Self-rule offer fails to win over all aboriginals

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IN THE Kahnawake Mohawk reservation in Quebec, the response is growling indifference. Among the Musqueam in Vancouver, it is fervent enthusiasm. Like everyone in the country, Canadian Indians are divided on today's constitutional referendum.

For the first time since white settlement, Canada's aboriginal people, the Indians and Inuit (Eskimos), are being offered the chance to regain at least some of their lost independence and, some say, dignity, with a guarantee of substantial self-government within Canadian sovereignty.

Native self-rule, as a third arm of government alongside the federal and provincial ones, is a core part of the proposed constitutional amendments. But unexpectedly, the Indians have not unanimously supported the deal. A special meeting in Vancouver last week of the Assembly of First Nations, representing Indian communities from coast to coast, failed to win consensus, humiliating the National Chief, Ovide Mercredi, and further adding to the 'yes' campaign's problems.

On the table is an amendment guaranteeing aboriginals, who make up about 5 per cent of the population, the 'inherent right of self-government', the mechanics of which would be negotiated over the next five years. All native communities, most of them within defined reservations, could set their own laws, displacing federal ones, and take control of matters such as schooling, welfare, health and land management.

At the same time, though, the deal would require that native laws should be compatible with federal laws necessary for 'peace, order and good government' in Canada as a whole. Federal funding for community spending would continue, but could be withdrawn where the Indians themselves could raise the revenue. These conditions and the uncertainty about the outcome of the five years of negotiation have disappointed some radical chiefs.

But for Wendy Grant, Chief of Mesquiam Nation in Vancouver, the pact, negotiated by federal, provincial and native leaders in Charlottetown in August, would mean a dramatic breakthrough for aboriginals worldwide. 'It would be historic in the world,' she said last week. 'If you look at what we have lost over the past 125 years - we fought and died for this country alongside the English and the French only to be left out - then with Charlottetown we would be starting to right those wrongs.'

For many whites, too, reversing some of the past injustices is fundamental to the Charlottetown process. According to one recent poll, of all whites supporting the package, a quarter consider the native provisions to be of 'particular importance'. Dissenting voices, though, including the former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, have warned against creating a Canadian apartheid with the native homelands.

Among those Indians unimpressed with the package, none is more so than the Mohawks in the Kahnawake reservation on the edge of Montreal. Two years ago they attracted international attention when, in a protest against city plans to build on sacred burial grounds, they barricaded highways and forced the government to send in the army. They remain openly distrustful of whites, and even visiting the reservation requires negotiation.

'It's just not relevant to us,' says Steve McCumber who, as a 'fate-keeper', presides over Mohawk rituals in a ceremonial long- house at the end of his garden. His nation, he explains, is protected already by treaties struck with the first settlers long before Canada's foundation. 'Those treaties were meant to be for as long as the sun will shine, the grass will grow and the water will flow. Now they want to create artificial sunlight.'

Not one Mohawk, he says, will even vote today. But Chief Wendy Grant insists that the great majority of Indians are ready to embrace Charlottetown. And even if, as seems likely, the pact is rejected in the referendum, the offer itself will have set a precedent and may well be salvageable in the future.