Canada, natives locked in uneasy dance over self-governance

Posted by admin on Jul 24th, 2011

Aaron Lynett/National Post Jul 24, 2011 – 12:48 PM ET | Last Updated: Aug 5, 2011 6:55 PM ET

When asked by authorities to declare his citizenship at the Canada-U.S. border in Ontario, Leroy Hill will say, “North American Indian.” When pressed and asked where he resides, the sub-chief of the Iroquois Confederacy will point across the Niagara River and say, “I live on that side of your line,” and then submit his Iroquois passport. Neither the words “Canadian” nor “American” will cross his lips. Never have, he said. Never will. “We’ve never relinquished our sovereignty, we’ve been our own nation for centuries,” said Mr. Hill, of the Six Nations of Grand River, Canada’s largest band of 23,000, with more than half living on a reserve near Brantford, Ont. “We were raised that we’re not Canadian and we’re not American…. I would never carry a Canadian passport.”

To most Canadians, the issue of aboriginal sovereignty is largely viewed as a dead one — or at least a latent, mostly quiet one.

It flared with Ottawa’s 1969 proposal to abolish the Indian Act via the White Paper on Indian Policy, a document denounced by activists as a polite form of cultural genocide against the country’s million or so aboriginals. However, since the early 1990s, when aboriginal issues made headlines almost daily with the Meech Lake accord, the Charlottetown accord and the Oka Crisis, the issue of aboriginal nationhood has mostly slipped from mainstream consciousness.

But to Mr. Hill and perhaps thousands of others, the connection to aboriginal sovereignty penetrates everyday life, marking the impetus for ongoing self-governance and land claims negotiations with Ottawa.

It might also help explain low aboriginal voter turnout at federal elections: There is little comprehensive data regarding aboriginal participation, but Elections Canada says voter turnout on First Nations reserves in the 2000 election was 16% lower than the nationwide figure.

Mr. Hill, 43, said he has never cast a ballot in a federal or provincial race. “The treaty we have is that we won’t interfere in each other’s affairs,” he said. “So I’d be violating a treaty if I voted. That’s the way most of us view it.”

Mr. Hill is of the Cayuga nation, one of six nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy, a cross-border political entity with an office near Syracuse, N.Y., in Onondaga. The communications officer there issues handwritten Iroquois, or Haudenausanee, passports, a document first used in the early 1920s and which was apparently accepted as a courtesy by host countries until the 9/11 attacks ushered stricter scrutiny.

The word Haudenosaunee means “They made the house,” and symbolizes all the member nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora — coming together as one. To many Iroquois confederates, the Haudenausanee passport remains an important, tangible representation of the confederacy’s sovereignty.

So when authorities confiscated Joyce King’s Iroquois passport at the Cornwall crossing and called it a “fantasy document” last month, the Mohawk woman said the Canada Border Services Agency had attacked her identity. Ms. King, who intends to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, lives in Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory whose geography makes it a natural epicentre of Iroquois nationalism.

The territory straddles both the Canada-U.S. and Ontario-Quebec borders, dividing its total of roughly 15,000 people between the Canadian side, which is home to about 11,000, and the New York State side.

Its residents are constantly faced with questions over citizenship, land division, and jurisdiction. Teenagers living on the Canadian side of the territory might go to high school on the American side, and their parents might cross the boundary for work. Most present their status or enrolment cards, as they are called in Canada and the United States respectively; some cross so often that border authorities have stopped asking them for any identification at all.

The Cornwall, Ont., border crossing was shut down in 2009 amid Mohawk protests over the arming of border guards. It was a flashpoint in the late 1960s, too, when activists rallied against what they saw as Canada’s failure to live up to the terms of the 1794 Jay’s Treaty, which granted aboriginals duty-free passage between America and what was then Great Britain.

A July 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa lamented the confusion and tension at the border, highlighting Canada’s uneasy dance when it comes to aboriginal sovereignty and self-governance. The Wikileaks cable said, “The ‘inherent’ right of self-government does not grant a right of sovereignty in the sense of international law, and does not create sovereign independent aboriginal nation-states.”

It went on to scold Canada for having “so far failed to devise a lasting resolution” of a dispute between border officials and the people of Akwesasne — a dispute requiring some “tough political choices” that could alienate First Nations people or the Canadian public.

When asked to comment on the refusal by some Iroquois to carry a Canadian passport, a spokesperson for the newly renamed Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said, “It’s a matter of personal opinion.”

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The issue of Iroquois sovereignty is a complex one, and opinions run the gamut, even within the confederacy. There are those who carry an American or Canadian passport. There are those who might identify themselves first as a citizen of Haudenausanee, but who also consider themselves Canadian.

Mr. Hill said the Iroquois are keenly assertive of their sovereignty because of the confederacy’s centuries-old constitution, the “Great Law of Peace,” which emphasizes the bound nature of each nation’s existence. He said the 55,000 or so Iroquois in Canada are also concentrated geographically, rather than splintered into small communities.

For one Mohawk resident of Akwesasne who lives on the American side and asked not to be named, it is less about a push for a separate Iroquois nation-state and “more about how people view themselves.”

“It’s really hard to consider yourself Canadian or American when Canadians and Americans are the immigrants,” she said.

Gavin Taylor, a Concordia University professor of native history, explains that the Iroquois Confederacy is not actually seeking independence “because they’ve never actually ceded their sovereignty to Canada.” Kathleen Buddle-Crowe, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba, suggests that it is less a “protest” movement and more a “persistence” movement.

The rejection of the Canadian identity and Canadian citizenship, however, does not come with the rejection of Canadian taxpayer dollars — whether it be in the form of so-called Indian Moneys, Band Employee Benefits, funding for social programs, treaty annuity payments, or the provision of ammunition, twine for nets, and a new suit for chiefs and councilors every three years.

In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the elected Mohawk Council of Akwesasne received more than $45 million in federal funds, not to mention provincial monies. Between 2001 and 2010, the band received roughly $390,000,000.

Some argue that this is hypocrisy at its finest, that ‘You can’t have your cake (sovereignty and independence) and eat it, too (federal funding).”

“It’s a stretch to claim all the benefits of the Canadian nation state — her institutions, her tax regime, her social welfare programs, her security — and yet pretend one is independent,” said Mark Milke, a director at the Fraser Institute who has published studies on aboriginal issues. “It’s a bit like a 13-year-old who says, ‘I don’t owe anything to my parents, they can’t tell me what to do, yet I’m under their roof.’ ”

Others say financial support and tax exemption is the least Canada could do to repay First Nations for generations of wrongdoing. Beyond that though, First Nations were guaranteed certain rights — including annual payments, in some cases — when they ceded land to the British Crown and later Canada in a series of treaties.

“Those taxpayer dollars are for the land that they use that belonged to us,” said Ms. King, referring also to promises of mutual aid laid out in historic treaties. “It’s a pittance to the resources that they have taken from the land…. And when it comes to money for social services, why do people take issue with it when it has to do with Indians?”

Besides, Prof. Taylor asks, who would turn down funding?

“Canada gives foreign aid to plenty of countries, and it doesn’t mean those countries should cede their sovereignty to Canada,” he said, adding that he could not think of an aboriginal border community as large and assertive as the Iroquois in Akwesasne.

Former Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault said he often dealt with Akwesasne Mohawks regarding cross-border travel, but said Canada will “never negotiate a form of sovereignty with the Iroquois Confederacy.”

Still, he said an interest in sovereignty should not exclude Iroquois from receiving taxpayer dollars.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that you shouldn’t get federal funding from the government because of your political views, because then why would we have all these [Quebec] separatists sitting in the House of Commons?” asked Mr. Nault, who served in Cabinet from 1999-2003.

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Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, now Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, provided the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne with more than $8-million for social support services and social assistance, and more than $10-million for education, according to the department’s schedule of funding. Health Canada paid nearly $7-million in non-insured health benefits.

In April, the Ontario government announced a $41,872 grant to support creative sector jobs and cultural tourism in Akwesasne. The Quebec government issued a cheque for $1.8-million in 2007 to support the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service.

The police service has the difficult task of patrolling a community that straddles two countries and two provinces, and which contends with international arms and drugs smuggling operations; it has a “quadra-partite” policing agreement with Quebec, Ontario, the federal government and Akwesasne itself.

“We could do well without having to receive the millions of dollars that you’re talking about, but we have to have the opportunity to develop our own economy,” Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell said in a telephone interview last week from Moncton, N.B., where he attended the Assembly of First Nations annual general meeting. “We’re fighting for an opportunity to do things on our own.”

Although Grand Chief Mitchell said the Iroquois are not angling to separate from the recognized borders of Canada and the United States, the July 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa alluded otherwise.

Grand Chief Mitchell “commented publicly that the removal of the [Cornwall] border post from the reserve was the first step in creating a form of Mohawk sovereignty,” the cable said. “He added that the next step would be to redraw the Canada-U.S. boundary to exclude native land.”

In his interview with the National Post, Grand Chief Mitchell said he views sovereignty more as a form of “co-existence.” He has been “fighting hard” to persuade Canada to “recognize Akwesasne’s jurisdiction and its law-making authority.”

Ottawa is now negotiating a broad governance agreement with Akwesasne, and is also working toward an accompanying Sectoral Lands Agreement. The Aboriginal Affairs department says Akwesasne is looking to expand the negotiations to include areas of provincial jurisdiction for justice, health, child and family services.

Grand Chief Mitchell, who has held his post on and off since 1984, said he is also working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to modernize the Iroquois passport and bring it up to post-9/11 security standards. Perhaps then, he said, the symbolic document will become a widely accepted form of identification.

“The Haudenausaunee have a concept that no one gives you sovereignty,” said Ms. King, who was recently told the border agency is returning her passport in the mail. “You exercise it.”

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