Native Threat of Action Makes Ottawa Care

Terry Nelson is already planning his next leveraged buyout.

Native Threat of Action Makes Ottawa Care

Terry Nelson is already planning his next leveraged buyout. In his office with the chipped blue paint, and the desk missing most of its drawer handles, the chief of Manitoba's Roseau River First Nation is busily hatching new schemes to pressure government and business even as his latest - a threatened rail blockade - is paying dividends. On this morning, the negotiator for Canadian Pacific is down the hall talking to band councillors, and word is coming from Ottawa that Jim Prentice, the minister of Indian affairs, is ready to sign off on a long-planned "urban reserve." (No one is going to live on the 75 acres in northwest Winnipeg, but the Anishnaabe have big plans for the site - a gas station, smoke shop, and gaming parlour filled with VLTs. Perhaps a hotel or a restaurant, and ultimately big-box retailers, all lured by the reserve's low tax advantage.) Later in the day, Prime Minister Stephen HARPER and Phil Fontaine, national chief of the ASSEMBLY OF FIRST NATIONS, will announce a new land claims commission, an independent body with the power to make binding settlements and orders to start clearing the backlog of native claims. There are three reporters lined up outside waiting for interviews, and Nelson's cellphone rings every few minutes with more media requests.

Every visitor is treated to the same lecture. Canada has 48,000 km of rail lines, and 80,000 km of oil and gas pipelines that criss-cross traditional native lands. No army in the world can protect them. By Nelson's estimation some 60 FIRST NATIONS are now as well armed as the Mohawk Warriors were during the 1990 Oka standoff. "We can knock $200 billion off the Canadian GDP with a national blockade," the chief boasts. The flow of exports to the United States reduced to a trickle, ports at a standstill, until Canadians get a taste of what life is like for the country's Aboriginals, who would rank 63rd on the United Nation's Human Development Index - 57 spots lower that the rest of the population. "We're not Arabs in a cave 5,000 miles away. We're right in the heart of the world's largest economy," says Nelson.

Roseau River has held protests before. In the summer of 1990, band members blocked the bridge along Route 201 in solidarity with Quebec's Mohawks. Two years later, they marched on the international border crossing at Emmerson, 20 km to the south. In 1996, they briefly shut down the Canadian National rail line that lies a couple of minutes drive beyond the boundaries of the postage-stamp-sized reserve. But none were as effective as the one that may not even materialize on June 29. It was Nelson's threat to block the tracks that morphed into plans for a National Day of Action for all First Nations. And it was largely his inflammatory rhetoric ("There's only one way to deal with a white man. You either pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money") that kept the pot on the boil.

Suddenly, the public is paying attention. Ottawa has found an extra $1.5 billion over 10 years for land claims. Ontario is offering $2.5 billion of gaming revenue over the next two decades for Aboriginal education, health care and infrastructure projects. And Manitoba and the feds have agreed to let Roseau River have its 75 acres. The politicians are loath to draw a connection between the spectre of another "long, hot summer" and the overnight resurgence of interest in native issues. But Nelson isn't. "It's the first new land we've received in 135 years, 10 months, and nine days," he says with a smile. "Of course it's the pressure."

The three-term chief doesn't have much tolerance for what he calls "poor Indian" stories. He prefers to talk about Roseau River's growing number of high-school graduates, and how they haven't had a teen suicide since the 1980s. But unemployment on the reserve is a staggering 73 per cent. And one doesn't have to go far to find homes with broken windows and telltale gang graffiti.

That's why Nelson, flush with victory, is planning for next time. He's been talking with native activists in B.C., protesters in Caledonia, Ont., and the Mohawks who blocked the CN tracks near Belleville, Ont., this past April. And if something big doesn't happen this Canada Day weekend, he says, it's because the protests have been delayed, not cancelled. There's a proposed Enbridge natural gas pipeline that will soon travel over the Anishnaabe's traditional territory, he notes. And just like the government, big business must start dealing with native demands. "All we're saying is we want a fair share of our land and resources," he says. "Then Ottawa can take the $9.1 billion it supposedly spends on us every year and shove it." Terry Nelson is enjoying his leverage. But it's the size of the buyout that counts.

Both Phil Fontaine and Jim Prentice tell it the same way. Reforming how Canada deals with native land claims was the first topic of discussion when they held their initial tête-à-tête after the January 2006 election. That shouldn't be surprising. Both men are former chairs of the Indian Claims Commission, the body the Mulroney Tories established to deal with native land disputes after Oka. And both agree on the ICC's shortcomings: it's slow, bereft of any real power, and tilted in Ottawa's favour. The feds say there are 790 outstanding claims across the country, but the AFN puts the number at 1,100. Seventy-five are before the courts, 123 are in negotiation, 34 are being reviewed by the ICC. Most are decades old and relatively small - half of the backlog is for amounts under $3 million. They are currently being settled at a rate of about eight per year.

But until now, native issues have been something less than a top priority for the Harper government. It scrapped Paul MARTIN's Kelowna accord - a legacy-polishing $5.1-billion agreement to improve Aboriginal health care, education and housing. And native leaders have been sharply critical of the federal budget, which allocated $300 million to First Nations over two years to help encourage private home ownership, and $105 million for job training, but didn't come close to matching the Liberal promises. In recent months, Fontaine has been walking a fine line in his public pronouncements, calling for peace, but warning of war. Last December, the AFN adopted Terry Nelson's resolution for a National Day of Action to show solidarity with his planned rail blockade. The national chief has been careful to say the organization isn't endorsing illegal protests, but put it this way in a May address to Ottawa's Canadian Club: "Many people ask why First Nations people are so angry. At this point you must realize that we have a right to be."

So with all the signs pointing to a summer of confrontation, it was no small surprise to see Harper, Prentice and Fontaine smiling at the podium last week. "I was reminded of the picture of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn," says Gurston Dacks, a University of Alberta political scientist who specializes in First Nations issues. "Fontaine has invested a significant amount of political capital. This better work or it will threaten his legitimacy." On their side, the Tories have taken the highly unusual step of inviting the AFN to help write the legislation creating the new land claims body, a collaborative approach that already has some party stalwarts worried. "My biggest fear is that they're setting up a system that will never end," says the University of Calgary's Tom Flanagan, a Harper confidant who managed the Conservative's 2004 election campaign. He predicts that the less onerous standard of proof, and federal funding to help First Nations prepare their cases, will have a cascading effect. "It's obvious that this is the thin edge of the wedge."

Prentice bristles at suggestions his government has somehow caved in to native pressure. "Illegal blockades are not acceptable. They are also not wise," he told Maclean's. "They really erode the goodwill that exists toward Aboriginal programs and services." And while the minister didn't seek specific assurances that Nelson and other chiefs will behave themselves come June 29, he remains confident that a major irritant in native relations is about to be removed. "The absence of a functional system to resolve historical grievances in a timely way is clearly what is leading to instability," said Prentice.

Fontaine, mindful of his own political balancing act, is reluctant to give too much credit to either his more militant brethren, or the feds. "I don't know what's motivated the government. This has been an urgent issue for some considerable time," he says. And the national chief notes that it's just a step in a very long journey. "It doesn't mean that we've eradicated poverty, built one house, or ensured safe drinking water," says Fontaine. "All of these other problems don't just disappear."

It's hard to get a straight answer from Terry Nelson about how he intends to spend the Canada Day weekend - relaxing, or manning a barricade. The 24-hour blockade may be downgraded to just a few hours, he says, or not happen at all. Nelson has floated the idea of a "voluntary" stoppage by the railways - something CP doesn't dismiss out of hand, but CN categorically rejects. (CN filed suit against the leaders of the April blockade in Ontario, and promises to unleash its lawyers on any First Nation that follows the same path.) So far, there doesn't seem to be much to fear from the day of action. A partial list distributed by the AFN shows a few marches scheduled for places like Vancouver and Kenora, and a bannock breakfast in P.E.I.

But the Roseau River chief seems intent on keeping up the pressure, if only for appearances. "If we just hand out pamphlets on June 29, the white guys will say the Indians chickened out again." He's been spending time at a Winnipeg production house, working on a video he plans to send to the American TV networks, every foreign embassy in Ottawa, and upload to YouTube. Entitled "A Long Train of Abuse," it will document native poverty, their high rates of incarceration, and the 500 Aboriginal women who have disappeared or died violently over the past 30 years. It's not the first film Nelson has produced. In the studio, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Geronimo and the slogan "Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorists since 1492," he calls up a past example. It's a mesh of rock music, jump-cut images of police attacking protestors, and alarming statistics: "Natives make up only two per cent of the Canadian population, but 50 per cent of all police deaths." Nelson promises the new video will also focus on the trade links between Canada and the U.S. - warning our neighbours just how much havoc Indian blockades could wreak on their own economy. "It's a numbers game. We're going to wake up the Americans."

Nelson is thinking big. Even if Anishnaabe treaty land claims are eventually settled (the Winnipeg land is the first of 6,000 acres the band is entitled to convert to reserve status), there are still disputes over health care, education, timber, the bridge that spans the Roseau River, and the harvesting of traditional plants. The beauty of a rail blockade is that it doesn't require much forward planning or any expertise. "All we need is a car on the tracks. And there are 12,000 of them a year stolen in Winnipeg," he says.

The photographer asks Nelson to step outside to catch the last light of day. It's a lucky break. A tow truck is about to hook up his car. The man who would bring Canada to its knees sprints across the street and drives away. A few minutes later, he returns clutching a $35 ticket. "They tried to tow my car away. On my own land," he says with a laugh. He wonders aloud if Maclean's might pay the fine. He's no longer joking.

Maclean's July 2, 2007