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MONTREAL—John Duncan's appointment in August as the new Minister of Indian Affairs was greeted with praise and hopeful expectation from many mainstream Indigenous organizations.
“I look forward to working with him in his new role,” said National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a press release.
“Minister Duncan understands the issues that he will have to address to deal with the many challenges First Nations are experiencing in this province,” said British Columbia Treaty Commission Chief Commissioner Sophie Pierre in another release.
But other First Nations leaders and activists believe Duncan's past tells another story, and they are forecasting a hostile course as he takes responsibility for steering the Canadian government's relationship with First Nations.
According to them, Duncan has established a record of words and deeds over the last thirty years, as a forester and parliamentarian, that amount to a crusade against Indigenous peoples—stoking flames of racial bigotry, attacking constitutionally-protected aboriginal rights, and advocating for their assimilation and permanent status as impoverished, second-class citizens in Canada.
Guujaaw, President of the Haida Nation on the north-west coast of British Columbia, recalls the First Nations struggles to end MacMillan Bloedel's clear-cut logging of Haida Gwaii's world-renowned old-growth forests.
Duncan was a forester with MacMillan Bloedel on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii from 1976 to 1993, including a stint as chief forester on Haida Gwaii.
In those years, MacMillan Bloedel was the largest forest corporation in the province, and the Haida's campaigns alongside environmentalists established the archipelago as the key battleground in the coastal forest wars in the 1980s. The company was responsible for shaving bald entire islands, leaving the landscape scarred from poorly-managed clear cut operations and dumping logging debris into fish-bearing waters.
Ethnobotanist and author Wade Davis worked as a forestry engineer for MacMillan Bloedel in the late 1970s.
“Concern for the cultural heritage of the Haida was not even a remote thought,” he said in Ian Gill's book about the Haida, All That We Say is Ours.
Forestry companies fought tooth-and-nail against the Haida, who persevered and won an agreement establishing Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in 1987, which saved the southern third of the archipelago from logging. They've since made strides with the provincial government, according to Guujaaw, but the federal government has only “stonewalled” them politically.
“If the intention of the present government is to put someone in there who will make sure that nothing happens, maybe they put in the right man,” he said.
“Sometimes it is better to deal with a declared enemy than a pretend friend.”
Duncan left his forestry work to run for election in North Island-Powell River, BC, in 1993 as a Reform Party MP, serving as their Aboriginal Affairs critic from 1994 to 1997. He filled the same role for the Canadian Alliance from 2003 to 2006, while representing Vancouver Island North. After losing his seat in 2006, he was reelected in 2008 and served as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minster of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
He used his parliamentary pulpit to take vocal positions on fishing disputes in British Columbia as First Nations dependent on sockeye salmon from the Fraser River began winning limited legal recognition of their fishing rights.
Ernie Crey, a member of the Cheam Indian Band and a policy advisor for the Sto:lo Tribal Council, which represents eight First Nations in the Fraser Valley, has vivid memories of Duncan “cheerleading” for the BC Fisheries Survival Coalition, an aggressive group that represented non-native commercial and recreational fishermen.
“Some people seem to have been struck by amnesia,” Crey said. “Duncan was one of the most vociferous critics of aboriginal people and their constitutionally protected rights.”
“His alliance with the BC Fisheries Survival Coalition says a lot about him,” Guujaaw said. “[The Survival Coalition] organization has never moved to protect fish from overfishing or offshore drilling or tankers, but rather have organized for the purpose of keeping the First Nations from regaining any rights to a livelihood.”
While Duncan was still working as a forester, the Sto:lo and other fishing First Nations received a boost from the Supreme Court in 1990 when the landmark Sparrow decision recognized they had a constitutionally-protected right to fish for food and for social and ceremonial purposes.
Panic set in amongst government policy-makers and industry. Suddenly there was legal uncertainty about fish sales and quotas, so the federal government responded with a plan to contain and control the aboriginal fishery. They created a commercial licensing regime for aboriginal fishing that included financial support for employment, but also caps on numbers of fish that could be taken by First Nations.
In 1992, the federal government introduced regulations for two native commercial fisheries, one on the Lower Fraser River and the other in Port Alberni.
Critics of the government policy noted that First Nations, by accepting the regulated fisheries, were essentially giving up most of their rights to property and full compensation for stolen resources, in order to be guaranteed a fragment of rights adequate to sustain their economies.
The BC Fisheries Survival Coalition saw it differently. They launched their own campaigns against the Native fisheries, saying they were “race-based," and organized illegal fisheries on the Lower Fraser to show their opposition.
“As a member of parliament, Duncan took up their argument,” Crey recalls. “He associated with groups like these that played the race card.”
“In some summers, I was witness to Indian boats being swamped by much larger commercial vessels apparently manned by supporters of the Survival Coalition,” Crey said.
“Trucks and boat trailers owned by Indian fishermen were damaged and trashed. There were buildings in Fort Langley, close to the mouth of the Fraser River, that were burnt as an act of vengeance.”
In Parliament in 1998, Duncan backed up non-Native fisherman who had engaged in illegal fishing.
“The fisheries minister keeps insisting that a race-based commercial fishery is legal,” Duncan said. “Will the minister ask the crown to drop the charges against 22 BC commercial fishermen who protested his racial policy?”
Provincial and federal courts have consistently ruled that commercial allocations for First Nations are not discriminatory but based on inherent rights that precede asserted Crown sovereignty and provincial legislation.
“My children grew up when Duncan held office,” Crey said. “I can remember my kids telling me, 'When we go to school people spit on us. People call us thieving, poaching Indians.' That was the kind of climate created by people using the race-card.”
John Duncan's office refused repeated requests for an interview.
As the Reform Party's Aboriginal Affairs Critic, in 1995 Duncan helped launch a policy statement, the Interim Aboriginal Policy, intended to transform the government's relationship with First Nations. It advocated for the conversion of reserve and treaty settlement lands into private property, the abolition of the Indian Act and tax exemptions, and an end to federal funding of aboriginal political associations.
In other words, he advocated “full-blown assimilation,” said Arthur Manuel, a member of the Shuswap Nation and a spokesperson for the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade.
With Duncan as Indian Affairs Minister, the Conservative Government recently sent letters to select First Nations requesting their participation in a study on economic successes, a move Manuel says is the latest salvo in a campaign to insinuate private property ownership onto Native reserves, breaking apart and opening to encroachment lands that are still mostly held in collective tenure.
As an Aboriginal Affairs critic, Duncan became one of the most outspoken critics of Canada and BC's treaty negotiations with the Nisga'a Nation of 6,000 in the north-west of the province.
Signed in 1999, the first modern treaty in BC granted the Nisga'a $200 million, access to fisheries and wildlife, rights to a form of municipal self-government, and about 2,000 square kilometres of land, less than one-tenth of their traditional territory.
“I find it incredible that a package like this could be offered to that many people," Duncan told the Vancouver Sun in 1995. “Taxpayers have had it. They're at their wits' end. They're not being represented in this whole exercise. Who is looking after the non-Native Canadian? That's my concern.”
According to Manuel, Duncan was lambasting an agreement that undermined and extinguished the constitutional rights of the Nisga'a, but the terms of settlement were still considered too generous by the right-wing Reform Party.
“The objective was [to] eliminate aboriginal title and rights by replacing them with a new form of reduced and restricted treaty rights,” Manuel said. “Under this model, Indigenous peoples will have to give up their tax exemption, take their land in fee simple, and agree to be under provincial control.”
His comments came two weeks after Ontario riot police had stormed the park and shot at dozens of unarmed protesters, killing Dudley George.
During the Second World War, the federal government had expropriated Stoney Point's lands, including a cemetery, and failed to follow through on its promise to return the land after the war.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly criticized the Canadian and provincial governments for only recognizing rights to small portions of First Nations' traditional territories while extinguishing their rights to the majority of their land.
“The Marshall decision establishes a race-based commercial fishery on the East Coast,” Duncan argued in the House of Commons. “Why will the government not ask the supreme court to stay the Marshall decision, and clarify it?”
Duncan floated the idea of Reform MPs using their free-mail privileges in Parliament to shower British Colombians with a 14-page document that attacked the Nisga'a deal.
Such a suggestion won him the label of “dinosaur” from John Watson, then Director-General of the Department of Indian Affairs' Pacific region.
Duncan also spoke out frequently against the British Columbia Treaty Process, province-wide negotiations over unextinguished Aboriginal rights and title to land that began in 1993. The Nisga'a "extinguishment" agreement is widely considered a template for these negotiations, which the federal and provincial governments are eager to complete.
“The public is clamouring for a new approach,” Duncan claimed in 1998 in Parliament. “What will the minister do to create an affordable process and reduce Aboriginal expectations so that BC can support modern treaties?”
Reducing aboriginal expectations, Manuel said, is a euphemism for the federal government's continuing strategy to keep Indigenous peoples impoverished, which he believes will continue with Duncan's appointment.
“Bluntly put, they want the province to be rich and us poor,” he said. “The federal and provincial governments want to maintain exclusive jurisdiction over our lands. The results we'll get from Duncan and his bureaucracy will be the same as we got from Indian Affairs Ministers Jean Chretien, John Munro or Chuck Strahl."
Since his appointment as Minister, Duncan has toned down the rhetoric, and in late August issued an apology to Inuit from northern Quebec who were forcibly relocated to the High Arctic in an attempt to establish claims of Canadian sovereignty in the 1950s.
Ernie Crey, for one, isn't convinced.
“Just because 20 years later he is putting on pleasant appearances—that’s not good enough,” he said. “It's hard to believe that people can turn around and say the leopard has changed his spots. I think he needs to be held to account for all the things he did and said.”
Martin Lukacs is a member of the Dominion editorial collective.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.