Who can forget the iconic 1990 image of a masked warrior facing off against a Canadian soldier at Kanehsatà:ke?
But any memory of the so-called “Oka crisis” would be incomplete without the women on the front lines of the stand-off. Ellen Gabriel was chosen by the People of the Longhouse and then by her community to be spokesperson for Kanehsatà:ke during the Oka Crisis. Now she is back in the spotlight and hopeful that her people will once more choose her as spokesperson, but this time as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Though it has been 22 years since appearing nightly on television amidst burning tires and army checkpoints, Gabriel remains a grassroots hero for many across the land. In the intervening years, she picked up her calling as president of the Quebec Native Women Association, serving for six years, and continues educating audiences worldwide and works in her home community’s Kanehsatà:ke Language and Cultural Centre.
“We need change to bring back the voice of the people…. People at the grassroots level have felt very marginalized,” said Gabriel, whose traditional name is Katsitsakwas.
“People want a change. . . Change is not going to happen with a moderate perspective. That’s what’s been used in the past, but it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. I believe in diplomatic, frank discussions, in an honest, fair manner, with the federal government. But they haven’t respected us – they’ve made unilateral decisions without consulting us.”
Self-determination is a key pillar of Gabriel’s AFN candidacy. She dances delicately between diplomacy and uncompromising rhetoric: she attacks colonization, but also understands the difficulties facing chiefs – her voters – elected under Canada’s Indian Act.
“We don’t like a system that needs a rubber stamp from Ottawa – that says we can’t do something in our communities. I hear the same frustration by people elected as band council chiefs. They don’t like being part of that system either. So what do we do to get rid of it?” asked Gabriel. “The AFN has said publicly that it will work with the government to get rid of the Indian Act – but how is that going to transpire. . . We need to get out of the negative impacts colonization has put us under for more than 200 years. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re stronger united.”
Gabriel, 53, looks back to 1990 as a watershed moment in her life – not to mention as a historic assertion of Native rights attracting thousands from across Turtle Island.
B.C. hereditary chief Bill Wilson, unsuccessful contender against Atleo in 2009 election, is one leader backing Gabriel, describing her on Facebook as “the only candidate tested under fire.”
“I was greatly relieved and excited when Ellen was finally recognized as a candidate,” Wilson wrote. “There is a long hard struggle ahead of us.”
Gabriel is used to struggle.
“(Before 1990) I think our people were sleeping,” she said. “In 1990, Aboriginal peoples asserted our sovereignty, and we were criminalized for doing that. Our people are holding their heads high now. I and my community stood up to fight the expansion of a golf course in 1990, and the Longhouse peoples are still excluded in negotiations regarding our lands and our collective human rights, in spite of what Canada promised then. It seems that there’s not much difference in the attitude of more than 500 years ago. We as Indigenous peoples are still fighting a government who thinks they are superior to us.”
Gabriel frequently references the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was signed in 2007. Canada only adopted the declaration in 2010. Applying its broad articulation of Indigenous rights is another key plank, and one she believes is vital to facing the federal government.
“The Conservative government representing Canada now is stomping all over our rights,” she said. “They blatantly do that without consequence. They’re not even respecting their own rule of law or the international rule of law.”
Ultimately, Gabriel said, her campaign is about First Nations making urgent choices.
“We are at a crossroads right now, whether we will be totally assimilated and whether we will have the ability to be self-determining people,” she said.
“How do we take control of our own destiny, in order to have a brighter future for our children and youth? Here we are in 2012 (and) we’re still dealing with the challenges of how to de-colonize our relationship with Canada, but also to decolonize the one we have with each other. We have a rich culture to build upon,†in spite of everything that has happened to us in the process of colonization and oppression. That richness is our strength, and what we need to keep going.”