Jun/98: Canada & Mexico-Indian wars north and south


Even in genocide Canada is polite

Canadian Forum
June 1998
Tony Hall

Canada was tugged more deeply into the Mexican government's undeclared war on Indian Country when two of our citizens, Julie Marquette and Sarah Mereille Baillargeon, were expelled in mid-April from Chiapas. The Quebec activists had gone to Mexico's southernmost state, the site of this hemisphere's most vital and politically volatile indigenous resistance struggle, under the auspices of a Montreal based non-governmental organization named Salut le monde. Once in Mexico, these dedicated young women worked under the direction of the Centro de Derochos Humanos Fray Bartolome de las Casas.

This church-based research centre takes its name from the legendary Catholic priest who in the mid-16th century was the first great chronicler and critic of the conquistadors' vast human rights violations. The conquistadors' object shared by many of their descendants to this day, was to kill and extinguish a very old world and establish themselves as founders of a New World. On the first of January 1994, the 502-year-old Indian struggle against extinguishment was dramatically renewed in Chiapas by the Zapatista Liberation Army. Their armed assertion was timed to coincide with the inauguration of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Mexican government clamped down hard on the Zapatistas and their sympathizers. In the kind of conflict often pitting Indian against Indian, many indigenous people were murdered.

While much of this brutality remains hidden from international view, news did emerge last December that the Zapatistas' paramilitary enemies had killed 45 townsfolk in the village of Acteal. This crime of war continues a tragically familiar tradition of US-backed military aggression against Indian Country in Central and South America. Thus, the making of the new killing field at Acteal represents a direct extension of the anti-Indian brutality brought to light by Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu by her documenting the murderous, right-wing elimination of tens of thousands of largely Mayan peoples in her native Guatemala.

The recent civil war in Guatemala and the current one in neighbouring Chiapas, therefore, are closely connected. Both are animated by right-wing regimes bent on privatizing and concentrating wealth against the stubborn resistance of the same large complex of Mayan agriculturalists. In Mexico, Guatemala and, indeed, throughout the rest of the Americas, the most committed defenders of indigenismo remain attached to the collectivist orientation of aboriginal land tenure in which the integrity of virtually all native cultures is rooted.

It is these facts of history that created the milieu surrounding the Mexican government's expulsion of Julie Marquette and Sarah Baillargeon from Chiapas. Deported along with these Canadian activists were 10 other foreigners whose primary work was to witness, record and, it is hoped, discourage the murder and repression of Indian freedom fighters and their many supporters. The apparently official silence surrounding these expulsions speaks eloquently about the degraded state of international diplomacy in the Americas in this increasingly totalitarian era of global corporate rule. Indeed, not only did Prime Minister Jean Chretien fail to chastise the Mexican government for such contemptuous treatment of our own Canadian human rights workers, he actually defended the actions of the Mexican government after conferring personally with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.

In explaining his decision not to make a diplomatic issue of the expulsion, Chretien commented that Zedillo was only "applying the laws of his own country." The PM concluded by virtually complimenting Zedillo for his government's supposed restraint, saying the president is even "blamed for not being hard enough on people who create problems in Chiapas." What is to be made of the Canadian PM's apparent nudge and a wink to his Mexican counterpart, effectively giving Zedillo the green light to continue removing international observers from Chiapas? What I take from Chretien's position is a corresponding desire on the part of the Canadian government not to be the subject of international scrutiny when repressing Indians in our own backyard. The underlying theme in this tacit agreement is that indigenous peoples must be contained within a prison of domestic law so that they cannot challenge the very legitimacy of the primary instruments of global corporatism such as NAFTA, the World Trade Organization and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Thus, Mexico is apparently to be left to quell the Indian uprising in Chiapas just as Canada is to be left to use its own domestic instruments of repression against Aboriginal groups who have taken assertive stands to protect their lands and autonomy. Among the most assertive of these First Nations patriots in Canada have been the Ojibway Warriors' Society, the Lubicons, the Mohawk Warriors, the Innu, the Calgary Urban Treaty Indian Alliance, the Defenders of Haida Gwaii, the Barrier Lake Algonquins, the Teme-Augama Anishinabe, the Dene Nation, the James Bay Cree, the Defenders of the Shuswap Nation and the Peigan Lonefighters. Moreover, implicit in the understanding between Mr. Chretien and Mr. Zedillo is a mutual pact not to draw attention to past and future casualties in the Americas-wide war on Indian Country.

In Canada these casualties include Dudley George, the Ipperwash martyr who was downed in a peaceful resistance to the Ontario government's right-wing extremism, and Nelson Small Legs Jr, the Blackfoot activist who took his own life to protest the Trudeau government's failure to establish a sufficient infrastructure of social service agencies for this country's fast-rising urban Aboriginal population. Chretien's conversations with Zedillo were part of the preparations for the summit meeting in Santiago, Chile, where 34 heads of state gathered to set in motion the creation of a new Free Trade Area of the Americas. Ironically, just as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) negotiations in Paris were stalling because of massive public hostility, a modest replacement was being created in Latin America to more firmly integrate that part of the world into the totalitarian monoculture of global corporate rule. A very clear indication of the corrupt nature of these negotiations in Santiago was the lack of any invited representative of aboriginal peoples. Instead, Mr Chretien and the other 33 heads of state stood together in the tradition of Christopher Columbus and the conquistadors.

There can be no credibility to any invocation of a rule of law for yet another redrawing of the geopolitical map of the Americas without affording First Nations significant veto powers over the process. Without this, we can't expect genuine reckoning with the continuing pattern of expropriation and genocide of the First Nations. Instead, we can anticipate a joint demonstration that nation-states are maintaining their monopoly of sovereign jurisdiction and thus subordinating the concept of Aboriginal self-government into domestic frameworks of non-Aboriginal laws and institutions.

Jean Chretien signalled this strategy in his speech at Santiago. In a statement conveniently bypassing any formal acknowledgment of one of history's most monumental and ruthless continuing acts of genocide and dispossession, the PM remarked, "there are indigenous people throughout our region." He added, "Too often they are the most marginalized members of our society." By restricting the debate to a consideration of aboriginal peoples in relationship to "our society," Chretien avoided addressing the more basic question of how First Nations are to develop the political levers needed to address the requirements of their own societies. A similar form of self-serving myopia was evident in the PM's failure to notice the grave international implications of the expulsion of Julie Marquette and Sarah Baillargeon from the Indian killing fields of Chiapas Mexico.

Tony Hall teaches Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge. He can be reached by email at: hall@uleth.ca

Back to SIS