WINNIPEG — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is considering a request to give First Nations the power to directly call in the military when their treaty, environmental and other rights are threatened.
Ron Swain, vice-chief with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, told Sajjan during consultations with indigenous groups Wednesday that aboriginal communities deserve the same rights as provincial governments, which have the authority under the National Defence Act to call in the military to fight civil unrest and during other crises.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan stands with Canadian soldiers before an announcement at CFB Trenton in Ont. on Aug. 29, 2016. (Photo: Lars Hagberg/CP)
"We believe, in protecting our sovereign territory and our issues around environmental concerns, we should be able to trigger the same response and have our Armed Forces defending our treaties and our territories," Swain said during a break in the closed-door meeting in Winnipeg that included about a dozen aboriginal leaders and academics.
The meeting, which focused on indigenous issues, was one of several discussions Sajjan is holding around the country as part of a broad review of Canada's defence policies.
Lessons from Oka crisis
Swain, whose group represents First Nations and Metis who do not live on reserve, pointed to the Oka crisis of 1990, when the Quebec government called in the military to try to restore order after repeated clashes between police and Mohawk protesters.
He said indigenous communities should be able to call in the military to come to their defence in such cases, or in the event that development that could pose a risk to the environment is taking place without First Nations consent. Swain cited the current standoff involving the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota over construction of an oil pipeline.
"Our people and our communities are very concerned about water and this whole issue about pipelines."
Story continues after slideshow:
Here are some quotes from various people who were involved in the Oka Crisis, which erupted on July 11, 1990. (Information courtesy of Giuseppe Valiante and Peter Rakobowchuk, The Canadian Press). (PHOTO CREDIT: A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)
"It was difficult negotiating because there were two camps that we were negotiating with. I'm not suggesting we should have been negotiating with (Mohawk) Warriors but that's what happened. "We were negotiating with the (band) council and then the Warriors took over. We had to take as long as we could to avoid any further loss of life. We lost a corporal...Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa called us into his office the day after (the crisis) started and he told us, he made it very, very clear, that he didn't want any more death. And he asked us to make sure there wasn't.''
"There were some good cops and bad cops at that time and the same with the army. I remember seeing a soldier get his stripes ripped off his arm right in front of me because he was too helpful with the food. "His superior officer took his stripes and ripped them off his sleeve because he allowed us to put little things in the (food) boxes that shouldn't have been there. People would try and slip messages in the food boxes (for the Warriors behind the barricades).''
"From the outset it was decided that we wouldn't use force. It could have created a precedent either for poisoning generations between natives communities and Quebec. Not to mention Canada and Quebec's international reputations were on the line. "And we didn't want to create what could become eventually a resistance movement or a terrorist movement. We wanted to negotiate and have a peaceful resolution and the minute you decide that, you know you're in a long standoff. We knew this wasn't going to end in a week.''
"The Oka Crisis didn't stop in September 1990 -- far from it. What it led to was the social disintegration of my community. I think the Oka Crisis for us lasted 20 years -- at least 20 years. "And now we're starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. We have a unified (band) council for the first time in recent memory and it's really incredible to see because everyone has the same mind. They want to see their home get better. They want it to heal. They want opportunities for the youth that weren't here before.''
"We had people who were watching -- international observers -- and they had been all over the world and witnessed horrible disputes of all kinds. "Negotiating with (international observers) there gives you the impression that you're in something that could explode at any point. The feeling that we have to have observers meant everyone was conscious of the fact we were on the precipice for violence to break out again.'' (PHOTO CREDIT: A Mohawk Warrior sits in golf cart and uses binoculars to view approaching Canadian army armoured vehiches on Highway 344 on the Kanesatake Reserve at Oka, Que., September 1, 1990. It was a crisis that grabbed international headlines, with armed Mohawks and Canadian soldiers involved in a lengthy standoff that often appeared on the verge of exploding into full-blown combat.)
"I think (since Oka) there has been an evolution all across Canada. There are (still) many unresolved issues, land claims, jurisdictional disputes. (But) there is a greater appreciation that these are important questions and issues. "And when it comes to the development of natural resources, I think everyone understands that we are going to develop natural resources with the First Nations. And back then I think we would have acted more unilaterally.''
"There is still no agreement over the land. The only thing that has changed since Oka is that the day-to-day (routine) has returned. Our municipality isn't that big. "After the crisis it was really hard. People on both sides weren't talking to each other. No one was looking at each other. Lots of divisions within families because there are many inter-marriages between natives and non-natives. It lasted several years. I think the two sides suffered. There was a lot of work to get out of the crisis. Today, things are back to normal."
"A police officer took all the keys to the (police vehicles) and locked the doors to make sure no one could get in. When the shootout occurred (between provincial police and Mohawk Warriors) all the officers wanted to get into their cars but they were locked out. "The panic was tremendous. The police officers with their guns ran down the hill and there were newspeople taking photographs of them. The police were so angry at the photographers they followed them and confiscated those images. A lot of it was destroyed.''
"When the army started to move in...it was a waiting game. I was constantly wondering what would unfold, what would resolve it, what would end it. You just didn't know which way it would turn. "There were some (Mohawks) who had AK-47s, other young men with shotguns and hunting rifles. It opened my eyes to many things: this is Canada? And I thought everything was cool here, I thought everyone was kind of happy together. There's stuff behind the scenes that we don't know about.''
"All of the problems of the history, the decades of injustice towards First Nations, all welled up around this episode. "In retrospect, I think we managed to solve it without further bloodshed. I don't think anybody can take personal credit for having been the magic bullet, but I do believe it led to our ability as a government to make a huge amount of progress on land claims.''
A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. It was a crisis that grabbed international headlines, with armed Mohawks and Canadian soldiers involved in a lengthy standoff that often appeared on the verge of exploding into full-blown combat. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw
Mohawk Warrior known as Noreiga clutches a Mohawk woman as he is taken into costody Sept. 26, 1990 by Canadian soldiers during the surrender at the Kanasehtake Reserve at Oka. It was a crisis that grabbed international headlines, with armed Mohawks and Canadian soldiers involved in a lengthy standoff that often appeared on the verge of exploding into full-blown combat. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw
Even municipalities appear to have an easier time getting military intervention, said Swain, who pointed to the 1999 snowstorm in Toronto that had then-mayor Mel Lastman pleading successfully for army aid.
A spokesman for Sajjan was noncommittal on the idea.
"We thank vice-chief Swain ... for bringing this idea to our attention; it is certainly something we will consider as we move forward in the policy review process," Jordan Owens, Sajjan's press secretary, wrote in an email.
Earlier in the day, Sajjan said the meeting would look at a wide variety of topics — everything from the Canadian Rangers, a largely indigenous group of army reserves that helps patrol the North, to job opportunities for indigenous youth in the military.
"We believe, in protecting our sovereign territory and our issues around environmental concerns, we should be able to trigger the same response and have our Armed Forces defending our treaties and our territories."
"There are countless stories out there within the military that we do need to share, that we can inspire the younger generation to be able to look at, potentially, the military as a career, but also to look at it as an opportunity for learning and apply it to other careers as well," Sajjan said.
Canada's revamped defence policy is expected early next year and is expected to address everything from overseas military missions to cyber terrorism.