The following is an excerpt from Chief Del Riley’s book the Last President. Click here to order the paperback or a digital download.
The years rolled by and it was July, 1974 and I was about to have my first daughter Melanie. I was always on the road and my private life was difficult because of it. Rest was always short lived while living in Toronto. My mission in life was to help create equality for Indigenous people. The birth of my beautiful daughter Melanie gave me added incentive.
A memo popped up on my desk that indicated that an “armed standoff” between Ontario Provincial Police and Ojibway Warriors had taken place over disputed lands near Kenora, Ontario, Canada at “Anicinabe Park.” This was a different assignment, but it was something I was prepared to help with head on. It was a 20 hour drive to Kenora from Toronto since the whole highway was only two lanes wide. I stopped a few times to take some photos and hit the golf clubs and shoot some pool on the way to Kenora. I didn’t burn myself out driving and I treated myself along the way.
The Anicinabe Park protest turned out to be a standoff between the Provincial government and First Nations protesters from the Treaty 3 area. Kenora was already a pretty bad town to be around and had a reputation of being racist towards the local First Nations communities. The 1970’s was a different time and it wasn’t the kind of day and age where people would say racial slurs under their breath. In those days, they would come up to hatefully tell you things like:
“Go back to your teepees, you dirty Indians.”
“Fucking wagon burners.”
“Look at me, you dirty Indian, I’ll scalp you.”
When I arrived in Kenora, Ontario at Anishinabek Park I stayed in a tent and camped out with the First Nations protesters. The people I encountered were from various places around North America and but were mostly Treaty 3 residents from the local First Nations. I bought groceries out of my own pocket and had an assortment of camp food for myself which I also shared with others. The camp had a real community feeling as people shared stories from across the country. Protesters set up a few piles of firewood, nothing too elaborate, and the protest was peaceful. I had arrived to let Treaty 3 leadership know the Union of Ontario Indians organization had sent me as a monitor and to voice the Union’s support. I had to report on what was transpiring back to the UOI.
When I arrived at the Anicinabe Park protest in Kenora, Ontario, I met American Indian Movement (AIM) members who drove a fair distance from the US to support the protest. Some of these men like Russell Means and Dennis Banks would later go on to be actors in Hollywood.
The conflict was over the lands being recognized and used as First Nations lands. Local First Nations have always used those lands, but ownership over the lands was disputed at Anicinabe Park. The general racist attitude that First Nations had to face in the Canadian judicial system had permeated throughout the country and conflicts like the Anicinabe Park Standoff were inevitable.
I had never witnessed an armed standoff in the United States over civil rights, but in Canada, First Nations were taking an armed stand. First Nations could not depend on the Canadian judicial system for conflict resolution, nor could they hope that they would get a favourable decision from the court system, since First Nations had very few politically appointed justices or politicians. Many of us thought the Canadian government was running a kangaroo court system to steamroll First Nations by refusing to accept legitimate objections in their court system.
The government would railroad First Nations by using racist judgments from racist eras of Canadian society. For proof of racist judgments, First Nations have to look no further than the St Catharines-Millings case. It set the racial precedent to give politically appointed judges a thumbs up to hand down racist judgments based on the racist past and present actions of the government. The Indian Act was being used as a handbook of laws to legalize the Apartheid treatment of First Nations people. Thankfully, the Anicinabe Park conflict ended peacefully.
Indian Affairs operated in such a way that they could do anything at their own discretion without any mediation, consultation, or adjudication process. First Nations protests were the only way to resist Indian Affairs rulings and the decisions that they handed down. First Nations had no appeal process whenever the Indian Affairs Minister acted unilaterally under his “discretion” pursuant to the Indian Act. The Indian Act at that time was being run like a dictatorship behind closed doors, with decisions finalized with corporate elites. Even with today’s current Indian Act, Indian Affairs still tries to maintain that power, and gives any successive Indian Affairs Minister powers such as “at the Minister’s Discretion,” and “as the minister deems fair.” That is pretty much how they operated back in the 1970’s and beyond.
The court system was not developed by First Nations peoples. We did not write any of the laws, and at the time we did not have any politically appointed judges in the Canadian judicial system. The Canadian legal system in the 1970’s had the fix on First Nations. The Indian Act was the key to enabling the pillaging of the treaty lands of First Nations by various industries and corporations. The St. Catherines-Millings case was the leading case for over 80 years on First Nations land title by the Supreme Court of Canada, and was affirmed by the Privy Council in England. The case represented the legislative evolution of claims of racial inferiority to legalize the theft and plundering of First Nations treaty territories. It was places like Anicinabe Park that were being impacted. Protests and disputes over violations of rights and treaties were spreading across Canada. The root cause of the mess was the Indian Act itself.
Nobody trusted the Canadian judicial system as they would refer to the St. Catherines Millings case which stated that the rights of First Nations people to land was only allowed at the Crown’s pleasure, and could be taken away at any time and for no reason. The ruling was demeaning to First Nations and treated us like sub-humans. Canada’s judicial system created rulings to legalize the theft of resources on First Nations lands. The St. Catherines Millings decision was the golden highway to untold riches in one of the world’s most resource-rich countries. The government assumed it had possession of Indigenous resources through this racist decision. This decision also opened up another avenue for Provinces to make laws and impose jurisdiction on Indigenous lands and treaty territories. For example, Provinces would try to limit hunting and fishing rights for Indigenous people. So much for Canada and its self-promoted sterling human rights record. Canada would wag its finger at other nations for human rights violations while they perpetrated Apartheid at home. Most Canadians did not wake up to this reality or simply did not care as they became richer as a result.
The St. Catherines Millings case implicitly supported the “Doctrine of Discovery” in which Christopher Columbus set sail and claimed title to any lands he “discovered.” The “Papal Bull Terra Nullius” from 1095 under Pope Urban II established that “empty land” could just be taken from non-Christians. Like Christopher Columbus under the “Doctrine of Discovery,” land was stolen by “taking possession” of lands “discovered.” The St. Catherines Millings case was based on similar legal principles, with the Provinces and Federal government fighting over who owned First Nations Treaty territories. The government was trying to dismantle the nationhood rights of First Nations while depriving them of their treaty territories. The St. Catherines Millings case enshrined in Canadian law a “Doctrine of Discovery” extremist religious philosophy over First Nations lands and resources. Foreign mining companies could use this ruling along with the Indian Act to steal massive amounts of wealth for themselves and their stockholders. Mining companies could line the pockets of politicians with profits, and the politicians could create wealth for themselves through the taxation of settlers. It was the perfect recipe for greed and power.
In 1823, through the Johnson v. McIntosh US Supreme Court case, the Doctrine of Discovery was written into United States law and stripped Native American Indians of their rights and their independence as nations. This case was similar to the 1969 White Paper. If the 1969 White Paper became law, it would have eliminated all reserves by making them the property of Canada. This would have had the same effect on First Nations reserves as it did in the United States. By creating “Fee Simple” lands from reservation lands, reservations for First Nations people in the United States quickly became checkerboard reserves with lands not connecting under these Doctrine of Discovery types of laws.
United States Chief Justice John Marshall justified the decision by racially denigrating Indians – “notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens.” This should be no surprise since the framers of the 1776 Constitution were slave owners. The attitude of the time was racist, inhumane and barbaric. It expressed the sentiment that the United States now had complete authority over lands acquired from Great Britain. It also anticipated Canadian Prime Minister John A. MacDonald’s statement, when entrenching the Indian Act into Canadian Law in the 1880’s, that “the Indians are brutes and savages and incapable of being civilized.”
The government that we were facing in Canada in the 1970’s was not far off from that earlier colonial mentality. The Indian Act created ghettos, poverty, and third world living conditions. South Africa’s Apartheid laws were inspired by Canada’s Indian Act. The same laws were later applied to Australian Aborigines, German Jews under Nazi rules, and Blacks/Coloureds in South Africa. The Indian Act in Canada was a template for racist laws around the world. It was a way to create modern dictatorships within “democracies” to divide and racially oppress specific ethnicities to steal their lands and resources.
The Indian Act created poverty. It did so by keeping First Nations people off of our traditional trap lines and hunting territories. It stopped us from harvesting traditional foods and conducting ceremonies connected to the very lands that Indigenous languages originated from. One of the most devastating impacts of Canadian Pass laws was restricting the ability to gather and harvest traditional medicines. Communities were left without access to basic traditional medicines that would have otherwise helped protect or cure them from ailments or illnesses. We all now know the merits of natural or alternative medicine. Indigenous people have been practicing this for thousands of years. Medicine people in our communities play a vital role in keeping us healthy – both spiritually and physically.
First Nations in the 1970’s exploded with a wakeup call to mobilize. We began to get organized and networked together. We were all still shell shocked from our experiences in Indian Residential Schools, but we understood the conditions created and imposed by the Indian Act. The government of Canada had been very effective in creating new and negative conditions for Indigenous people through Canadian legislation. I was beginning to see the overall big picture of Canadian Law and how it affected First Nations people.
It was in the 1970’s that we came to the realization of the damage done by the Indian Act and Indian policy. Back then, most people just accepted the Indian Act as law and never questioned it much. The Indian Act also had an intimidation factor about it. The RCMP was always there to enforce the Indian Act or any racist laws that succeeding governments wanted in place.
I was fairly new to the political landscape of the First Nations as I was beginning to see the First Nations civil rights movement unfold before my eyes. We were using our power and numbers. We were networking across North America through the limited technologies we had. The Ontario government and other Provinces in the 1970’s were determined to eliminate Hunting and Fishing rights for our people. They stole our land and now they wanted to restrict our ability to feed ourselves and make some money. Our office would get reports of hunting and fishing violations across the Provinces by First Nations members. The Provinces and Federal governments were working together by saying “Federal Laws supersede Treaty rights.” Our Nation to Nation treaties with the Crown were treated as if they didn’t exist with the government ignoring the treaty or blatantly contravening its provisions with a shrug.
The Federal government was trying to get away with claiming that, “We only have a trust-like responsibility, and it is not a true trust” as stated by Jean Chrétien to me and others at a meeting in Ottawa. In the 1984 landmark Guerin case, the Supreme Court stipulated that Canada has “a fiduciary obligation to Indigenous peoples regarding reserve lands.” This was a monumental decision and it resulted in a wave of favourable cases by the land’s highest court for Indigenous rights. The government could only exist as a government through First Nations treaties. Around this time, an Ontario government official I had dealt with said to me, “We want administration and control of all aspects of life in the Province.” That meant the Province wanted to assume full control over First Nations and reserve lands.
The Federal government was attempting to say that they didn’t have a legal responsibility for First Nations trust claims or First Nations land claims. The Federal government wrote and passed laws that were interpreted by Canadian judges they politically appointed, and attempted to say that they were exempted from all legal obligations to First Nations. Indian Affairs was continually attempting to take away First Nations treaty rights by taking First Nations to court. The government did not anticipate a progressive Supreme Court and rulings favourable to First Nations. The rules of the game were finally starting to change. Indian Affairs now had the fiduciary obligation to protect the Treaty Rights of First Nations as stipulated by the Supreme Court. Instead of the Federal department being named Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, it should have been renamed the Department of Defence against Aboriginal Rights and Treaties.