A conversation with First Nations Feminist Firebrands, Leslie Spillett and Nahanni Fontaine

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Last February, Nahanni Fontaine and Leslie Spillett, two First Nations women from Canada, visited Melbourne for a brief visit. Alison Thorne caught up with them to explore similarities and differences between Indigenous struggles in Canada and Australia.

Nahanni, an Ojibway woman, is the Director of Justice for the Southern Chiefs Organisation in Manitoba. She is a key organiser exposing racial profiling and police abuse in Winnipeg and is also working to hold Winnipeg police to account for their sexual assault and abuse of First Nations women.

Leslie, a Cree woman, serves on the board of Grassroots Women Manitoba, an anti-imperialist group. She is a campaigner for Indigenous liberation as well as social justice for all people.

Treaties with Canada’s First Nations. Land theft, cultural dispossession and poverty: this is an all too familiar pattern for the Indigenous people of every continent. But there are differences too. Perhaps the most significant between Canadian First Nations people and Aboriginal Australians is that many Canadian First Nations have treaties with the Canadian State, but Aboriginal Australians do not.

In the 19th century, the government of Canada and the Indigenous nations of the Canadian prairies sought to make treaties that would define their relationship and establish rights to land and other resources. In order to formulate the treaties, a legal and political definition for “Indian” was needed. This established who was entitled to reserve lands and compensation, but it also excluded many people.

Leslie Spillett is critical of the term “Indian” and tells how terminology to describe Indigenous North Americans evolved. “Because the colonisers didn’t understand the language, and because of racism and the lack of understanding of who we were, a variety of terms were used to define us.

“Christopher Columbus was lost trying to find India and came across the Americas. The people that he first encountered were named Indians. Some people call us Indians, some people call us natives and some people refer to us as different tribes.

“We had our own ways of identifying ourselves. In our territory, most of the people referred to themselves as simply ‘the people.’ ‘First Nations’ started becoming popular in the eighties.”

In 1876 the Indian Act was enacted. Leslie explains: “One of the founding principles of the Indian Act is to define who is an Indian. So if you are a ‘status Indian,’ meaning you are recognised as an Indian under this legislation, you had a treaty relationship with Canada. So you have either status, or treaty, Indians or non-status Indians, who don’t have any rights. It’s completely divisive and I think that’s the reason for it.”

Gradual eradication of treaty obligations. Leslie explains that there are huge numbers of First Nations people whose legal relationship in Canada is unclear: “I happen to be one of those people. What are we? What are our children? We have done research, and it seems that within about two or three generations there won’t be any status Indians left because of marriage.

“Before 1985, if you were an Indian woman and married a non-Indian man, you lost your status, and your children also lost their status as Indian. If a white woman married an Indian man, she became an Indian and so did her children — it was a completely patriarchal law. We have white people in Canada who are considered status Indians under the Act, and we have Indian women who have lost their status and so have her children. These people are not recognised as Indians. The law is all about dividing and controlling.”

In the 1970s, First Nations women campaigned against this policy on the grounds that it discriminated against women and failed to fulfil treaty promises. They won changes to a section of the act with the adoption of Bill C-31 in 1985.

But the changes did not fully resolve the problem. While status Indian women could marry a non-status Indian man and retain her status and pass the status on to her children, it did not apply to the generation after. Leslie says: “It still discriminates on the basis of gender. The male lineage does not lose status in the same way. One group can pass the status on; another group can’t pass the status on. So clearly it’s a way for the federal government to end its responsibility. It is genocidal.”

There are many other struggles related to Canada’s treaties. Leslie explains: “The treaties were meant to be land sharing arrangements, not land surrendering arrangements! There are struggles around different ways of interpreting treaties in Canada. Then there is the whole question of surface rights, but what about mineral rights? There are lots of questions around treaty rights and responsibilities that are still up in the air. We have signed treaties, but we say that these treaties have been broken.”

Familiar tactics. Despite the differences resulting from Canada’s treaties, both Leslie and Nahanni were struck by the similarities between their struggle and that of Aboriginal Australians.

Leslie explains that First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have distinct cultural identities. “There are maybe 600 different tribal identities in Canada from coast to coast and into the north.” There are also many people of mixed ancestry. Leslie thinks that emphasising these distinctions “is a way to continue the divide-and-rule situation.”

The Canadian government is also expert in the way it controls First Nations’ political organisations by controlling the purse strings. Leslie says: “Many of our political organisations are funded entirely by the government, so that’s problematic in terms of being effective organisers.” She tells the story of Chief Mathew Coon, who found this out the hard way. In 2002, Leslie attended the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, where Chief Coon made a speech that did not pull any punches, speaking out about racism in Canada. When Coon got back to Canada the Indian Affairs Minister, angry about being exposed on the world stage, slashed the funding to Chief Coon’s organisation, the Assembly of First Nations.

Leslie describes many other challenges faced by Canada’s First Nations people that are shared by Indigenous Australians: “We are still facing genocide in every way. There are still significant land rights that are outstanding.” First Nations people are also among the poorest in Canada.

She believes that the connection between class oppression and First Nations’ struggle is inseparable. “Every social indicator highlights connection: our mortality rates, our incarceration rates, our under-representation in higher education. Another big challenge in Canada is overcoming the indoctrination that there is no such thing as class or race. We are poor and dependent on the State. Yet, we get blamed for not making healthy life decisions!

Leslie sees that “the lack of political analysis” in many First Nations communities is “a really big problem.” We need to start talking about capitalism, imperialism and globalisation and how these things have impacted us.”

She reflects, “the children in Chiapas haven’t set foot in a school, but they know more about political and economic systems than we do, because they have an analysis of what’s relevant to their lives and they have some consciousness of race and class.”

No justice in Canada. Just like Aboriginal Australians, Canada’s First Nations people are over-represented in the prison population

Nahanni Fontaine says that while this is true, it is “somewhat simplistic” in its analysis: “Indigenous people are over-represented in terms of every negative social indicator, not only in criminal justice system. But we are also under-represented in education and every positive social indicator. It is precisely because of lack of resources and equity that we are pushed into the criminal justice system. Canada is based on racist and imperialist foundations. Children faced forced assimilation through the residential schools. But even before the residential schools, we were treated as savages who needed to be Christianised.”

Worse for women. In 2004, the Native Women’s Association of Canada launched the national Sisters in Spirit Campaign to oppose the alarmingly high rates of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. Nahanni describes their work: “Their research indicated that over 500 First Nations women and girls have gone missing or been murdered across the country. Right now we have at least 19 young women missing in Manitoba. There’s no police task force and no outcry from government. They just think these women are aboriginal or they will say they worked on the streets, so what do you expect?

“Two summers ago, a young woman, went missing. She was 17 years old and from my First Nations community. Her body was found in the area. We had a press conference and demanded that the government set up a task force immediately to investigate her death. We raised this in the context of a case in British Columbia where during the ’80s and ’90s women kept going missing. But again, because primarily they were Indigenous women, working women and sex workers, the case was ignored. The government claimed that there wasn’t a serial killer. But, finally they set up a task force and in 2002 they found out that a Pickton pig farmer was the serial killer.

“We had our press conference and demanded that a task force be established to figure out what’s going on with all these missing and murdered women — Indigenous women. The government said no. There is still no task force and none of these 19 cases in Manitoba has been solved. And it seems like almost every week we see a picture of another missing woman or girl.”

Nahanni says that it is both this neglect, when Indigenous people are the targets of crime, and the harassment of Indigenous people by the police that are racist. “Police stop Indigenous youth or Indigenous women walking down the street. They ask, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing? Let me see your ID. Come with me.’ It starts from there and the government tacitly supports it.”

Instead of looking at alternatives to detention, governments keep building prisons. The provincial government in Manitoba are Social Democrats. “You can’t tell the difference from former Conservatives! In 2003 they announced a plan to close the Portage Women’s Correctional Facility. The prison was built in the 1800s. There is no heat. And it’s over capacity, because they keep putting our people in the jails!

“So this Social Democratic government had an opportunity to take a lead in de-incarceration. Lots of women’s organisations got together to make recommendations. The Southern Chiefs Organisation and our northern equivalent produced a paper proposing alternatives to incarceration. But the government moved the correctional facility to Headingley and, instead of de-incarceration, they are building a brand new state-of-the-art jail. The initial budget was 22 million dollars, but the price tag has already gone up to 60 million. They had this opportunity to do things differently, but they prioritised making money, not Indigenous values.”

Missing men. Men have also died in suspicious circumstances. “Starlight Tours” is a name for the non-sanctioned police practice of picking up individuals — mostly First Nations, homeless or people with addiction problems — and taking them outside of town, where they are beaten or abandoned on the side of the road.

In 1990, 17-year-old teenager Neil Stonechild disappeared close to his mother’s home. His frozen body was found three days later, eight kilometres from where he was last seen in Saskatoon. His mother pushed for answers, but no one wanted to listen to an Indigenous woman whose sons had often been in trouble with the law. In January 2000, two more men were found frozen to death.

Nahanni describes how the truth about their deaths was finally revealed. “The police took out a man by the name of Darrell Knight. They dropped him off and took his jacket and shoes. But Darrell saw a power station, walked there and banged on the door. The security guard heard him, opened the door found an Indigenous man with no jacket, no shoes. He called Knight a taxi. Darell Knight survived to tell the tale, and his case was investigated. It precipitated the investigation into what happened to Neil Stonechild. The police officers last seen with Neil in their custody were found to be guilty. There was a public inquiry, and that is where the term ‘Starlight Tours’ comes from.”

Lethal tasers. With the Police Association in Victoria pushing to be armed with tasers, the insights into their use by Canadian police were valuable.

Says Nahanni, “All of the Winnipeg City police started carrying tasers in 2006. At that time, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network interviewed me and they asked what I thought about tasers. I said the police would be more inclined to use tasers because there is an illusion of safety. I thought we’d have a death in the city from a taser, probably a young person.”

She was unfortunately right: “Last summer, the police chased a 17-year-old boy for allegedly breaking into a vehicle. They tasered him and he died. There have also been other taser deaths: you would have seen the footage at Vancouver Airport. These deaths put tasers in the spotlight. The Public Complaints Commissioner for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found, based on complaints, that police were more inclined to use tasers, particularly on male youth.”

Leslie added, “There was a case a couple of weeks ago of the police using a taser on a young woman who was in jail. She was apparently peeling paint from the wall of her cell. They told her to stop and she didn’t, so they tasered her. So it’s an instrument of control. And when people are killed, like the young man who died after being tasered, the media try to justify it with arguments, such as the kid was breaking in so he kind of deserved it!”

Taking to the streets. On June 29, 2007, the movement held countrywide protests, dubbed the Aboriginal National Day of Action. The protests targeted poverty, lack of government action on land claims, the poor quality of First Nations health and the cancellation of the Kelowna Accord, an agreement between the government and the leaders of five national Aboriginal organisations. The Accord sought to improve the education, employment, and living conditions for First Nations peoples through governmental funding and other programs.

Nahanni explains that “the protest was an initiative of one of our Chiefs, Terry Nelson, who in 2006 proposed a resolution, which was passed by the Assembly of First Nations, for the Day of Action. But there were different visions for what the event should be. Chief Nelson wanted to stop the railways and cost the government billions of dollars in order to get attention. He talked about the importance of standing in between the white man and his money. His vision was for militant action.

“But when it got to Assembly of First Nations level, which is more moderate, it became more about trying to engage the Canadian public with our cause. So there were two very different kinds of perspectives. Across the country, there were different types of actions on the same day. In Ottawa, the biggest rally occurred and it was very mainstream with Canadian politicians joining in a walk. But there were other places where there was militant action.” There were blockades of several major transportation routes, including railway lines and Highway 401 as well as two potential detour routes and Highway 17.

Nahanni adds: “We had another one last year in May, which wasn’t that big. I am not really sure why. We had some unions from Manitoba that joined our Chiefs’ walk. That was one of the first times that has happened, as far as I know.”

Leslie stressed that it is important to understand that the government never intended to implement the Kelowna Accord. “Typical of Liberals and just before they were losing power, the government called this big meeting and brought all these Indigenous leaders, together in Kelowna in British Columbia where they hammered what they call an Accord, which was about 5 billion dollars in social development targeting the Indigenous population. And then of course they lost the election about 10 days after signing the Accord. The Conservatives came in, and the Accord was gone. The Liberals had years to actually do something but didn’t. In the dying days of their administration, they appeared to do something. You can see the context and why First Nations people had so many grievances.”

What would justice look like? We ended our conversation exploring this. Leslie said: “For me it’s about self-determination, recognition of our right to be a sovereign Indigenous people. We do things to each other that are horrific in terms of divide and conquer. Justice will arrive when we have the right relationships with the settler population, when we are in charge of our own destiny.”

Nahanni concluded: “Justice for me would be when every First Nations child doesn’t go to bed hungry, or with self-loathing, or without heating or without water or without a healthy environment and love because, really, the core of our teachings is that it’s the children that is our motivation. We’ll have a just world when our children are healthy.”

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