Matthew Coon Responds to the Burnt Church Crisis

Exactly six years ago, on September 6, 1995, Dudley George was shot and killed for defending his land at Ipperwash Park in Ontario. That action by government officials was called enforcement of the law. The courts later ruled that Dudley George was a victim if an official homicide, that he was killed by an officer of the state in violation of the law. The government of Canada lied and told the United Nations that Dudley George was killed in response to “armed natives firing on the police”. Canada refused to officiallyinform the United Nations of the legal judgement that Dudley George was unarmed when he was shot and killed illegally by a law enforcement officer. This great bug wealthy country is afraid – perhaps ashamed – of telling the truth about First Nations Peoples’ rights and the police killing of Dudley George.

Three weeks ago in Burnt Church I called upon the Government of Canada to respect its own laws, to call off the troops, and to enter into a relationship with our First Nations Peoples that is fair, equitable, and just.

The terrible, violent, repressive, and disrespectful behaviour towards our people that Canada has shown, in its disregard for our people’s lives over the past few weeks, demonstrates that Canada has not heard our voices or understood our determination.

Today I want to discuss with you what we have to tell Canadians in order to be better understood. But first I want to thank you for your patience and your good will. I want to thank you for maintaining reason and right in the face of violence and repression. You have waited patiently for 150 years to have your rights respected – all the while with Canada denying that you have any rights – and now the time has come to live our lives and have what is ours. We will not back down.

We will not back down in the face of government violence and repression. We will not give up our rights which we practiced and excercised long before there was any thought about the existence of Canada. We will not be beaten into submission.

First Nations Peoples are waiting and watching patiently all over this land. They see the behaviour and brutal attitudes of Canada. And they are asking a question: Can we finally have what is ours? Can we have a fair and equitable part of the great wealth that is in this land? Or will we continue to be made the poorest of the poor while all around us people use and exploit our resources to enrich themselves at our expense?

This is not solely about fish. This is not solely about lobsters or snow crabs. This is about life, and the land and resources that support our existence and well being. This is about Canada’s persistent policy of dispossession of our lands and resources. This is about a repressive government that finally showed its true face to the world in the past few weeks.

This is Canada’s hidden character. Our peoples’ patience is tested when they see their brothers and sisters under attack. How easy it is for a government to attack one First Nation while the other First Nations keep the peace and hold themselves in restraint. Our peoples display great patience in the face of such irresponsibility and provocation by federal authorities.

We have something to tell Canadians. No, enforcement is never “pretty”. What a sick and sorry excuse to say a thing like that. Canada was not enforcing the law. No, Minister Dhaliwal, you are not respecting the rule of law. You were continuing Canada’s policy of dispossession and denial of our fundamental human rights.

Mr. Dhaliwal you are responsible for attempts to harm, or perhaps even murder our people. Thank God that no one was killed. Your officials tried. That is clear for everyone to see. Nothing could be more obvious – running over our boats. Attacking people in the water. Sinking boats. What a wanton and sickening disregard for life your troops have shown.

Was that the rule of law? We waited 150 years for the Supreme Court to affirm rights that we have always had. Where was your enforcement when our boats were being burned? How did you protect us when our houses were set afire?

The old excuse that you did not want to provoke a confrontation – you show no such restraint when you officials decide it is worth risking killing our people to demonstrate the supremacy of your authority.

For 150 years you denied our right to fish, and you said that was the law. Donald Marshall Junior did not go to the Supreme Court of Canada of his own free will. You dragged Donald Marshall through every court in this land all the way to the Supreme Court over what? – a few eels. You said you were enforcing the law, but the Supreme Court said you were wrong. You should have been ashamed to put Mr. Marshall through another ordeal of law. He had already suffered enough from Canada’s so-called law. Where was Canada’s judgement and reason?

Canada was not prepared to lose the Marshall Case. That is the simple answer. Canada fought against the recognition of our ancestral and treaty rights for 150 years. the government expected to win in its own courts, and was not prepared to recognize our rights even when we won in court.

Canada made no preparations to respect First Nations Peoples’ rights that it has always denied and repudiated. Canada – as usual when First Nations Peoples’ are concerned – took a one-side view of the Marshall Case. It was not prepared to advocate for Donald Marshall. Not a single person in the whole Government of Canada was prepared to be an advocate of the rights of First Nations Peoples to pursue their livelihood. Such thinking, it turns out, is inimical to Canada’s whole approach to our rights.

I have already said – I want Canada to respect its own laws. I want Canada to respect its Constitution, which it says is the highest law in the land. Instead, what we have is the selective misuse of the law to deny the rights of First Nations. Canada picks and chooses the laws it wants to enforce, and those it wants to ignore or repudiate. For 150 years Canada said that we did not have the right to the fisheries resource. That was the law.

Mr. Minister, read the Marshall Decision. It does not give you the right to run over and sink our boats. It does not give your officials the right to attempt to kill our people. it does not allow you to continue to deny our right to fish and to continue to say “that is the law”. It does not give you the right to regulate our continued poverty and dependence.

The selective application of the law, and the denial of our aboriginal and constitutional rights has filled the prisons of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba with First Nations victims of the Canadian justice system. The wanton disregard of our rights in law enable the clear-cutting of our forests, the flooding of our lands, the desecration of our burial sites, and the continued dispossession of our land and natural resources.

Canada has a strange and distorted view of the law when it comes to First Nations. It is afraid of any recognition of our rights. It punishes us now for every assertion of our rights. Even when we seek legal redress through the courts it attempts to punish us for using its own courts. When we act to excercise our rights, it uses force and violence against our people without restraint or reason.

The world can now see this, and I commend the people of Burnt Church for having the courage to make the picture clear for all to see. Canada has acted irresponsibly and dangerously. Canada has not respected the Marshall Decision and other Supreme Court rulings such as Delgamuukw, Sparrow and Gladstone. It has not respected its own laws. It has chosen the arbitrary and capricious use of force to assert a jurisdiction that it does not have under law.

Canada is continuing after the Marshall Decision the same denial of our rights that it asserted for 150 years before the Marshall Decision. Canada still refuses to excercise its constitutional duty to give paramountey to our treaty rights. It prefers to fight us, rather than respect its fiduciary duty to defend and promote our rights.

Canadians are not being told the truth. They are told that our rights are race based. Canada fears to tell its citizens what is in its own Constitution. We have to tell the Canadian public; We have rights because we were nations here before there ever was a Canada. Our rights pre-date Canada. Our rights exist because we are nations and peoples. Our rights are based on original ownership of lands and resources. In simple terms – we were here first.

We never gave up these rights. And here is why Canada put up such a fight against Donald Marshall; the maritime treaties contain no surrender or extinguishment provisions. Canada fears treaties that are made nation-to-nation between equals. It insists on a relationship based upon its own supremacy and dominance. That is why it insists on extinguishment, even though the United Nations has condemned Canada’s use of extinguishment against aboriginal peoples as a violation of Canada’s obligations under international law of human rights.

Canada can not rely on extinguishment; instead it has chosen to rely on force. Canada can not pass the buck to the provinces as it likes to do, and say that the provinces has resource jurisdication, because these are clearly federal responsibilities – treaty rights of First Nations and federal fisheries.

So Canada has turned to the excuse of conversation. Canadians need to understand just how dishonest their government has been on the subject of conversation. Canada intnetionally and falsely told Canadians that the First Nations are destroying the lobster fishery.

Conservation is an embarrassment for Canada. The DFO is famous world over for its failure to protect the cod fishery until it was too late. It is also famous for political interference standing in place of legal responsibility. Canada is a very poor and incompetent guardian of the environment and its natural resources. We need only look at the sad conditionof Canadian forests and rivers to find out about conservation. Who is the government trying to fool?

The fact is that there are about 3 million DFO officially sancitioned lobster traps in the water in the Atlantic Fishery. The real number may be as high as 4 million traps, because the DFO has only a small budget for its very lax enforcement against non-natives. Against this reality we have to consider the actual number of First Nations traps in the water – maybe 100. Even if First Nations put in 5000 traps or more, this would represent. a miniscule proportion of the millions of traps on the coast – a tiny fraction of on percent, certainly no conversation threat.

No, here once again conversation is being presented to Canadians as justification for repression of First Nations peoples’ rights. Once the Canadian public knows these hidden facts about the size of the industry, the issue will be understood for what it is – Canada’s refusal to accept a Supreme Court decision that it doesn’t like.

Canada does not want First Nations Peoples to know that the United Nations has recognized that our right of self-determination and our right to benefit from the resources of our lands is protected by international law. Canada has failed to inform Canadians, the Courts, and First Nations Peoples of the UN’S decision – as it is stipulated to the UN it would do – meanwhile enforcing the denial of our resource rights in the forest, on the water, and in the courts.

The UN has told Canada that First Mations Peoples must be permitted to share the wealth of the land. That, we must explain to Canadians, is what this all about. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 5 year, $58 million Report confirmed this as the answer. The UN has told Canada to implement the RCAP, urgently. Canada does not want to implement the RCAP, and continues to mis-characterize it as unrealistic and impossible to do.

This government is dead set, from all we can see, against the recognition of our economic rights. The Canadian Atlantic lobster fishery is worth close to half a billion dollars a year. Billions of dollars worth of trees are taken from our lands each year. Our rivers produce billions of hydro-electricity dollars. Our lands are mined and flooded, but little of anything is returned to our people – and what little there is, is always characterized to the Canadian public as something we are being given, something that is not ours by right.

This tells us about the work we have to do. We have to explain to Canadians and to the world that our participation in the larger economy is a reasonable and desirable outcome of the recognition of our rights. Canada wants to avoid or postpone our emergence as economic and political paricipants. It continues to pursue policies of denial, repression, and actual violence against our First Nations citizens.

Canada takes an enormous risk in continuing with this policy. Its refusal to implement the decisions of its own courts or the recommendations of its own Royal Commission set the stage for other means to be used. Its refusal to respect its own international rights commitments, or to give credence to UN decisions and recommendations force us to consider all of our possible recourses. Canada is clearly moving away from respect for the rule of the law into arbitrary and capricious acts that engender disrespect for all authority.

Canada opposed Donald Marshall. It lost. It is now time to do the necessary work – the economic studies, the community consultations, the fisheries studies – to fully implement that decision. In the meanwhile there must be no arbitrary enforcement of a supposed Marshall Decision made up by the Minister and fisheries officials. No, our rights stand.

We will excercise our rights to fish in the interim. This will be an encouragement for Canada to act forthwith and with deliberate speed. Canada’s enforcement responsibilities are to assure respect for our rights. When we reach an equitable arrangement that fully implement our resource rights, we will have a solution.

Any solution which perpetuates the old denials and injustices will not stand no matter how many people insist upon it, or how many enforcement officers are brought down on our people. It simply will not stand.

Our people know that our survival as First Nations depends upon our access to lands and resources. Any threats against us that government authorities can devise look hollow and foolish indeed, against our needs to survive as peoples and nations.

I admonish the government of Canada once again – on the fifth anniversary of the unlawful shooting by the state of Dudley George, and as DFO boats are violently confronting our people on the waters off Burnt Church – to fully and equitably respect its own laws.

We First Nations Peoples are here to stay. We will do what we have to do to bring about respect of our fundamental human rights.