The International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples wrapped up last month without much fanfare by Ottawa. In fact, the whole event went virtually un-noticed by the federal government. It hasn't had much positive impact on the First Nations either. A couple of news stories from last month provided the chief reason why.
The first involved the tiny Innu community of Davis Inlet., Nfld. The community's leaders gathered in the villages' church hall Dec. 20 to welcome the new minister of Indian Affairs on his first official tour of the remote and impoverished community. The minister never showed up.
News of an alleged riot between Innu youths and local RCMP which occurred a few days earlier apparently frightened Minister Ron Irwin off his trip. RCMP reported
an angry mob had driven a provincial justice out of the village and then attacked a police building, allowing five Innu prisoners to escape.
Chief Katie Rich gave a slightly different version. She said an angry mob told the justice he could not hold court in their territory so he left. The attack on the police building was by snowball-wielding children. And the prisoners simply went home to the village.
Irwin's no-show suggests the brand new minister is firmly fixed in Ottawa's old-age mistrust of Natives. He never bothered to call Chief Rich to ask what was really going on. When she tried to reach him, she could only get as far as one of his assistants. If Irwin had taken the call, he would have learned that the incident with the judge and the police had dissolved a lot of tension and solidified the spirit of the community. Instead, he simply failed to show up.
The other major news story involved Native political prisoner Leonard Peltier. His parole hearing in Kansas came and went last month but the Lakota-Chippewas is still behind bars. Despite admissions of falsified extradition papers, invented witness affidavits and coerced testimonies, the non-Native justice system still requires Peltier to be guilty. It needs a scapegoat. But that need goes beyond the courts' requirements for a guilty party. That need preempts the possibility that the courts were wrong to jail Peltier in the first place.
Many Native activists, including Peltier's white lawyer, believe that reluctance to admit error and release him hinges on Peltier being Native. Being expendable and Indian often appear synonymous in the realm of the non-Native justice system. Just ask the LaChance family in Debden, Sask. or most Native folk in Williams Lake, B.C.
The white justice system needs some one, needs an Indian, to pay for the deaths of two FBI agents. It appears the majority of people, American and Canadian, are willing to accept that notion. Some may express their outrage but most will not call the White House asking for a presidential pardon. So Peltier stays in jail.
The end of 1993 marks the close of a difficult year for Natives here in Canada, too. Despite an international year to further understanding around the world, or the efforts of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples here at home, there is still an ingrained mistrust between Natives and non-Natives in Canada.
But this political mood must not be taken as a signal that we should stop trying to close this rift. There's no denying that the Canadian government fails to consider First Nations concerns as we would have them do. But the obligation to make Ottawa recognize Aboriginal rights is as much our responsibility as it is theirs.
1994 is a new year.
Let's use it.