'Well, why else are you here?" Chief Terrance Nelson shoots back. "I doubt The Globe and Mail would send you out to talk about Roseau River's housing problems," he says with a smirking laugh.
Seated at his desk in a shabby pre-fabricated bungalow that houses the administrative offices of the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation in southern Manitoba, Mr. Nelson is a roiling mixture of bluster, determination, suspicion and contempt. He knows that the media loves controversy, and he isn't afraid to stoke it in order to get the country's attention.
His has been the most militant voice about the June 29 national day of action called for by the Assembly of First Nations. "There's only one way to deal with a white man. You either pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money," he is now famous for saying. Canadians should be "damn nervous," he warns.
He is outspoken about his plan to mount a 24-hour blockade of a railway near his reserve that carries goods to the United States across the North Dakota border - and is calling on other First Nations to do the same.
The derail-the-nation threat is effective, Mr. Nelson likes to point out. "Canada stands to lose up to $200-billion shaved off the GDP, and the economy won't recover until 2009," he boasts of the day of action's potential impact.
Under the baseball cap, behind the large shaded glasses, beneath the bluster, Mr. Nelson rarely reveals himself. He may invite reporters to his doorstep with his incendiary language, but once here, he shows them little hospitality and seems wary of the attention.
The flipside of his belligerence is shyness. He will not look his interlocutor in the eye, and it requires great persuasion to get him to talk for the length of time that had been previously arranged.
"Look," he says, in a moment of quiet reflection, "I'm 53. We have done everything we can to try to wake up Canada" to the racism he says indigenous people suffer. He explains calmly and at great length the difficulties his people have encountered, including lack of easy access to private ownership. Such restrictions amount to "undeclared economic sanctions, the same as those imposed on Iraqis," he says.
Born and raised on the reserve of Ojibway-speaking people, he graduated from the University of Manitoba with a degree in sociology in 1980. He is in his third two-year term as chief of his reserve, but he has been involved with aboriginal politics all of his adult life. (Rumours that opponents on his reserve have tried to oust him recently are unfounded, he says.)
Asked why he has adopted a confrontational stance, he says simply, "We buried so many of our people here, from violence and alcoholism." Has he had trouble with drinking? "Of course," the father of five answers gently. He has been sober for 10 years.
The moments of vulnerability are rare, however. For the most part, Mr. Nelson has resigned himself to being what he calls "a bad Indian," the kind who doesn't kowtow to authority. He fights racism with racism, using the term "white people" because "when you call a white person a white person ... all of a sudden they're offended. Aren't you?" he asks with a sly grin.
"Let me ask you a question," he says, leaning back in his swivel chair. "Is it easier to bring native people to where Canadians are at economically or to bring Canadians down to where we're at? And then you'll find out what the hell it's like ... You have everything to lose. That's why you're really afraid," he says, leaning forward and chuckling lightly.
Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, condoned Mr. Nelson's resolution to mount blockades on June 29, but has since adopted a more peaceful tone, saying that the national day of action is an invitation to learn about aboriginal issues. He believes he has helped defuse the anger by negotiating new proposed legislation with the Conservative party, announced last week, that aims to "revolutionize" land claim settlements.
There is currently a backlog of more than 800 cases that involve disputes over breached or unfulfilled treaties, and the land claims process takes an average of 13 years. The new legislation proposes to commit $250-million a year (up from $159-million in this fiscal year) over the next decade for land claims research and compensation. The legislation also calls for a tribunal staffed with impartial judges that could make binding rulings when negotiations break down. To date, Ottawa has acted as defendant, judge and jury in disputes.
But the new deal does little to placate Mr. Nelson. "You expect me to have faith in the Canadian government that they will do what they say they will do?" he says, barely suppressing a laugh.
"Wasn't the Kelowna Accord a good announcement?" he says, referring to the Liberal party's $5-billion plan to lift the living standards on reserves, which Stephen Harper's Conservatives subsequently threw out. That is just one example of dashed hopes, he says, adding that the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996 were never fully implemented.
One day after the announcement of the proposed legislation, Jim Prentice, Minister of Indian Affairs, had a special peace offering for Mr. Nelson. He signed off on an agreement that 30 hectares of land, on the northwest side of Winnipeg, would be converted to reserve status for Roseau River First Nation. "It took 135 years, 10 months and 10 days," says Mr. Nelson, in reference to the tribe's loss of much of their land base in a disputed 1871 treaty.
Still, he refuses to back down from threats of a blockade. "The worst thing that could happen is for June 29th to fizzle, because then people will look at that and say, 'See? The Indians just run away. All they do is threaten. All we have to do is show them who is boss.' "
Mr. Nelson has learned that the only way to get results is to take aim at economic interests.
In 1993, his reserve launched a $763-million lawsuit, citing a breach of treaty agreement, against the federal government. They scoffed at it, he recalls. Mr. Nelson then bundled up the legal documentation and sent it off to bond rating agencies in New York City and Montreal. He asked if they knew how much the Canadian government owed its native peoples. "The bond rating agencies phoned up Ottawa," he points out with a sly smile. "Oh, the shit hit the fan. I know what matters to the white man is their interest rate on bonds."
Gary Filmon, then-premier of Manitoba, called Mr. Nelson "an economic terrorist." But he Mr. Nelsonsaw it as simply business. The case was settled out of court in 1996 for $14-million.
"I'm not Gandhi," Mr. Nelson says. "I've known violence all my life. I grew up with it. And one thing I know is that you do not run away from it."
He acknowledges that he has encouraged young aboriginal men to acquire military training. "It's better to have trained Indians than untrained ones," he says.
"There's a hell of a lot of people a lot worse than me," he offers. "I'm moderate by comparison. I can guarantee that. Anger among young natives is unfocused.
"It's self-defeating and internalized. But as soon as you see the Canadian army killing native people, that anger goes outward. That's what Oka was," he says, referring to the blockade by Mohawk aboriginals in Quebec in 1990.
"It was a psychological barrier that was reached. Native people were willing to fire back."