Sometimes we must search a little deeper for the words that can bring out vital yet still hidden realities. It can be risky, especially when you enter into the terrain of the heroic and mythic. Since Aboriginal Rights leader Jim Sinclair died I have been struggling to find deeper words and insights.
NATIVE RIGHTS WARRIER
There’s no questioning Sinclair’s vital historical role in getting the Métis included in the Canadian Charter of Rights introduced by Prime Minister Trudeau. His shining moment was when he spoke, as a militant nationalist, at the failed First Ministers’ Conference on Aboriginal Rights in March 1987. You could tell that Prime Minister Mulroney was both stunned and impressed by the passionate and articulate case Sinclair made.
But because of my ongoing encounters with Sinclair I am left with some personal confusion about the man. My way of honouring his memory is to pursue this.
Our paths have crossed since the turbulent 1960s. Two years ago he spent three hours in our living room trying to convince me that bringing nuclear wastes to northern Saskatchewan could help bring indigenous people out of poverty. By then I knew he was appointed as an “Elder” for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) which was trying to convince northern communities to “host” a nuclear repository. I listened respectfully and when I could, raised alternative views. We didn’t argue, as we might have when younger, and we parted cordially. Sinclair then turned up at public forums in Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Beauval where I was speaking in support of a nuclear waste ban. Each time he repeated that it was better for indigenous youth to work in a nuclear dump than end up in one of Harper’s mega-prisons, as though these were the only realistic alternatives. Some youth took exception.
I am neither Métis nor First Nations; I am of settler background. But like Sinclair I was influenced by Malcolm Norris, founder of the Métis Society of Saskatchewan (MSS). I first met Malcolm after returning from voluntary work in the US civil rights movement in 1963. He seemed to adopt me when I went north to do masters research in social psychology, which also took me to prisons already filling with indigenous youth. He took me to meetings of the Indian-Eskimo Association and the early Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI), always tutoring me about neo-colonialism.
He told stories of his failed attempt in the 1930s to form an alliance between the settler groups that led to the CCF and indigenous peoples who suffered gravely during the depression. One story of him coming to a Farmer-Labour-Teacher Institute educational in Fort Qu’Appelle and feeling snubbed hit home for my father had been involved in this adult education process. Norris was advancing a post-colonial political alliance before the term was even used.
Norris knew I came from a family with strong CCF ties. He encouraged me to carry on with the Student Neestow Partnership Project (SNPP) that I was organizing, inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that had sparked such brave desegregation activism in the US south. SNPP’s goal was to have progressive youth witness the stark realities on Saskatchewan Indian reserves and in Métis communities. This community organizing was also about desegregation, aimed at raising awareness about powerlessness and self-determination. SNPP ultimately became a project of the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA).
Meanwhile Norris was establishing the MSS and looking to develop young leadership, one of whom was Jim Sinclair who became an early MSS field worker. Norris lost his civil service job when Thatcher became Premier in 1964 after the Medicare conflict, and died in Alberta in 1967.
Sinclair became a well-known Aboriginal Rights advocate, helping found the Native Council of Canada which became the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. As leader of the Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians of Saskatchewan (AMNSIS) from 1971-1987, he helped found the Gabriel Dumont Institute and other Aboriginal organizations. He was deservedly honoured several times for his decades of service.
CLUFF LAKE INQUIRY
I left Saskatchewan in 1966 and didn’t encounter Sinclair until my return in 1977 just as the Cluff Lake Board of Inquiry (CLBI) was holding public hearings on the proposed (but already underway) expansion of uranium mining. I sat with Sinclair on a panel supporting a moratorium on all uranium mining until lands claims were settled. Perhaps Norris’s influence was still working on us from the grave.
I even quoted Sinclair’s strong anti-nuclear colonialism sentiment in my 2006 book, Canada’s Deadly Secret. The position of AMNSIS, which Sinclair represented, was clear: “The proposed uranium development represents only one of hundreds of corporate and government decisions to commit robbery, theft and even genocide against our people.”
My encounters with Sinclair became sporadic, in cafés or at conferences. It wasn’t until September 2008 when I was asked to speak to the FSIN Chiefs about nuclear wastes that we reengaged. I was surprised to see him on entering the Dakota Casino outside Saskatoon; we re-introduced ourselves, chatted and entered the forum.
The NWMO made its presentation in the morning; Sinclair spoke as an NWMO Elder. I had had no idea that since 2005 he was associated with the nuclear industry group. During his talk, looking right at me, he attacked the “anti-nukes” for letting Aboriginal people down after the CLBI. I wasn’t sure what he was saying. I knew that the solidarity between southern environmental and Indigenous groups was often shaky, but that was what pioneers like Malcolm Norris had always encouraged us to confront. I started to realize that Sinclair was saying it was the failure of uranium mining opponents to provide job alternatives that led northerners to have to work in the uranium industry.
I wondered how Sinclair got to this conclusion. Environmental groups are not like governments or corporations, with huge sums of money to invest in sustainable development. Groups working for sustainability are trying to democratically shift the priorities of government and industry. But Sinclair was somehow implicating us in his argument that northerners had to accept nuclear wastes as an economic development strategy. Sinclair repeated this view when we talked later. I once joked that maybe I should hitch a ride with him from Regina Beach in his new big truck with mileage paid by NWMO rather than take the STC bus to the meetings at which we butted heads. He laughed!
Malcolm Norris again comes to mind. He also played a role in the ascendency of Métis leaders Rod Bishop and Howard Adams, choosing Adams as his successor. Adams remained adamant about carrying on Norris’s view which was “critical of Aboriginal leadership for what he saw as its cooption and cultivation of dependency”.
My last encounter with Sinclair was at the June 2011 Beauval Forum called by the Committee for Future Generations. Sensing the spirit of the meeting, Sinclair rose to the occasion as the great orator he was, repeating what he had said when he presented at the CLBI. But suddenly, as though he’d just remembered why he was there, he was arguing that northern development depended upon mega-projects like a nuclear waste dump. Some people heckled and left the room. I thought how hard it must have been to be born into poverty as a non-status Indian among the road allowance people and to have to fight your way to being heard; all the way from Punnichy to the Constitution to Bill C31 … to the NWMO.
The road to sustainability and justice is rocky, as we know. I am honoured that Malcolm Norris brought our lives together. Rest in peace!