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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Suppose there was a place the Charter didn't apply … Add to ...

It's hard to imagine in Canada, with its ethos of diversity and tolerance and its secularly sacred Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that what's happening on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve near Montreal could occur with barely a peep from civil-rights activists and governments.

Twenty-six residents who are considered "non-native," and are married to or in long-term relationships with Mohawks, have been given eviction notices. Their presence apparently threatens the survival of Mohawk bloodlines and, therefore, the future of the community. Other evictions, it is reported, might occur later. It appears from news reports that the majority in the community agree with the evictions.

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"This isn't about ethnic cleansing," says Mohawk Grand Chief Mike Delisle, "It's about self-preservation." It's also about a fundamental abuse of basic human rights in Canada.

Of course, there's the rub. Mohawks don't consider they are Canadian. They don't recognize Canadian sovereignty on their territories. They are a self-governing "nation" that has ceded nothing to Canada. They have their own rules, traditions, police forces, governance. If what other Canadians would consider basic human rights are abused, well, apparently that's just the way it goes, according to the federal government.

Nothing we can do, says Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl. The minister is "uncomfortable" with the evictions. But, says he, "it's important for people to realize that whether I like the decisions or not, these are decisions made by first nations people on their own land. It is not for me to make those decisions, or the government, and we are not going to be making those decisions." The reserve has a "constitutional basis" to set its own membership rules. "They can do it legally."

So there it is: Evicting people, or discriminating against them, on the basis of race has a "constitutional basis" and can be done "legally." Could anyone imagine the immense hue and cry if race-based evictions were tried anywhere else in Canada? Charter cases would be launched faster than you could say Beverley McLachlin.

Mohawks have traditionally been among the most self-segregated aboriginal group/nation in Canada - or, to use other words, the most complete form of sovereignty within a geographic entity called Canada.

The RCMP and the Quebec police only enter the reserve after prior notification. The Quebec government doesn't dare try to extend its writ in Mohawk territory. (The same applies for Mohawk communities in upper New York State.) Internet gambling and cigarette smuggling are mainstay economic engines on the Mohawk territories.

Extreme or resolute - choose your word - as the Mohawks are, they reflect an attitude of self-segregation that is the unfortunate flip side of aboriginal sovereignty that has been the intellectual framework for policy for four decades. There are bands in British Columbia, for example, that have refused to recognize Canadian sovereignty and thus refused to enter into treaty negotiations - not that these have gone anywhere in the province.

Within B.C., and elsewhere, native schools run their own affairs, provided they broadly pay some attention to the provincial curriculum. It remains unclear whether better results are produced.

The most evident example of advanced education run for and by aboriginals - the Regina-based First Nations University - is about to collapse after years of upheaval, in-fighting and terrible management.

The university had its defenders, of course, but the institution itself was generally a poor idea, because it was based on an exclusivity concept rather than what, say, was being offered at the University of Saskatchewan. There, an intense and usually successful effort has been made to open the doors to more aboriginals and help them succeed in a non-exclusive environment, while recognizing their specific cultural requirements.

That's the model on which relationships between aboriginals and non-aboriginals should stand in Canada, but it's not one that's formed the basis of policy for decades. The fear has always been that too much contact would dilute the aboriginal sense of self and traditions and, therefore, should be entirely avoided, minimized or treated with caution - the Mohawk case being the most extreme or resolute.

While the government said its hands were tied, and the NDP spokesman said "you can't blame them [Mohawks]for being careful," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff got it right.

"We support the protection and development of aboriginal culture. … However, separating families is unacceptable," he said. "In Canada, people of different origin or communities live together."

Not everywhere, apparently.

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