Letter to the Legislators of Ontario
May 11, 2008
I am writing this letter to you from the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario. I have been imprisoned here during the last three months for contempt of court because I said I cannot obey an injunction which conflicts with my duty under Algonquin law to protect our land.
I am writing because I believe you are honest men and women who work in the best interests of your constituents and for the betterment of Ontario. Is it to your intelligence and compassion that this letter is addressed. What I write may shock and anger you. It will certainly cause embarrassment. My hope is that what you read here will engender in you the same commitment to justice that I have felt within these prison walls and throughout my life.
On February 15th of this year, I was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $25,000. Co-Chief Paula Sherman was also fined $15,000. She is a single mother and a grandmother and the sole supporter for three dependents. She cannot and will not pay the fine and will have to report to jail on May 15 to serve a 90 day prison sentence. Our offence was declaring our intention to peacefully protect our homeland after 30,000 acres had been staked for uranium exploration. The staking had been done without our knowledge or consent and the claims were registered by Ontario's Ministry of Mines without notification. Extensive deep core drilling was planned for last summer without consultation or accommodation.
In June of last year, the Council of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation requested the exploration company remove their personnel and equipment. When they complied, we secured the area with the help of our non-Algonquin neighbours. In July, the company, Frontenac Ventures Corporation, sued us for $77 million, and in August obtained an injunction ordering unfettered access to our lands. Since their still had not been any consultation, as required by Supreme Court decisions, we refused to remove the security barrier, and found ourselves convicted of "contempt" by your court.
Although the context behind my imprisonment is useful, this letter is not about mining or the out-dated Ontario Mining Act. There is already much public discussion now going on about toxic mining and the need to protect citizens' rights. This letter as well is not about Aboriginal rights or the protection of our homeland, although our Indigenous rights and responsibilities contribute to the discourse. This letter is a case against colonialism, the dysfunctional heritage that we share; the colonialism that informs every aspect of our current relationship and will undo our security and undermine the future for all citizens in this province. Democracy and colonialism can not walk hand-in-hand for long before the disparity in justice, economic opportunities and morality so sickens human spirits that we will all live without hope of becoming the nations we wish to be.
For many years in my intellectual life I tried to understand why, as Indigenous people, we were destined to suffer under the oppression of colonialism. I wanted to know if some natural law at the beginning of time had proclaimed it so, or if it were an accident of conditioning, or if it were essential to social order that made such suffering a necessity. I believed that if I could only know how it had come to be then I would be satisfied with the justification, or understand how you fix the mechanics.
As the years have carved away my curiosity, I have at last concluded that it does not matter how colonialism came to be or who is at fault. I do not care if I ever know how colonialism took root in this world. Now, I just want to be free of it. I want to know that succeeding generations of First Nations children will not be looked upon as inferior, that their birthright and home will not be stolen, that they will have the advantage of dreaming their own dreams and following their own visions. And as much as I want my own children to be free, I want your children not to suffer the moral uncertainty that comes with living well because others are oppressed.
You are legislators. You have the responsibility for writing the laws and policies that frame colonialism and give it social and political structure in Ontario. Unwriting colonialism is not a political process. One party or coalition can not do it alone. Ending legal colonialism is not for partisans. It requires a consensus among law makers who regard justice and humanity above competition for popularity. Those of you who will work for just change will believe in the rightness of your laws as strongly as I believe in the rightness of Algonquin law. When you decide to erase colonialism from your laws you will be risking your future as much as I have risked mine. They are your laws that embody colonial oppression of Aboriginal people and although we can offer guidance, it will be you as legislators who will choose to be, or choose not to be, the burden of innocent generations of come.
The present and accepted course of de-colonization has failed. It has failed both in letter and in spirit. We are living an illusion that Canada and the Provinces no longer oppress First Nations. Nothing in this lie could be further from the truth. If it was so, when did this reversal take place? Was it with Confederation? No - Confederation marked the transition from an ambivalent British Crown to a purposeful extermination of everything Indian. Was it during the Canadian centre of repressive laws that alienated Aboriginal people from their lands and customs? No. Did revisions of the federal Indian Act reverse the national strategy of "taking the Indian out of the Indian child" or save thousands of Indian children from the "sixties scoop"? No.
Have decisions of the Supreme Course recognized original jurisdiction or simply redefined domination in more tolerable terms? Did the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People and hundreds of other studies inform the Nation and change public attitudes? No. Did patriating the Constitution in 1982 succeed in defining the rights and jurisdiction of Aboriginal Nations as it did for the Federal and Provincial governments? No! Please, honestly, ask yourselves, when such a historical turn around occurred and when substantial changes in legislation were written which would have allowed the transition to take place.
Freedom does not come in increments. Colonialism will not give way through wishful thinking or half-measures. In the past, politicians, clergy and intellectuals argued that Aboriginal people were not ready for "civilization" and needed the guiding hand of the colonizer. This ideology is nothing more than self-serving paternalism. Freedom is not something that Aboriginal people should have to earn. If freedom were to be bought, then we have paid for it a thousand fold. Freedom comes when the gate is opened wide or broken down. If there is anyone who has not been ready for Aboriginal people to take their rightful place in Canada, it is you, the colonizer. Until you actively and explicitly make colonialism illegal then it will always be you who are not ready.
The forces that guard colonialism are large. The federal and provincial governments employ hundreds of lawyers, bureaucrats and academics to discredit Aboriginal claims and put Aboriginal people in their place. They work on land claims, court cases and public policy in an effort to limit the Crown's obligations and liability to Aboriginal people. When have Ontario lawyers defended an Aboriginal right or vigorously advanced Aboriginal claims? They just don't do that.
Colonialism will remain firmly entrenched as long as we work in an adversarial system in which communities that have been undermined socially, economically and politically for over two centuries must play by their opponents' rules on a field with a precipitous incline. I have watched as a generation of great minds have been squandered on both sides of this rivalry because intransigent bureaucrats and partisan politicians have been afraid to let "the thin edge of the wedge" change public policy and institutionalize just treatment of Aboriginal citizens. It is not for want of informed and competent negotiators that Canada and Ontario have a slew of unsettled claims and associated conflicts; rather it is the law makers' lack of political will, fairness and honesty in putting an end to the immoral advantage of colonialism.
Let me give you a clear and recent example of how Aboriginal people experience negotiations. In October of last year, Judge Cunningham of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, who presides in the suit brought by Frontenac Ventures against my community, suspended the hearing for twelve weeks in an effort to get all the parties talking. Ontario, Frontenac Ventures and the two First Nations agreed to a prioritized list of issues and to jointly choose a mediator. At that point, we removed our security barrier and permitted Frontenac Ventures to carry out unobtrusive survey work.
When the discussions began, the corporation did not attend or send a representative. Instead they installed security guards at the site.
Ontario's representatives consistently refused to discuss the issues outlined in the predetermined agenda which included as the first item, Ontario's legal responsibility to consult with First Nations communities before development of a resource begins. Ontario negotiators rejected out of hand three comprehensive settlement proposals put forward by Ardoch. Ontario negotiators demanded that we inventory our "values" for the staked land, but refused to accept the description of these "values" when expressed in cultural context or with their meanings in Anishnabemowin, our language.
When it was apparent that time was running out in the 12 week process, the lead Ontario negotiator, who had been a former Deputy Minister of Northern Development and Mines, conceded that Ontario's duty to consult should be met. He agreed with Ardoch that a broad range of possible outcomes should be considered. He also agreed that the consultation process could conclude with an end to uranium exploration. Ardoch had favoured such an open consultation from the beginning of negotiations. Having arrived at an agreement that a plan of "appropriate consultation" would be submitted to Judge Cunningham we proceeded to discuss the framework for the consultation process.
A week later, after substantial collaboration on the framework, Ontario's lead negotiator advised us that there had never been an intention to halt exploration and that exploratory drilling would be taking place during the proposed consultation process. We could either agree or face the court and charges of contempt.
This experience seems to be universal across the country. It has not changed much since the starvation tactics used by Sir John A. Macdonald in negotiating the early numbered treaties. While Aboriginal people cling to the hope that the Crown administrators will be merciful and accept some limited fashion of constitutionally protected rights, bureaucrats and their Ministerial masters do everything in their power to extinguish those rights and uphold the colonial state.
Legislators and governments are not solely responsible for maintaining the immoral practice of colonialism. Even the Supreme Court of Canada, often praised for its progressive decisions on Aboriginal rights, is a principle defender of the sovereign privilege of domination. Supreme Court decisions, while recognizing the historical and legal validity of Aboriginal rights, limit the scope and practice of those rights in favour of "larger" Canadian interests. An analogy of the dilemma is listening to the stories of an abused child in an Indian residential school, patting her on the head and then telling her not to disobey the priest. Such is the sanctimonious hypocrisy of your highest court. These same courts permit Canada's governments to ponder for years on the policy implications reflecting these half-hearted concessions, rendering the entire legal process of protecting Aboriginal rights an exercise in "too little, too late".
Ontario has been consistently guilty of regarding Aboriginal rights as an inconvenient demand on the moral character of a tolerant society. But Aboriginal rights are your laws, not ours. They originate in English law as the doctrine of "continuity" and find substance in such documents as the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Section 35 rights in the Canadian Constitution are an attempt to address the fundamental denial of the existing laws of Aboriginal Nations and to bring into sovereign Canada a sense of Aboriginal belonging. But we have had our own laws and governance and the Crown, through the doctrine of "continuity" has never had the right to overrule them.
Our laws do not involve a concept of "rights". In our cultures, mutual respect and benefit are understood as imperatives for survival. Aboriginal cultures regard law as a complex set of responsibilities to the land and in human relations. The emphasis is on protecting sustainability and avoiding conflict. When Europeans first came to settle in the Ottawa valley in 1800, this is what our ancestors asked of them: to share the land and get along. Through 150 years of French and 100 years of English contact, the doctrine of "continuity" was practiced. We must be clear that recent constitutional commitments in section 35 to "recognize and affirm" Aboriginal and treaty rights are Canadian law. Our leaders at the time asked for much more.
The disparity between your laws and ours' represents the gap between lip service and Aboriginal peoples' ambition to restore our homelands and cultures. Without a sense of moral clarity and comprehensive entitlements, section 35 of your Constitution is almost meaningless. It gives you as legislators no standard or instruction upon which to write anti-colonial legislation. As such, it gives Canadian courts nothing with which to reconcile the past and even less with which to arbitrate the future. Courts will continue to define Aboriginal rights as subservient and Aboriginal title as third class.
As a colonized people we must accept a share of the responsibility for our condition. Like you, we have internalized colonialism. We have allowed it to inform the way we see the world and ourselves. Too often we have turned to the colonizing governments for support. Too often we expect you to solve out problems or blame you for our inadequacies. Too often we are satisfied with handouts rather than partnerships or ownership. We have come to accept colonial labels such as "status" and "non-status" as definitions of who we are. We let these labels divide our families and communities.
Our leaders have accepted foreign forms of governance which undermine our unity and foster corruption. We have come to accept that blood quantum, shades of skin colour and even levels of education determine our Indianess. Far too often we have given up, given in to self-hate, self-abuse and the abuse of others. Like you, we have to confront colonialism on our own terms, for it is just as immoral to accept victimization as it is to benefit from oppression.
Ontario's education system is a primary instrument in ensuring that colonialism remains unchallenged. Many Ontarians know nothing of how generations of Aboriginal children were victimized by church and state. Ontarians posses only a vague understanding of how land was overrun by settlement in the 19th century and Aboriginal people were forced to sign unconscionable treaties and land sales in return for modest protection. As far as understanding the evolution of colonial laws, almost all citizens are ignorant.
Even the real suffering of their own immigrant ancestors as slaves, indentured servants, child labour and cannon fodder have been sanitized for the popular glorification of Ontario's history. Many of these immigrants were escaping colonialism in their own homelands, just as refugees today come to Canada to find a better life. But they acquire no real history about themselves and at best only an "honourable mention" of Aboriginal realities. Without an honest and fully informed education system, your job of challenging and changing colonial laws is as difficult as our in changing the attitudes of ignorant neighbours.
Almost all of you have either publicly or privately condemned the Aboriginal people who protest and obstruct economic and civic activity. At best you have expressed complacent tolerance and an admission that Aboriginal dissatisfaction may have some merit. Ontario's civility rests on its affluence, not on its moral intelligence or character. It is this artificial civility that Aboriginal protestors challenge. Each time a road is blocked, exploration for minerals is halted, or forestry is interrupted, Aboriginal activists are raising the prickly question of Ontario's morality.
Each time a protest forces a political "spin" to be re-spun, law makers are confronted with the ineptitude of their own professional history. You may not like the politics of confrontation but I would rather see Shawn Brant block the 401 than Ovide Mercredi begging at the gates of Meech Lake, or Phil Fontaine writing Steven Harper's apology for the abuse of residential schools.
The affluence of Ontario has been acquired from the sacrifice of our ancestors' health and the wealth of our homelands. If immobilizing the power of that affluence is the only way to expose the evil of colonization then you need to brace yourselves. Aboriginal people and our thoughtful neighbours are sick and tired of colonialism. People of all races who hunger for justice, who understand the sacredness of creation and the folly of greed will find expression in tearing down colonialism. Aboriginal protests are not so much about past grievances. They are about the effects of present dispossession. Aboriginal activism is about changing the course of the future.
During the last week of May, Aboriginal people across Canada will be preparing for the National Day of Action on May 29th. Many people will come to Queen's Park. They are coming to talk to you. Throughout that week you will have the opportunity to listen to Aboriginal people and their friends express their fears and aspirations for the future. You will also hear their complaints. If you are wise you will listen. If you are as courageous as they are, you will allow what you hear to inspire your actions. If you are thankful for the Creator's gift of life, you will extend your hands in peace and friendship. It is up to you if you choose a partnership with Aboriginal Nations to begin the arduous task of rewriting Ontario's laws to exclude colonial principles. But if you choose to do nothing, or to condemn us, then please do not make excuses or false promises.
In the days leading up to May 29th, the media will extol the Canadian virtue of tolerance. In the days following, the media will sensationalize the "criminality" of Aboriginal defiance. You will see large pictures of masked warriors but little honest context. As you look with trepidation into the masked faces remember that those of us who wear no masks have been faceless as well, all of our lives. The real news will be in the conversations that you will have in the midst of demonstrations and at the edge of the barricades.
As much as I would like to be with you and my brothers and sisters at Queen's Park at the end of May, I will be here in prison. Throughout my life, I have advocated the path of non-violence as the only means of restoring our cultural integrity and our belonging within creation.
Freedom, at last, is a state of spirit. Even within the walls of this cell, my spirit can heal and grow and under the burden of oppression, all of our spirits can rise up. My spirit, like a seed, can wait throughout the long winter and come to life again when there is room to grow. Non-violence does not mean timidity. Those of us who have chosen a life of non-violence vigorously fight against the oppression and injustice that is sustained by violence. Colonialism, the laws that uphold it, the police actions that take down barricades and disrupt peaceful protests, are violence. Freedom flows around violence like water in a stream flows around a fallen log. Freedom is beautiful like the colours of the earth. Violence is ugly. My spirit will be with all of you at the end of May in peace and friendship.
My immediate thoughts are with my community and the threat of extensive deep core drilling. There is also the humiliation that Ontario is unwilling to allow our community into the decision-making process before further encroachment occurs. And there is the constant anxiety of what an open pit uranium mine will do to our land, our health and the health of our neighbours down stream. My heart aches in the memories of fishing along that river; the blueberry picking on the ridges and the winter solitudes of Arty's trapline. For two hundred years, colonists have been taking out land. I wonder every day when it will stop.
Because I do not have that answer I will begin a fast on May 16 and I will fast until I have an answer. I will not be fasting as a political statement or to extricate some concession from Ontario. In our culture we fast to purify our bodies and free our spirits. We fast in anticipation of a vision of things to come and to prepare ourselves to accept a great challenge. If my fast over the next few weeks brings attention to the defense of our community I will welcome the growing interest. I will also be praying hard for the protection of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and all of the communities struggling to survive. If in some small way my fast contributes to the non-violent struggle against Canadian colonialism, then all the better. I have no expectation of the Premier or his Ministers. The gun is to our head not his. I will pray that their hearts and minds become clear and that we will meet soon to work together to find solutions to the mess we are in.
When I began this letter I wrote that you might be shocked, angered and certainly embarrassed. If reading my thoughts made you uncomfortable, I am not sorry. It was my intent to shake you out of your complacency and indifference. Aboriginal people do not want your platitudes. We want change. We want an end to colonialism. We want legislation that protects our rights and recognizes our original jurisdiction. What you did yesterday in the name of justice for Aboriginal people is not enough. No matter what happens now, we will walk tomorrow's road together; you must ask yourself how you have that journey to be.
In the spirit of Peace and Friendship, mutual respect and benefit, I wish you to be well in your work, your play and your dreams.
Ardoch Algonquin First Nation