George Erasmus on self-government, 1990

In 1990, AFN chief George Erasmus told Canadians native self-government would not be a threat to them
George Erasmus

In June 1990, the Meech Lake Accord failed when Aboriginal leader and Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper refused to give the necessary unanimous consent for his province to approve. The Assembly of First Nations also opposed the accord not least because it continued to focus upon the French and English as Canada’s founding nations. AFN chief George Erasmus made this speech just a few months after an armed standoff between the army and Aboriginal warriors at Oka in Quebec. He argued that there are three nations in Canada, and one of them is Aboriginal. Erasmus was later appointed as co-chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991-96).   

“We have come to a fork in the road”

Last summer, Native people in this country took a very firm stand against the Meech Lake Accord. It was not a stand against Canada. It was not a stand against Quebec. We took a look at the agreement, and as Native people we found the agreement wanting. We were going to put into the Canadian Constitution the concept that there were two fundamental characteristics of Canada that should be entrenched, embedded in the Constitution. It was following from the concept that there are two founding nations, and one of those was not the original Native people. That was something we could not live with. We could not have further entrenched rights for other people in this country that would make us even less able to compete and try to protect our language and our culture. In Quebec, Native people could not live with a situation where Quebec was being recognized as a distinct society and there was no ability for the Native people there to be able to also protect and have their language and culture flourish. The balance was not there . . .

We have come to a fork in the road, where if we are going to continue to be immersed in a status quo, we’re just not going to be together very much longer. Or else we are going to be so disgruntled across this country we’re not going to be able to live with each other. We have the ability to create a country that will be envied. We have the potential, but we also have the potential to fragment and create many smaller states, and that’s absolutely not necessary. What we have here is the ability to bring together two European peoples, complemented by cultures from all around the world, with an indigenous population that has been here for tens of thousands of years. We have the ability to create a culture that will be different from others because we will take from each other and we will give to each other, but we will not have to crush each other. We will not have to make beggars of any of us. We will not have to make people orphans from their culture . . .

No conquering army

This country was not settled like the United States. I’m a Dene. No conquering army came to the Dene and defeated us. No conquering army came to the Mohawks and defeated them, or any other of the people across this country. We willingly, consciously, with our eyes open, thought we had enough resources. Being a peaceful people we arrived at an agreement that provided for our institutions to continue on part of our land and for the institutions of the people coming in to also be placed on our lands. Never in our worst nightmares did we ever imagine what was going to take place. That for nearly one hundred years, from 1867 until 1960, we would be so limited in our activity that we would need passes to get off reserves. We couldn’t own businesses. We couldn’t run for office. We couldn’t vote. We never reached the age of majority. We weren’t human beings really. The kind of apologies that Native people have watched being provided to other people has been kind of a joke. We provided our support to most of those people, whether it was the Japanese or others, who were seeking apologies. We’re still waiting. We’re still waiting for someone to tell us that they apologize for what has happened, what is happening, and how it will never happen again.

Institutions and land

We want to put in place, once again, our institutions so that we will make decisions for ourselves. So that we will shoulder the responsibility of whether or not an education system is relevant for our people. We’re not going to be satisfied with being provided with school boards that fall under someone else’s jurisdiction, that fall under someone else’s legislation. We’re not going to be satisfied with putting Native people on school boards and hiring teachers and using someone else’s curriculum and someone else’s legislation. We’re not going to be satisfied with taking over child care services, social services that belong to somebody else, somebody else’s legislation. We want to make our own laws. And we’re not talking about municipal governments. Obviously, we have many communities in this country and we have to have municipal governments, but what we are talking about is, as collectives, as nations, we must have—like Quebec, like Newfoundland—the kind of powers that are typically enjoyed by provinces that are free-standing . . .

We see a time, if this works out, when Native people will again control a large percentage of their original lands. No one is trying to go back. No one is trying to turn any clock back. We have no intention of making any attempt at that. But, we do want to nurture and to revitalize our culture. We know we cannot govern all of the land that we used to govern. We realize in real politics that we are the minority population in a country that has twenty-six/twenty-seven million people. So we are more than prepared to be practical. We think it is only just that with so few people living in Canada, with all of the land, all of the resources we have, that rather than having the open forests that you have, a large portion, negotiable portion, is back in the hands of Native people so that we can have some control over our lives. So that we can create a revenue base that will allow us to have some dignity, a revenue base that will allow us to pay our own way, so that we are not always beggars in our own land, and watching people from everywhere else get rich on our resources.

Patience is ending

That’s got to end. All across this country, people have been painfully, quietly, putting up with atrocities that should never have happened, whether it was residential schools where you could not speak your language and where virtually every value of your culture was being negated, or seeing your land being used by corporations from abroad, stripping your resources, shipping them out of the country and jobs with it, and nothing being returned to you.

Patience is coming to an end. The internal suffering is just so great, the loss of life amongst our young people, the internal alcoholism, the glue sniffing, the wife beating, child neglect, all of the social disorders of an oppressed people. Our frustration, our hurt, our pain, our anger, our hate, is forced inside. It cannot go on any longer. Imagine it like a pot on a burner that is burning on high constantly and you think, well, there’s still some water in the bottom, there’s still some water in the pot.

Not a threat

The time is here. We must now be sincere. Native people are not a threat to this country. We are not a threat to the sovereignty of Canada. We actually want to reinforce the sovereignty of Canada. We want to walk away from the negotiating table with an agreement that Canada feels good about and Native people feel good about, where we can say that we have strengthened the sovereignty of Canada . . . we’re not a threat. We are only a threat if we continue to be ignored and taken lightly. We are only a threat if people don’t understand that it is impossible for people to maintain the frustration level without the kind of actions that we’ve seen this summer [at Oka] . . .

We’re not trying to get out of Confederation. We never were a part of it. We’re still knocking on the door. Let’s hope we get a wonderful reception when the door is open.


Empire Club of Canada, November 29, 1990.
Biographical information:
“George Erasmus, ”The Canadian Encyclopedia:
Photo credit: CBC Archives


One thought on “George Erasmus on self-government, 1990

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  1. When our ancestors first came to North America they saw a people who lived in conditions that were less attractive than those in Europe. Consequently those Europeans very falsely believed that they had met an inferior race of people. And instead of treating these people as equals many atrocities were carried out. We may, with the European history of war and actions at the time, try to understand their feelings of superiority. But today we all have to deal with the after effects of the terrible mistakes that were made. Our own courts of law, will prove that we must deal with the leadership of the indigenous people in an equitable way. Let us hope that we will follow fair treatment of our First Nations and everyone else. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, let us hope that we will leave a much better legacy than our forebears left us.


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