Skip to main content

Update from CS (Canada) - 15.2

itskan and Wet'suwet'en of British Columbia

After nearly four years of court wrangles, extensive oral evidence from elders, and $25 million in legal costs, the Gitskan and Wet'suwet'en were devastated by a brutal court judgment. The 8,000 members of the aboriginal nation had claimed title to 57,000 of their traditional territory. In a 400-page ruling, released 8 March 1991, Chief Justice McEachern held that aboriginal title exists only "at the pleasure of the Crown" and that in the case of the Gitskan and Wet'suwet'en, title and all rights had extinguished even before the province entered confederation in 1871.

Hopes were that the Gitskan case would create a positive precedent for First Nations across Canada; McEachern's decision left native leaders and supporters stunned. Bill Wilson, lawyer and chair of the First Nations Congress, said the decision "smacks of racism."

Jim Fulton, member of Parliament from the Skeena riding of coastal BC, an area that includes much of the disputed territory, said the judgment was loaded with "racist bias." He called the decision "nakedly brutal," a "declaration of cultural genocide."

The Gitskan and Wet'suwet'en have pledged to appeal to the BC Court of Appeals and, ultimately, if necessary, to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the meantime, the decision will further polarize the increasingly tense atmosphere in many communities across Canada.

Aftermath of Oka

The criminal process is being brought to bear on more than 40 Mohawks, including Warriors and some non-Mohawk aboriginal supporters. In an unusual move, the Crown decided to act be way of preferred indictment, thus dispensing with the usual preliminary hearing. This gives the Mohawks less time to prepare their case. Most of those charged face a complicated collection of serious offenses, among them illegal possession of weapons, conspiracy to incite a riot, and resisting arrest. Although they plan for their defense to address important noncriminal issues of aboriginal rights and land claims, the Mohawks have been unable to retain legal counsel with expertise on these issues. Without adequate finances, the Mohawks were looking to legal aid to fund their defense. Quebec lawyers are reluctant to work at the minimal legal aid rates, and on the even of the trial, many lawyers quit - unwilling to continue without more money.

At the same time, the federal parliament has launched an inquiry into the events of last summer. Mohawks have come to Ottawa to testify, while the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Tom Siddon, placed blame for the Oka crisis on a lack of consistent Mohawk leadership. Mohawk women who provide that traditional leadership have rejected the minister's charges.

James Bay

There have been some encouraging developments on the James Bay controversy, the most promising being the decision of the leading opposition party, le Parti Quebecois, to oppose the project. At the PQ convention in February, party leader Jacques Parizeau called for a moratorium on the construction at the Great Whale Project. Given the political sensitivity around issues in Quebec, it has been a boost to the Cree and supporting environmentalists to be able to oppose the project without being condemned as "anti-Quebec."

Hydro Quebec still plans to being road and airport construction around Great Whale this summer, but may face delays as a result of the inadequacy of the provincial environmental assessment statement. The federal government has abdicated responsibility for a full environmental assessment before construction begins, and has accepted Quebec's decision to split the Great Whale project, separating the building of roads and airports from the building of dams, dikes, and diversions, As a result, only the provincial environmental assessment process is being applied to the building of more than 200 km worth of roads and two airport. This "access infrastructure" is to be built at an estimated cost of $600 million, all before any assessment of the project as a whole can take place. The Cree are challenging the splitting of the project in court. Meanwhile, Hydro Quebec has filed its first environmental assessment, which the review board found inadequate. It has been sent back for further work, which may delay the beginning of construction.

Cree spokesmen continue to tour New England in search of support from the potential purchasers of power from the gargantuan projects. Recent town-by-town votes in Vermont have led several towns to reject Hydro Quebec contracts; an equal number, however, have voted to accept Hydro Quebec power.

The Algonquin of Barriere Lake

As reported in previous updates, the Algonquin of Barriere Lake have been in a tense struggle to protect their land base against the threat of logging. Their land, situated approximately 300 km due north of Ottawa within the Province of Quebec, was supposed to have been protected within a wildlife preserve called the La Verendrye wildlife sanctuary. After half of the reserve had been clear cut, the Algonquin asked permission of the provincial government to establish a "sustainable development" strategy for the area.

After years of negotiation with the Quebec government, punctuate by protests on Parliament hill and blockades of the roads leading into the contested forest, the Algonquin briefly celebrated an agreement with the Quebec government and a local logging company. The agreement was to preserve half of the old-growth trees still remaining within the wildlife reserve and an important moose corridor. The agreement also was to provide for a comprehensive study of the 10,000km area used by the Algonquin.

Unfortunately, the negotiations broke down virtually on the eve of signing due to the unwillingness of the Quebec government to respect traditional use of the land by the Algonquin. The Quebec government contributed to the breakdown through the rigidity of its position and the inadequacy of its offer. The Algonquins are appealing to the public for support to bring Quebec back into negotiations.

Gwich'n Face Renewed Threat to Their Arctic Lands

The release of the US energy strategy brought increased risk of cultural extermination to the Gwich'n people of Alaska and the Yukon. The Gwich'n rely for their survival on the abundant herds of porcupine caribou, which migrate between Canada and the United States. The Bush Administration's energy strategy calls for oil and gas development on the Alaska side of the border in the sensitive calving ground areas of the caribou, in a wildlife sanctuary - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the Bush Administration favors opening the areas, to development. (The area, which stretches along the north coast of Alaska and the Yukon along the Beaufort Sea, is an important coastal plain.)

The Gwich'n plan to attend Congressional hearings in Washington, DC, to given evidence against the proposal this spring. The oil within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be as much as 3.4 billion barrels - equal to US needs for a six-month period. Energy conservation measures could provide 2 million barrels of oil a day by the year 2005 - far more than the coastal plain could ever produce.

Appeal from the LilWat People

The following appeal, released 7 February 1991, directly from the LilWat peoples in southeastern British Columbia, sets out their positions as Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers moved in to remove their blockade:

LilWat people are asserting jurisdiction to traditional land and protecting our land from further destruction by International Forest Products and Howe Sound Timber. These companies have been granted and Howe Sound Timber. These companies have been granted an injunction to remove our people protecting our ancient burial site. At one time our population was 80,000 LilWatemc. When the smallpox destroyed our people, we dropped to a population of 300. Now we are approximately 1,400. The people that were dying from the smallpox were burying each other in this area; 70,000 were buried here. The people that had the Indian doctor power went to this area. Their visions were drawn on the rocks. International Forest Products has already blasted a whole section of these pictographs.

Today we are resisting arrests by the R.C.M.P. There are only thirty people there now. We have one boat with a motor going back and forth across Lilloet Lake. This sacred site is no the west side of the lake where the Lillouet River runs into the lake... We are handicapped in our struggle because our resources are so scarce. Any donations you could make to us would be greatly appreciated... This is a call prayer and help.

Contact: (604) 894-6060.

Peigan Lonefighters and the Oldman Dam

As reported in previous updates, Cultural Survival (Canada) has been supporting the Peigan Lonefighters Society and particularly leader Milton Born With a Tooth. The Peigan, part of the Blackfoot Nation, are threatened by a large irrigation dam being built without environmental assessment by the Alberta government. Milton has been charged with a string of criminal offenses stemming from an incident last summer in which he attempted to divert the Oldman River, rendering the dam - which is nearing completion - useless. During the confusion when Royal Canadian Mounted Police came on to Peigan land to stop his earth-moving activities, Milton fired warning shots in the air. That one incident was the basis of numerous criminal charges, with potentially serious jail terms for each. Milton Born With a Tooth has already spent nearly three months in jail awaiting trial. In February attempts to obtain a change of venue for his trial were denied, and he was forced to have his trial in a small community with a reputation for anti-native racism.

During the trial, the judge compared Peigan culture to satanism and Milton to Saddam Hussein. The judge instructed the jury that they had no choice but to bring in a verdict of guilty. They complied. The prosecution sought the maximum sentence of 57 years. The sentence was 18 months.

(Milton Born With a Tooth has launched the appeal against the verdict. In order to appeal, his lawyer needs the trial transcript. Adding to already significant legal costs, they are being charged $3,500 just for the transcript. Donations to support Milton's case can be sent to "The Lonefighters National Communications Network," 455 12th St. NW, Calgary, Alberta T2N 1Y9.)

In the meantime, the Supreme Court of Canada has heard arguments on the appeal by the Alberta government. The provincial government is objecting to a decision of the federal court that the dam's construction is illegal because it violates federal environmental assessment law. Despite the fact that the federal court ruling quashed the permit that allowed construction to begin, the building of the Oldman dam continues unabated. Cultural Survival (Canada) intervened in the Supreme Court case in support of the Peigan Lonefighters and the Friend of the Oldman. A decision is expected from the Supreme Court in Six months.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development

Cultural Survival (Canada) has been Very involved in preparations for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), to take place in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. CSC's executive director, Elizabeth May, represented Canadian environmental groups within the official Canadian delegation to the first meeting in Nairobi of the Preparatory Committee organizing UNCED at the direction of the UN General Assembly. The PrepCom, as it is called will meet four or five times before the conference in 1992. The second meeting was held in March in Geneva. CSC initiated a project to enable NGO representative from development countries to attend the PrepCom. Eight people were funded to go to Geneva, including Marcus Terrena of the Union of Indigenous Nations in Brazil.

As well, CSC has a project funded through the Canadian aid organization CIDA, to improve communications between Canadian and Brazilian NGOs and among Brazilian groups with a focus on the UNCED process. Working with Langston Goree from the western Amazonian group IPHAE, CSC will be providing funds for electronic communication hardware, as well as training.

North American supporters interested in becoming involved in UNCED can contact CSC. Those with access to electronic communication will fins a conference on UNCED issues ("en.unced.general," and several other topics) on EcoNet in the United States and on Web in Canada. These networks also connect with Alternex in Brazil and other alternative communication networks around the world.

Cultural Survival (Canada) is located at Suite 420, 1 Nicholas Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1n 7B7. Its staff, Elizabeth May (executive director), Heather Hamilton (national coordinator), Alison Gale (special projects coordinator), and Dave Good (communications coordinator), can be reached at (613) 233-4653.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.