“Band by band”: Russell Diabo on efforts to ‘terminate’ Indigenous rights

Written by Abram Lutes on July 26, 2019

Russell Diabo speaks on Canadian law and termination policies in Fredericton on July 25, 2019. Photo by Abram Lutes.

Russell Diabo believes that current First Nation – government relations are guided by ongoing ‘termination’ policies against Indigenous peoples in Canada. Diabo, of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, explained the history of this process in his talk on July 25 at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

Diabo maintains that the intent of the 1969 White Paper proposal by the Pierre Trudeau government to dissolve all existing Indigenous laws, was to render Indigenous peoples nonexistent in Canadian law. He believes this effort continues through the ‘municipalization’ of First Nation bands and the co-optation of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The AFN wound up its annual convention in Fredericton the day of Diabo’s talk, which was attended by Indigenous leaders and scholars from around the province.

Chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council, Spasaqsit Possessom (Ron Tremblay), welcomed Diabo and Chief Judy Wilson to the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Wolastoq nation.

Wilson,  who gave the introduction to Diabo, is elected chief of Neskonlith First Nation and treasurer for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. Wilson described her nation’s struggle against the Trans Mountain pipeline. She reminded everyone that Indigenous peoples are the real title holders of the land the pipelines would be built on, and their consent is mandatory for resource development on that land. “I’m not confused about what my rights are.”

Chief Judy Wilson speaks on her nation’s struggle for recognition of their rights in Fredericton on July 25, 2019. Photo by Abram Lutes.

Diabo — policy analyst, activist, and writer — is well known on social media for his in-depth analysis of First Nation politics and his defense of lands and the environment.

Diabo was active in the Indigenous movement in High School, taking part in the American Indian Movement occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. He witnessed first hand the violence governments are willing to use against Indigenous people asserting their rights and he  “went to find answers.” His comprehensive education in Indigenous studies and Indigenous policy development came from many schools in North America. He graduated from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario and did graduate work at Carleton University in Ottawa.

His current role is analyzing policy concerning Indigenous people. “My main task now is exposing Trudeau,” who made many promises to get elected, said Diabo. “After ten years of Harper, many poor people were excited at these promises.” Promises, he said, that never materialized.

Diabo said the federal Liberal party’s communications strategy is guided by tactics developed by consultants for the Trudeau Sr. government called ‘SWAT’ – strategic words and tactics. Trudeau Jr. used a similar approach during the 2015 federal Liberal election campaign. “The Liberals say things like nation-to-nation, but they mean things different from what our people mean by those terms.”

“The Trudeau government is trying to frame things in the media like they’re trying to help us, so when he attacks our rights and we stand up, the public thinks we’re ungrateful and isn’t on our side. That’s SWAT.”

Posters by the Wolastoq Grand Council. Photo by Abram Lutes.

Diabo describes the ‘modern treaty’ agreements, pacts settled under Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution, as a means of dividing Indigenous peoples through back-room deals and diminishing their status before the law, “They want to process bands from Indian Act treaties to ‘modern treaties’ over the next 10 years, that’s why they’re giving 10-year grants to bands. Eventually they’ll be folded into a fourth level of government, under the provinces and federal government.” This would effectively eliminate legal claims to nationhood under Canadian law.

“How do you extinguish an Indigenous nation?” asked Diabo rhetorically of the audience, “you do it band by band.”

Diabo believes the AFN needs to take an independent, active role in analyzing government policy, adding that “when these modern treaties came out, when the co-development plans came out, the AFN did nothing to analyze them.”

Because the legal burden of proof is on First Nations to prove their entitlement to rights, Diabo says First Nations need to start organizing now and stop allowing Indian Act chief-and-council governments to make backroom deals which slowly erode Indigenous rights. “If we want to survive as distinct, organized societies, we need a strategy. We need information.”

Diabo said ordinary Indigenous people need to have a role in the negotiations with the Canadian government. He thinks that Canada needs to fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a starting point for genuine self-determination and to resist the effective termination of indigenous rights.

Abram Lutes is an environmental action reporter with the RAVEN project summer institute.

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