experience of government is from the employees of Indian Affairs. Our knowledge of housing is based on the examples provided by Indian Affairs. Our knowledge of business and economic development can only be based on our own limited experience. How much knowledge, imagination, and enterprise would any one of you have if you had grown up in this small administrative world governed arbitrarly by a generally uninspired and unimaginative civil service that did not trust Indians to make their own decisions? The Indian Act imposes essentially the legal regime of minor children upon adult aboriginal Canadians. The standard we see and experience is a very low standard. Do not blame us for the disabilities that result from this system. We see the same lack of initiative as the authoritarian rule of law is lifted in Eastern Europe. For us that has not even happened. Why should you judge us so severely?The Crees of James Bay have tried to break free from the oppressive influence of Indian Affairs and have had some success. We do not always do as we are told. We judge for ourselves. That is self-government. We find that Canada does not really welcome self-government; but it is a benefit we negotiated under the Agreement as part of our settlement. Why should the Cree people have had to negotiate for something that all other non-Native Canadians take for granted?The James Bay Agreement was negotiated as an out-of-court settlement of our aboriginal claim to Northern Quebec. As I said earlier Quebec is in court trying to invalidate our treaty. If the court does invalidate the Agreement, I hope that Quebec will also remove the dams and dykes from our rivers and restore the waters to the Eastmain River that used to flow by my community.The Crees were lied to when we signed the James Bay Agreement. Hydro-Quebec's scientists and engineers promised us that no harm would come from the construction of the massive dams and dykes and river diversions. They claim now that they did not know that the flooding of vast areas in the poorly understood sub-arctic eco-zone of James Bay, would release enormous quantities of poisonous methyl mercury, quantities equivalent to a major industrial spill.At first Hydro-Quebec told us that the mercury would soon dissipate. Then we were warned that pregnant women should not eat certain kinds of fish. Hydro-Quebec said it would all go away in ten or fifteen years. Later they raised the prediction to twenty-five years and told our people that everyone should avoid eating fish. Every year the duration of the mercury contamination problem is raised. Most independent scientists think the poison will last for at least one hundred years.It seems so easy for the government to tell the Indians not to eat the fish. Quebec has told the Crees: "Do not eat the fish". But fish is our food. We don't fish for sport. We don't hunt for sport. This is our food supply, our basic economy. Recall that the International Covenants clearly state that a people may not be denied their "own means of subsistence". Canada, Quebec, and Hydro-Quebec have denied one of the most fundamental of all human rights, and have violated other rights as well, they have forced us off of our land, flooded our graves, poisoned our water, and deforested our territory. We have no other country to go to. We do not come from somewhere else. We live in our original homeland.I do not think this situation is well understood. It is usually understood as a conflict between modern economics and the values of a culture that is no longer viable. One of the court decisions in the Lubicon Case made reference to the need for the Lubicon Indians to realize that their way of life was no longer compatible with "progress".Consider the Crees: we oppose all future hydro-electric projects in our territory. We have descovered that the damage they cause can not be compensated for with any kind of monetary settlement or remedial works programme. Money simply does not equal life. Research has shown that we have survivied on our land for at least 5000 years. We know how to survive on the land; that is our intellectual wealth, our identity and the specific means by which we have survived until the present time. We really practised sustainable development; we lived here for 5000 years and left everything in place for you and and other generations of mankind.Quebec is asking us to give up the technology and the way of life that has enabled our civilization to sustain itself. What guarantee is being given to us that we will continue to survive under a new regime? Is the Government of Canada ready or able to provide the assurance that our people will survive for another 5000 years? Our people are dying from sucicide, alcohol, and drugs. We are not impressed with the benefits we have been given. How many societies have been able to sustain themselves, their languages, and institutions for 5000 years?

That is the problem we face.