The following is an excerpt from Chief Del Riley’s book the Last President. Click here to order the paperback or a digital download.
By 1980, I had made my way up the political ladder and attended a lot of the national meetings as President of the Union of Ontario Indians. I was quite well known and organizations were starting to understand my passion for Canadian constitutional protection. My UOI organization had been instrumental in educating our First Nations Chiefs about the need for Constitutional protection. We informed them it would be better if we wrote our own constitutional sections with our own interpretations so we knew exactly what it meant to us as First Nations. The UOI knew that the government was undermining our rights, and trivializing our treaty relationships with the Crown.
I was gaining traction with the UOI Chiefs. They were starting to understand the Constitution. My next objective was to get First Nations outside of Anishinabek territories involved. My job as President of the UOI was to protect our inherent rights and treaties. All of the legal advice within my organization pointed in the direction of gaining constitutional protection. It was something our organization had been working on for a few years as we heard rumours that Pierre Trudeau wished to patriate the British North America Act. The BNA was a British document, and any final say had to come from Britain’s parliament.
The major problem I faced was that a majority of the Chiefs across Canada were uneducated. Most of them came from where I came from, growing up in Indian residential schools as child slaves, beaten down by the churches, the Federal government and RCMP. I may have had a slight advantage resulting from being well traveled and having acquired job experience across the US.
Barely any of the Chiefs knew anything about law, especially Canada’s Apartheid laws of the Indian Act. I was educating Chiefs on the importance of constitutional protection of our rights. In my opinion, section 91-24 of the BNA Act was an extension of the Doctrine of Discovery. It declared that “the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada” extended to “Indians and lands reserved for Indians. This was a brash one-sided interpretation of First Nations rights, when section 91-24 should have only been a trust relationship connected to the Treaties.
The problem with section 91-24 of the BNA was that it was not written by First Nations, and it was a foreign document created in foreign lands by a foreign government. First Nations were never informed, and the BNA was never acknowledged or accepted by First Nations on a national level. These were the legal arguments we presented to the members of the UOI.
The major legal problem we were facing in 1980 was the St. Catherines Milling case. The government was using doctrine of discovery arguments to legalize and justify the on-going theft of First Nations lands and resources. The Crown’s only legal assertions of jurisdiction were based on an old religious doctrine of the Catholic Church and not on any valid legal arguments. They had not conquered First Nations or our lands. Canada wasn’t a country and nobody was fighting for Canada during the war of 1812. The war of 1812 was really First Nations defending their First Nations homelands against an American invasion. It was our position that Canada had no legal standing or assertions of jurisdiction over Treaty or unceded lands.
Instead the government was relying on a 400 year old Christian religious extremist doctrine articulated in the Canadian court system through the St. Catherines Millings case. I felt that our best way of overcoming these racist laws and racist legal instruments within Canadian law was to gain constitutional protection of our rights and treaties. This became my mission.
During this time UOI Chiefs were complaining that their citizens were constantly being charged by the Province for hunting and fishing. This wasn’t just an issue of hunting and fishing for me and the UOI. This was an issue of food security, the right to access our culture, the right to live on our lands and our inherent treaty rights. The government abducted our kids, imprisoned them at Indian residential schools, stole our lands, stole our children in the 60’s scoop, sterilized First Nations people, stole our resources, now they want to starve us by blocking our ability to live off our treaty lands? The land is everything to First Nations and here we are confined to reserves that represent less than 1 percent of Canada’s land base.
First Nations were facing the challenges of Christian extremism politically and judicially. The racism was about assumed “European entitlement” caused by religious extremist documents such as the Doctrine of Discovery. As UOI President, I had an encounter with a very bald and bold Justice Minister who once told me, “Canada will use a Terra Nullius argument in court against First Nations if they push their rights too hard.” The brash statement by the Justice Minister wasn’t just a threat; without constitutional protection, he was right. Religious extremist views and religious extremist doctrines could defy decency, democracy, and as the Justice Minister said, the government could claim their presumptive superiority over First Nations with a terra nullius argument.
Reading between the lines, what the Justice Minister really said to me was “We will steal the bread off your table, claim your rights, and use religious extremism to achieve it through our kangaroo courts with the aid of our politically appointed judges.”
As UOI President, I knew the layers of law by this point in my political career. The cards were stacked against First Nations in a big way because we didn’t have a workable relationship with the Canadian government. Constitutional protection was our only peaceful option for securing our rights. With religious extremism prevailing in the views of high ranking Cabinet Ministers like Canada’s own Justice Minister, what choice did we have?
First Nations didn’t just have to face off with the Canadian judicial system, but we had to resist a whole system of Christian religious extremism. It felt like being in residential school all over again. It was the same politicians in power appointing judges to represent the Canadian judicial system, which in turn shared the same political party concepts and extreme religious views.
Could First Nations ever get true justice in the Canadian courts with people like the Justice Minister preaching religious extremist views such as terra nullius? Up until 1980, the answer was no! In no way could First Nations prosper under the confines of religious extremism perpetrated by euro-centric Caucasoid politicians.
Perhaps the Justice Minister could be cured of Christianity if he was forced to take the same road as me at the Mohawk Indian Residential School as a child slave. Maybe he needed a few sessions of electrocution in the Catholic made electric chair the children had to endure at St. Annes Indian Residential School. That would have fixed him up real quick. I would have liked to see how much he believed in terra nullius after that.
The armed Anicinabe Park standoff was one of the first indicators of what was going to happen in the future if First Nations had to face off with Provincial officers over Federal issues such as land and treaty rights. With a lot of my constituents being charged for hunting and fishing already, I could see where Canada was headed. We were going down the same path as had occurred with civil rights and segregation in the USA. Canada’s racism was being fuelled by Christianity. Unlike the USA, which was ironically a “land of opportunity,” Canada was a land of dead ends and bureaucratic roadblocks for First Nations people.
The Justice Minister was exposing his legal position of using extremist religious indoctrination to override democracy in Canada. Who was giving him this advice? Where did he come up with such a position? The Justice Minister was a lawyer. Was the Canadian legal system teaching lawyers that theft of lands and resources could be legalized through extremist religious claims like the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius?
As the Federal election grew near, our delegates were trying to figure out who should run for President of the National Indian Brotherhood. We were in the pre-election stages of the process wondering who should be nominated. I only had delegates from the UOI, as Ontario’s First Nations had been divided into four different organizations. Initially, I was lobbying for another delegate to take the nomination, but he backed out. It was then that I was told that I should be nominated, and delegates from the eastern Canada would support me and my position of constitutional protection.
I felt my platform should extensively focus on constitutional protection. It was a position we held in 1978 when my team explored constitutional positions. With Pierre Trudeau pushing for a Canadian Constitution, the UOI was already considering the possible constitutional impact on First Nations. I could tell from speaking with delegates from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the eastern Provinces that they were in support of my platform for constitutional protection. First Nations were at an important crossroads and we were facing more than just a political construct. I argued that First Nations were facing extremist religious indoctrinations disguised as law and Canadian democracy.
Each Province had a set number of delegates able to vote for the Presidency of the National Indian Brotherhood. I gathered with the Chiefs of Ontario who were delegates, and won their support for a nomination for National Chief or President. Over the years of working for the Union and leading them for four years, I had gained a lot of support from the Chiefs.
I flew into Calgary, Alberta where the national elections were being held for the position of President of the National Indian Brotherhood. I had the task of lobbying the 66 delegates and all of the organizations present. I was getting calls from various First Nations organizations as soon as I arrived in Calgary.
My main goal was to promote the constitutional entrenchment of inherent treaty and Aboriginal rights. It was the main priority of the Chiefs who nominated me for President. The Chiefs who supported me, believed in me. I had observed Pierre Trudeau’s statements and his promotion of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. I had to move the NIB in the direction of getting constitutional recognition for First Nations as we did not want to miss this historic opportunity. I wanted the Chiefs to hear my message about the importance of Canadian constitutional protection.
The Chiefs I lobbied peppered me with questions about social programs. Chiefs would ask:
“What are you doing about economic development, housing, education, policing?”
The delegates from across the country never asked many questions about the Canadian Constitution. The hot topic at the national level was social programs. I had the challenge of convincing delegates not concerned with the Constitution of its importance. This was a complex task of educating delegates on the Constitution, and how we as First Nations would relate to it. I wasn’t finding much interest in prioritizing constitutional protection in my lobbying process. But eventually, my persistence convinced the Chiefs of the need for constitutional protection.
My staff and various Chiefs organized meetings with Provincial organizations like mine from across the country. The Chiefs would ask me things like:
“Why is the constitution so important?”
“What is the constitution?”
“What do you know about any constitution?”
“What about the Indian Act, isn’t it more important than the Constitution?”
“Why should we be in the Canadian constitution?”
I was running against Bobby Manuel in the national election who was the son of former President of NIB, George Manuel. He gave a great speech on the importance of delivering on social reform and social programming. That was very tough to top – it was a great speech delivered to the delegates.
However, my lobbying for constitutional protection ultimately won out, and the Chiefs voted me into power 34-32. I had a good idea the night before what the vote count was going to be from lobbying within various organizations. My goodness, was it was close! I believe that my speech solidified my position, and clarified what the Chiefs wanted me to accomplish on their behalf. I thanked the Chiefs for believing in my vision of Canadian constitutional protection. I now had a new and monumental task. Entrench First Nations rights and treaties into the Canadian constitution.
I moved to Ottawa and purchased a home in the city. It was a nice house with a finished basement, recreation room and a garden in the back. A new start. It had only been ten years since I moved back from California, never did I think ten years ago I’d be in this position of power.
Getting into a position of national leadership was a major accomplishment in such a short time. I was only an elected politician for four years before stepping into national office. I was an activist and I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty in the trenches. I enjoyed helping people, it was a big motivator for me. I was marching shoulder-to-shoulder with my people for equality. We wanted basic human rights.
I had another thing that linked me to leadership; I am Ajijuck dedodem (Crane Clan). Crane Clan is the Chief clan in my culture in my region of the country. Historically, my ancestors, my great-grandfathers signed treaties, were at the forefront of treaty negotiations, and fought in hundreds of years of war.
My ancestors fought with Pontiac and Tecumseh. My great, great-grandfathers shed blood, defended our sovereignty, our homelands, and were ultimately part of establishing the Canadian and United States intercontinental line through the confines of war. The War of 1812 wasn’t fought in the western prairies or British Columbia. That war was won in my peoples backyard, and my ancestors had been a part of that victory. I come from a bloodline of warriors, Chiefs, and the victors of major wars. Destiny just works out that way, I guess.
When I first entered office, I brought in my own assistants, executive director, press secretary, and other personnel. The national office was a new atmosphere. A huge amount of work kept us busy. In 1980, we didn’t have email, or phones that could read our emails to us while we drove our vehicles. The letters piled up. There must have been a few volumes of letters from Chiefs and various organizations. Each department was overrun with social issues, underfunding issues, land claims, education and economic development. I had to get my office in order, which I did in no time.
The holdup was working out an amending formula with the Provinces. How many Provinces would it take, and what percentage of voters in each of those Provinces would it take to amend the Canadian Constitution?
Quebec was not in favour of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution unless it contained all of the demands of Premier Rene Levesque. Some claim Levesque was fooled into the constitutional amendment formula. Alberta’s Premier Peter Lougheed supported the Canadian constitutional amendment, but was opposed to the Aboriginal and Treaty Rights section. Trudeau had a monstrous task to unite the Provinces and First Nations to amend the Canadian Constitution and entrench the Charter of Rights.
We were worlds apart. Trudeau had created the all party committee which included all of the major parties – Liberal, Conservative and New Democrat Party. Jean Chrétien was appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. Chrétien was also appointed Minister of State for Social Development and Minister of Responsibility for Constitutional Negotiations. Trudeau created a Minister’s position to oversee all of the constitutional talks. Chrétien’s office communicated with me on a regular basis to attend meetings as part of the constitutional discussions.
Our discussions consisted of a series of debates on specific items like the meaning of “Aboriginal Rights.” The committee members were concerned that “Aboriginal” had no specific definition or meaning. I argued that there were instances under the British North America Act where they allowed a word in the BNA that had no defined legal meaning. In the back of my mind, I knew it was beneficial for First Nations to have the words “Aboriginal Rights” entrenched in the Constitution. So the committee members accepted the word “Aboriginal” and we moved on. First victory for our people! Negotiations were hostile and intense. It was a real dog fight, we chewed each other’s negotiation points to shreds. Negotiations were not just negotiations, it was a debate on whether or not you were right. There was a lot at stake; I regarded it as a matter of life or death for our people. You had to be well prepared with the right information, history, and legal definitions.
The negotiations went on for a year. I was well prepared for what our constitutional position was going to be from my days in leadership as president of the Union of Ontario Indians. The constitutional models I had examined from around the world were not wasted time and research. I was prepared for constitutional negotiation arguments before I entered into the national office. It was my mission to achieve constitutional protection for First Nations treaties and rights.
Our office was always in contact with the Inuit and Metis. Both the Metis and Inuit approved of our work and proposals for constitutional protection. The Metis and their leader Harry Daniels were consistent in their support of my lobbying and the inclusion of the word “Metis” into the Canadian constitution.
My national office began the process of seeking out office space in London, England after consultation with the Chiefs. The Chiefs supported my efforts to go to England and seek protection of Aboriginal and Treaty rights with the UK Parliament. The strategy was to go to England and prove that our treaties were with England, and not Canada. So we did. We made a plan to set up an office and go to London, England so that our issues would get the International exposure they needed.
The goal was to do diplomatic work with the various embassies from around the world to inform them of our diplomatic relationship with England through our Treaties. While in England, our goal was to lobby within the diplomatic community to gain recognition for Aboriginal people and rights in the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. An international office in England was a tool to put pressure on Canada. As we were developing our Constitutional plans, I got a memo on my desk about an armed standoff at Restigouche, Quebec, between the Listigui Mi’kmaq people and some 300 Quebec Provincial Police and 100 Conservation officers.
The NIB general annual assembly was just around the corner and it was June 11th, 1981. My plan was to get the full support of all of the Chiefs from across Canada to head to England and set up an office, push my constitutional agenda, and present my strategy. The Listigui Mi’kmaq standoff at Restigouche, Quebec placed my constitutional agenda and preparations on hold as I had to fly into Restigouche, Quebec to calm tensions.
I was welcomed and greeted at the nearest airport to the Listigui Mi’kmaq people by Chief Alphonse Metallic. He informed me of the standoff between the Listigui Mi’kmaq and confirmed the initial reports I had received at the national office.
Conservation officers were cutting up the fishing nets of the Mi’kmaq fisherman while invading houses to search for salmon in the fridges from suspected Mi’kmaq fisherman. The conservation officers were seizing fish in a door to door effort to find “illegal” salmon in the freezers of locals. The tactic of going door to door and kicking in doors rightly scared the First Nations people. It scared children. I had read about the tactics of the Nazi SS Gestapo troops going door to door to search for Jewish people and treasure. This was no different in my mind. It was all part of Indigenous genocide. What kind of democracy allows for a specific race to be targeted in this type of raid effort? It was a contravention of treaty and International law. This was absolute madness.
The United Nations Geneva Convention on the Declaration of Universal Human Rights (1948) was signed by multiple countries, including Canada. According to Article 23 of the declaration:
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
The Quebec government caused a complete standoff to halt any fishing activity of the Mi’kmaq fisherman. The Mi’kmaq people’s fishing season was a total of six weeks during the salmon spawn. The Mi’kmaq people believed in their right to harvest fish and feed their families, as they have been doing for thousands of years in that region. The Quebec government opposed the idea of Mi’kmaq fishing rights and implemented a plan to invade the Listigui Mi’kmaq reserve and seek out any salmon in the fridges of local residents in a door to door effort.
The Quebec government was overstepping its authority over Mi’kmaq fishing territory. The Mi’kmaq people had been harvesting fish in those waters for ages prior to British or French contact. Fishing and hunting rights had been a Mi’kmaq right for centuries. Fishing was an inherent right. Harvested fish was used for trade, and became an industry for Mi’kmaq peoples with the first European settlers. The Mi’kmaq harvested fish to trade for goods with settlers who sent goods and resources back to Europe. Mi’kmaq fishing is an established right, full stop.
The actions of the Quebec government and conservation authority violated a few different sets of rights in my mind. They violated article 23 of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights and they also violated the Aboriginal rights of the Mi’kmaq people. Mi’kmaq fishermen have a right to a job, they have a right to feed their families. What I was witnessing was more than a violation of rights, it was intimidation, and it was fear instilled into a peaceful community.
The tensions were high, and First Nations people showed up from across the country to support the Listigui Mi’kmaq. First Nations people came from across Canada and the United States, and from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Eastern Canada was making headline news across the country and internationally. First Nations war veterans from across Canada and the United States showed up to support the Listigui Mi’kmaq. The situation was quickly escalating, and tensions were high. I was getting reports of police brutality, arrests under false pretences, and injured Mi’kmaq citizens.
I had rented a car and stayed with Chief Metallic and his wife. I could tell in their eyes they were upset and emotionally disturbed from the events happening on the reserve. I helped to organize talks and negotiations and supported local residents. My presence gave them a calm assurance. I wasn’t just a suit in Ottawa; I was a national leader on the front lines with the very people who helped get me elected. My constitutional agenda and preparations had to be put on hold as I was now in the cross hairs of police forces that opposed Mi’kmaq fishing rights.
I brought Anna to the protest who was 7 months pregnant with my first son. Maybe not the wisest move, but love is love. The thought of the police with arms drawn at First Nations people also greatly upset me. It upset me that weapons were drawn, and that First Nations people were in the cross hairs of those guns, including me, and my pregnant girlfriend Anna. My first rule in politics was never make an emotional decision. Well, I didn’t make an emotional decision, although it was hard for me to not be visibly shaken. The Detroit race riots in 1967 flashed back into my mind. This was no time to get upset, this was a time to unite the people in a fight for freedom.
I had my staff drive down some communication equipment to my location. It was an FM radio communication system which allowed us to get organized. Another person was in charge of setting up military style bunkers and a blockade commenced. The only people who could protect the Mi’kmaq peoples from another armed invasion by police forces and the conservation authority searching for fish in fridges, were the Mi’kmaq themselves. Our staff set up a command centre and central meeting room to coordinate the situation. Quickly, checkpoints were set up, and the two entrances into the reserve were now under armed guard.
My staff and I were concerned with the number of police and conservation officers present in the area. They had taken over a school and turned it into a command centre. So I told my staff, “I will go into the school, and count how many officers there are, I will also see how they set up the command centre.”
My staff agreed to let me go. Since I was the President of the National Indian Brotherhood, I was less likely to face police brutality if push came to shove. So I did exactly what I said I was going to do. I walked up to the school like I belonged there, entered the building and counted about 400 staff all together. It must have been a senior staff member who recognized me from a photo. The officer escorted me out the door and told me “you are not supposed to be in that restricted area.”
I responded back to him saying, “I was there to negotiate.”
I took the information I had gathered from my observations and went back to report to my staff. I was starting to see how serious the Quebec government was with the sheer size of the police force they had mobilized. I immediately made the call to move the venue of the National Indian Brotherhood annual general assembly with all of the Chiefs across Canada to Listigui Mi’kmaq territory. It was a strategic move on my part to even out our numbers with the police. I also kept in mind that power came in numbers, and police brutality was least likely to happen with more leaders and supporters on our side. The Chiefs’ presence gave everyone, including me, a sense of relief.
It was a positive turn of events when Indian Affairs minister John Munroe showed up supporting the First Nations position of Mi’kmaq fishing rights. Munroe even pulled out a few clauses from Indian Act law to tell the Quebec government they were in the wrong dealing with the Mi’kmaq the way they had. The Federal government had officially stepped in and made it clear that they did not support what the Quebec government was doing to the Listigui Mi’kmaq.
One Mi’kmaq citizen had come up to me and showed me a wound from a rubber bullet after he was hit in the chest near one of the Mi’kmaq checkpoints. I was beginning to see how serious Quebec was in trying to resolve the issue by force. They completely disagreed with the Federal government and Indian Affairs Minister John Munroe, and notably with me as the President of the National Indian Brotherhood.
I believe Minister Munroe had no choice but to stay and observe. The Mi’kmaq command centre with broadcasting equipment, an emergency supply of food, and limited medical supplies welcomed Indian Affairs Minister John Munroe into the community on the side of the Mi’kmaq. The Quebec government was at a stalemate.
The Indian Affairs Minister, myself, and Chiefs from across the country were now on the Mi’kmaq side of the blockade and protected from an armed invasion of Quebec police forces. Without this strong show of support, I am certain there would have been more violence, an invasion and even death.
The command centre would only broadcast in the Mi’kmaq language, while they monitored Quebec police frequencies for movements. After Minister Munroe showed up, I had my special assistants Bob Debassige and a lawyer friend of mine Bill Babcock chauffeur the good minister around Mi’kmaq territory. After dinner, and some down time with my Anna, I decided to catch up with Bob and Bill. When I found them they were standing with the Minister of Indian Affairs in the back of a pick-up truck with a roll bar to hold onto next to a couple of empty bottles of spirits, and a bottle still half full in hand. There was so much tension that I could not blame them.
I told my special assistants to take care of the Indian Affairs Minister on the Mi’kmaq territory. I never told them to get John “jovial” and have him ride around in the back of a pick-up truck to monitor Mi’kmaq checkpoints. I meant to give him a coffee, a donut, maybe some newspapers. I had to blink my eyes a few times to make sure that it was actually Minister John Munroe standing in the back of the pick-up truck.
I talked to them for a few brief moments and let them go on their way to monitor checkpoints. John was human and he cared for the First Nations people. He was only one man, but his support for First Nations people is unquestioned.
After Indian Affairs Minister John Munroe left the Listigui Mi’kmaq territory to head back to Ottawa, I received a memo to speak with the Quebec Indian Affairs Minister on the phone. The Minister called directly into the band office and the phone call was directed into a meeting room where I picked up. The conversation went along these lines:
The Minister said to me, “Me and the Quebecois are asserting our authority.”
I responded, “There is no such thing as the Quebecois, you’re a goddamn Frenchman from France. If you want sovereignty, France has preserved it for you, so go back to France if you want it.”
The Minister slammed the phone down and hung up on me. It was the first and last time I spoke with an elected official from Quebec. In my mind, the British North America Act recognizes “British-French Canadians,” so maybe neither of us were being respectful to that interpretation of what a British-French Canadian really is, as the 1867 BNA indicates. It was a clash of interpretations.
My view is that French sovereignty ended in North America at the battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The French Indian Affairs minister was not only trying to undermine First Nations sovereignty, but he denied North American history with his assertion. I had spent my time in the Canadian archives and knew about the history of North America. The French were a defeated people who had no right to sovereignty as an independent state, and nor did they possess the right to invade Mi’kmaq territories over fishing rights.
When the Restigouche standoff broke out, it gave the Federal government a few messages. First, that First Nations across the country will stand up in a united effort if one nation is attacked. Second, if Aboriginal treaty rights such as hunting and fishing are trivialized in the future, conflicts like the Restigouche standoff will continue to happen.
The Listigui Mi’kmaq had been a prime example of why First Nations needed constitutional protection and Aboriginal Rights entrenched into the Canadian Constitution. I knew in the back of my mind that my people would be facing deadly situations over things like food security if the government continued their brutal and barbaric cultural practices of kicking in doors of people’s homes looking for fish in their freezers. It was absolutely imperative that First Nation rights be secured by way of the Canadian Constitution.
My next assignment was to go to England.