Saturday 20 February 2010

Should non-natives be evicted from an Indian Reservation?

I was shocked when I read in a newspaper that the Mohawk chiefs in the Kahnawake Indian Reserve (southwest of Montreal, Canada) want the non-natives and their native spouses to vacate their homes and pack up their belongings and leave the reservation within ten days.

It seems that in 1981, a moratorium was held in that reservation and it was decided that there was to be no intermingling of races.

As news of the band council's action with respect to the evictions emerged, its political press attaché, Joe Delaronde, was on the defensive. He said in part; "We sound like a bunch of Nazis here but really, they shouldn't be here based on any law, Canadian or Kahnawake." When he said, ‘they’, he was speaking about the non-natives and their native spouses.

It is beyond me as to how he can say that such action isn’t similar as to what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. As of April 30, 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Germany were being evicted from their homes without a reason given and without notice being served. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the entire Polish civilian population in Warsaw was evicted and their houses were confiscated and/or demolished. Albeit, the evictees in the reservation are being given notice and the reason for their evictions but their evictions are not a mere smear on the remaining members of the reservation, it runs deeper than that.

What has happened in that reservation is something from a distant, darker time. Acting on anonymous calls to a snitch line, authorities single out people on the basis of their race and order them to leave town. This is what happened in Europe when the Nazis overran it.

Kahnawake law is clear that racial inter-mingling is forbidden on the reserve. Since 1981, a moratorium on mixed marriages has said that any Kahnawake Mohawk who marries a non-native will lose the right to live on the reserve. The principle was reinforced in a 2004 Membership Law, which was aimed at "fulfilling our responsibility to defend our community and our Nation from external threat."

The Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 deprived German Jews of their rights of citizenship, giving them the status of ‘subjects’ in Hitler's Reich. The laws even forbid Jews to marry or have sexual relations with Aryans.

What is happening in the Kahnawake Indian Reserve and what happened in Germany after 1935 is outrageous. Just as the Nazis wanted Arayans (blond hair and blue eyes) to be pure, so do the Mohawks in the Kahnawake Reserve want their Aboriginals to be pure.

I married a young Japanese woman in 1976 and we have been happily married for 34 years. Our two daughters have caucasion (white) and oriental blood in them which makes them Eurasians and their children have Indian and Black blood in them which means that aside from having Caucasian and Oriental blood added to the mix, they have two more sources of blood in them and despite that, they are very beautiful and smart to boot.

The argument against mixed marriages is sometimes framed in terms of dwindling space. There is a housing shortage on the reserve at the foot of one of the main bridges onto Montreal Island. But what really seems to be driving the latest evictions is a preoccupation with preserving Mohawk bloodlines and culture.

Grand Chief Mike Delisle said in an interview that Kahnawake takes a harder line on these issues than most other native communities. He said in part; "There are other First Nations where, in my opinion, maybe it's too late. They have been overrun by outside marriage, and a lot of the community members as well as the leadership don't possess the type of lineage that Kahnawake demands. There are fears in Kahnawake of complete integration into Canadian society if nothing is done.” Is integration such a bad thing?

Jeremiah Johnson, a 31-year-old small business owner in Kahnawake, started a Facebook page called "Non-natives out of Kahnawake?" He supports the band's initiative to expel non-natives. "We don't want to stay 300 years in the past, but we don't want to be assimilated into the mainstream world either. It's not our way and it's not how we think," he said. He understands that outsiders might say, " ‘Oh my God, those racist Indians,' but when you're here and you see it from our point of view, what we have left and what we're fighting to hold onto, it really is an invasion."

I can appreciate why this man hopes that the lineage of his people will last forever but that isn’t going to happen. It is very rare nowadays that the original lineage of a group of people remains intact unless the group is living in the recesses of a tropical forest.

The mixing of blood from healthy spouses is not a bad thing and it is done all over the world. It is even conveivable that as the centuries pass, all of Mankind will be of one grand mixure of the same blood. Will that be so bad? If that happens, it doesn’t mean that the people in the future can’t trace their bloodlines and honour the traditions of their past.

The debate was unsettling to the editor of The Eastern Door, Kahnawake's weekly newspaper. In an editorial, Steve Bonspiel said relying on anonymous complaints to identify evictees "reeks of an old-fashioned, gruesome witch-hunt." (The band council said it received about 100 complaints over the past 18 months.) Bonspiel added, "So, now that meddling in our neighbours' love lives is applauded as protecting the Nation, what will come next?"

In an interview, Mr. Bonspiel said he finds the band council's approach hard to swallow. The names of those facing eviction have been kept confidential so far, but they are said to include long-time community volunteers and people who are caring for disabled or seriously ill partners. "I know non-natives who live here, who are married and have kids here, and they're contributing to the community. They're giving back," Mr. Bonspiel said. "They're not taking anything from the community, yet they will be targeted in the future if the Mohawk council continues along these lines."

Sandra Schurman, 44, has a distinct perspective on the debate. Her mother is Mohawk and her father white. She is allowed to live in Kahnawake but is not recognized as a member of the band, meaning she cannot vote in band elections. When she dies, she will not be allowed to be buried in the Kahnawake cemetery next to her mother.

A few years ago, after the latest membership law was passed, she appeared before a council of elders seeking to be listed as a Kahnawake member. Her application was denied because she did not have the requisite four Mohawk great-grandparents; one of her great-grandmothers on her mother's side was half-Mohawk. She said; "They even had my family tree displayed on the overhead projector," she recalls of the hearing before the elders. "My great-grandmother grew up here, spoke Mohawk and raised her children here, but the council wouldn't accept her as being Mohawk. "

She finds it hypocritical, considering how common intermarriage was in the past. "There are many people on this reserve who claim full native ancestry who are running around with red hair or blond hair, so I'm not the only one," she said. "I can totally understand them wanting to protect, (the band’s heritage) because the elders are scared how this place is going to be in fifty years. There are going to be hardly any Mohawks left, things will be lost and it will be mostly white people in this town. I can understand that too, but at the same time it's like, c'mon, this town is half-white anyway."

Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer who specializes in Charter of Rights cases, questions whether a policy like Kahnawake's could withstand a constitutional challenge. "I think it's time to challenge that whole nation that they can remove people on the basis of percentage of Indian blood or whatever," he said. If people identify themselves as Mohawk and follow certain cultural pracctices, that should be enough, he said.

The argument that drastic measures are required for survival does not wash. "I don't believe groups have a right to survive," Mr. Grey said. "I think individuals have a right to belong to groups. There is freedom of individual association. If they wish to make it survive, then they will survive. If some other people who do not qualify by blood wish to join, that will in fact improve their chances for survival."

As to the evictions, the federal Indian Act in Canada allows First Nations to establish rules for band membership, and a Department of Indian Affairs spokeswoman told La Presse this week that the eviction controversy is an internal Kahnawake matter.

I disagree. Everyone in Canada, whether or not he or she is an aboriginal, is governed by our Charter of Rights. Section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights states;

“Everyone is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion or sex, mental or physical disability.” unquote

It is obvious that absolute and unrestricted individual rights do not totally exist in any country including Canada but such rights must nevertheless yield to the common good. By evicting people from their homes simply because they are of a different race in the Kahnawake Indian Reservation, then who is next to be evicted from their homes? Will it be the black family down the street or the Asian family across the street? Racism is an ugly scourge that can ravage a community as history has shown us. A local law should not really be considered valid if it does not adhere to the fundamental values enshrined in the Charter of Rights.

As sailors are well aware, if you put too much wind in your sail, your boat will keel over. If an Indian reservation keeps discriminating against the members of their community that are of mixed blood, their community will die out. This has happened time and time again in the past all over the world.

The young people in the Indian reservations will eventually have to leave their reservations to seek work elsewhere and while living outside their reservations, they will find mates who are of a different race than they are. If this happens, they will not be invited back to live in their reservations and finally, as generations move on, the older remaining natives will die off and then what will be left, are the physical remnants of a community that no longer exists.

In the past, the Indians in Canada were mistreated, of that there is no doubt. They should have been assimilated with everyone else in our country and given the same opportunities afforded the rest of the nation but they weren’t given a chance to do so. It would now appear that the Indians in the Kahnawake Indian Reservation are taking their revenge out on the people they believed mistreated them. This is a mistake.

A community, be it a non-Indian community or an Indian community should treat all of its members, be they white or Indian; with respect, courtesy and fairness. Throwing out families of mixed blood from the community is not respectful, courteous or fair. It is outrageous. If a small community of whites had people of mixed blood living in the community, and the council brought in a law that said that no one of mixed blood could live in the community, you can be sure that the resulting hue and cry that followed would be heard all over the world.

A quarter century after aboriginal women won the right to remain status Indians when they marry non-aboriginal men, new legislation proposes that their grandchildren also be entitled to the designation.

The changes suggested by the federal government in March 2010 will add about 45,000 people to the Indian Register and have native leaders fearing that Ottawa would not help reserves with the costs of a sudden influx of people.
There is disagreement within the native community over who should have status, and many bands have their own membership codes to determine who is entitled to live in their jurisdiction. The government also does not yet know what the actual cost would be, because there is no way of predicting how many people would apply and what benefits they would want.

Like other status Indians, the people who gained status would be entitled to such benefits as tax exemptions, extended health coverage, and the potential for special post-secondary financial assistance if they live and work on reserves.

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