During the recent confrontations at Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake I participated as a telephone guest on a PBS program in Los Angeles. The host began by explaining to his American listeners that there was a "news blackout" around the Gustafsen Lake stand-off. He then played a tape of a CBC report as an example of the kind of propaganda being generated to turn public opinion against the Gustafsen Lake protesters.
Was this a fair assessment of what went on in Canada?
Partly. At best, the reportage I saw of Gustafsen Lake and Ipperwash was shallow, incomplete and one sided. I have yet to see or hear a single word reported directly from any of the protesters within the Gustafsen Lake camp after Ovide Mercredi and his entourage left. Instead, what I saw and read was report after report giving verbatim accounts of the RCMP's version of events.
The televised daily briefing sessions from the media centre at 100 Mile House reminded me of CNN's chillingly sanitized coverage of the Gulf War. The "lessons" of the Vietnam War and Oka, it seemed, were being busily employed by the men in uniform: prevent, if possible, the press from reporting on "the enemy" as full-fledged human beings with their own story to tell; don't let the public see the complexity of the ethical issues behind the show of weaponry.
The Gustafsen Lake group did bask in the media sun for a brief period before a compliant press corps was unceremoniously marched out of the protesters' camp by RCMP information officers. Most of the reporters seemed relieved to be unburdened of the responsibility of trying to tell the "renegade" Indians' side of the story. The protesters just didn't fit the established script of recycled Indian stories.
Wolverine, one of the group's leaders, insisted repeatedly on wandering from the familiar arguments about Aboriginal land claims to speak of the New World Order and international conspiracy. It seems he had been picking up ideas from Glen Kealey, whose zealous crusade to expose crime and corruption in the Mulroney years had long been the source of headaches for libel-shy reporters.
More puzzling yet for members of the overwhelmingly non Indian media was the tinge of millenarian religion thrown into the potent ideological mix that developed on the site of the Gustafsen Lake sun dance. The near hysteria of the press at some of the goings-on reminded me of the type of reportage that contributed to the decision that resulted in the American army massacring Sioux ghost dancers at Wounded Knee in 1890. In Indian Country, politics and religion often converge in ways that confound the assumptions and expectations of a predominantly secular Euro-Canadian society.
But the most serious shortcoming of the reportage from Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake was the failure of the media to interpret the significance of these events in terms of the tremendous ferment taking place within Indian Country. Rather than correctly representing the recent stand-offs as expressive of growing distinctions of class, interest and ideology within Indian Country, the mainstream press tended instead to present the episode through the simplifying, distorting lens of right and wrong, good and bad. One the one hand we saw the sensible Indians, the moderate Indians, the law-abiding Indians, our Indians. On the other stood the rebels, the renegades, those who, in the words of Rudy Platiel, simply wanted "to thumb their noses at authority". For this group, wrote the "Globe"'s veteran Indian expert, "it's pay-back time".
The angry Indian occupation of the Ottawa offices of the Assembly of First Nations was no aberration. It was reflective of a broad and deeply rooted fear in Indian Country that government negotiations on land claims and self-government benefit only a small Aboriginal elite who have long been groomed to take over the authorities and budgets of the federal Department of Indian Affairs. What is there in these developments, ask many, to benefit the mass of disenfranchised Native people? Put another way, are the collective interests of entire Aboriginal communities necessarily synonymous with the individual interests of those Native spokespeople who have made a business negotiating with the federal and provincial governments?
These kinds of questions have been addressed seriously and at length by Menno Boldt in his recent book, "Surviving as Indians". The author says that he receives regular communications from many Indian readers who find merit in his contention that federal policies are perpetuating a kind of top-down approach to Indian governance that is anything but liberating to those who have been voiceless and powerless in Indian politics. The concerted drive to silence, distort or trivialize the voices of protest at Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake looks to me like the advancement of a dangerously elitist and authoritarian approach that is all too typical of the Canadian way of doing things.
Tony Hall teaches Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge.