This theme offers film excerpts on land claims, management of natural resources, ancestral rights and recovery of Aboriginal cultural artefacts. It also presents images showing the resistance of Aboriginal peoples to repression by non-Aboriginal culture.


Sovereignty and Resistance
by Ellen Gabriel

Since the beginning of contact, Aboriginal peoples and Europeans have been at odds with one another. This is due, in part, to the differing ways Aboriginal peoples and Europeans view land and resources. It is also due to the fact that Europeans and their descendants refuse to recognize the sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples and rights to their lands. This refusal occurs in spite of the fact that Aboriginal right to land is protected under section 35 of the Canadian constitution.

Most Canadians have been taught in schools that Aboriginal peoples were conquered and surrendered their rights to their lands. This belief, however, is a fallacy not a truth.

The papal bull decreed by Pope Alexander VI, Inter Caetera, May 4, 1493, stated that representatives of the monarchy of Portugal, and later Spain, could declare lands for the Crown if they were occupied by heathens – non-Christians. Many other European countries with links to the papacy utilized papal bulls in their claims to land in the Americas.

Hence the struggle began for Aboriginal peoples to not only defend their lands but themselves as well. Aboriginal peoples have been taught that their lands have never been surrendered but that their ancestors agreed to allow Europeans to partake in the beautiful bounties of the land. The early treaties are a testament to this fact since these were agreements of peaceful coexistence between various Aboriginal nations and Europeans. Sadly, Europeans did not respect these treaties and even misinterpreted some as the surrendering of land.

In Canada, the Indian Act contains policies and programs that are designed to “control” the lives of Aboriginal peoples. Since its inception, Aboriginal peoples have been resisting the imposed laws that were designed not only to control but to destroy the social, spiritual and political fabric of Aboriginal nations. One need only look to the history of residential schools in Canada to see the manifestation of these acts of genocide against Aboriginal peoples.

In order to fully comprehend this phenomenon, imagine for a minute a foreign government entering Canada and imposing by force its own laws, language, culture, customs and spirituality upon Canadians. And what if this foreign government decreed as well that their system of government was far more superior to Canada’s and that Canadians would either have to convert or perish? This is the essence of the relationship between Canada and Aboriginal peoples.

Even more reprehensible is the fact that many Aboriginal nations who were once allies of countries such as England, Holland, France and the United States suddenly became “wards of the state”?! This due to the racist attitudes of people who viewed Aboriginal peoples as less than human and the Indian Act that has forced Aboriginal peoples to still be wards of the state in Canadian law.

That is the cause of events like Restigouche, the “Oka Crisis,” which happened in the Mohawk communities of Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawà:ke, Ipperwash, the Oldman River Dam of the Peigan Nation of Alberta, Haida Gwaii, Six Nations/Caledonia and numerous other blockades happening right across Canada.

Blockades and other acts of “resistance” reflect the frustration and disgust of Aboriginal peoples with how Canada has dealt with long-standing historical grievances concerning land rights. These very same blockades are also symbolic of the mistrust that Aboriginal peoples have towards the Canadian government. Sadly, it has been demonstrated time and time again that it is only through the creation of blockades that governments will sit down with Aboriginal leaders to negotiate disputes.

Warrior and Canadian Soldier at Kanehsatake, 1993
Warrior and Canadian Soldier at Kanehsatake, 1993
Credit: Shaney Komulainen, photographer
National Film Board of Canada

However, rather than examining the deeper issue of land rights Canada always argues that it cannot negotiate while blockades exist. The criteria of “land claims” by the Government of Canada require that Aboriginal nations prove occupation of disputed lands from time immemorial. Such criteria are difficult to challenge since our history and arguments are based upon oral traditions which have yet to be validated as a legitimate source by the Supreme Court of Canada.The situation is all the more frustrating considering that Aboriginal nations are forced to present their arguments of land rights to the very nation that they are having a conflict with. It’s like asking a friend whom you have a dispute with to settle the argument. Would that seem fair to you?!As we progress into the future there are a few statistics that will make one understand the reasons why Aboriginal peoples are frustrated with how matters are dealt with by the Government of Canada:

  • In the United Nations Human Development Report 2003, which is used to assess standard of living, Canada ranked 8th in the world. When this formula is applied to Registered Indians, Canada is ranked 48th in the world.
  • Health: A disproportionate number of Aboriginal peoples in Canada live below the poverty line, and there is a housing crisis. There is a large gap between the health of Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian population. Our life expectancy is 6.4 years less than that of Canadians. Furthermore, Aboriginal peoples are 1.5 times more likely to have heart disease, 4 times more likely to have diabetes and 6 times more likely to contract tuberculosis. We have a higher incidence of AIDs and suicide is a leading cause of death for our youth.
  • The Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser, estimates that it will take Canada 200 years to settle all “land claims” at the current rate that Canada “resolves” land disputes.

John Amagoalik and Zebedee Nungak, Co-Chairpersons on the Inuit Committee on National Issues – First Ministers’ Conference on Aboriginal Issues, 1987
John Amagoalik and Zebedee Nungak, Co-Chairpersons on the Inuit Committee on National Issues – First Ministers’ Conference on Aboriginal Issues, 1987

Dancing Around the Table, Part 1, 1987. National Film Board of Canada

Freedom and democracy are two factors in a nation’s life that perpetuate a healthy growth of its people. Oppression has been the constant in Aboriginal peoples’ relationship with Canada. It has also been instrumental in the destruction and loss of peoples’ traditions, language, spirituality and political structures. Aboriginal peoples will continue to fight and resist, utilizing the means available to them, until a relationship based upon mutual respect, integrity and honesty is achieved. Until then, the world will see more acts of resistance to achieve a form of sovereignty that will allow our nations to flourish.

Ellen Gabriel

Ellen Gabriel

Growing up Katsi’tsakwas, Ellen Gabriel of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation Turtle Clan was always taught to be proud of her Kanien’kéha heritage. Her role models—her grandmother, mother and aunties—were part of a group of Mohawk women who have fought for the rights of Native women since the creation of the sexist policies of the Indian Act. Ellen has always had a passion for art and graduated from Concordia University in 1990 with a BFA. She worked as an illustrator/curriculum developer for Tsi Ronteriwanónha ne Kanien’kéka/ Kanehsatà:ke Resource Center in Kanehsatà:ke and as an art teacher for the Mohawk Immersion School.

Ellen joined the movement in her community of Kanehsatà:ke in March 1990 when they erected barricades at the Pines to protest the expansion of a golf course in “Oka”, and was chosen by the People of the Longhouse and then her community to be a spokesperson during the 1990 “Oka” crisis. She believes that education is one of the ways Aboriginal people can overcome oppression while still maintaining their languages, culture, traditions and traditional forms of political structure. She is president of the Quebec Native Women Association, which advocates on behalf of the rights and interests of Aboriginal women.

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