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Brian Mulroney held the line on settler colonialism: activist

March 1, 2024

‘They basically threw our rights out the window’ says activist and artist Ellen Gabriel remembering Brian Mulroney’s complex legacy

APTN News: Brian Mulroney is being remembered by some in the Indigenous community as a polarizing figure during his time in office, with his decisions and actions continuing to shape the country to this day.

Mulroney served as the 18th Prime Minister of Canada from 1984 to 1993. He died Thursday at the age of 84.

One of the defining moments of Mulroney’s tenure was his handling of what is commonly called the Oka Crisis in 1990.

The standoff between the people of Kanehsatà:ke people who live west of Montreal, and the Quebec provincial government over the expansion of a golf course onto disputed Mohawk land led to a violent 78-day standoff.

“The events of 1990 were a watershed moment in Indigenous-settler relations in Canada,” said Sean Carleton, assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba.

“This is not speaking ill of the dead. It is insisting that he be remembered for all that he did, rather than the usual uncritical fawning and selective celebration that happens when colonial politicians die.”

The Mulroney government’s response to the crisis was criticized by some for being heavy-handed, while others saw it as a necessary measure to maintain law and order.

“He refused to recall Parliament to sit. They basically threw our human rights out the window,” said Ellen Gabriel documentarian, human rights activist and artist from Kanehsatà:ke Nation. Gabriel was active on the ground during the blockade.

“We still had the Indian Act that has been there for a while, you know, Mr. Mulroney was really, I guess, just holding the line of settler colonialism that we’re used to.”

Gabriel does not feel that the former Prime Minister was concerned about the community.

“He didn’t care about us. If there had been a military confrontation in the sense of shooting – like the military shooting at our people – I think we still would have been criminalized in his eyes. For me, it’s not a great legacy that he has in regards to Indigenous people, at least here in Kanehsatake,” said Gabriel.

Read more:

     30 years after 1990 crisis, Mohawks take charge of how their stories are told

Despite the controversy surrounding the crisis, Mulroney took steps to address the longstanding issues faced by Indigenous Peoples in Canada. In 1991, his government established the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), a landmark inquiry about the social, economic, and political challenges to Indigenous communities.

The RCAP was tasked with examining the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government and making recommendations on how to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples across the country.

The commission’s final report, released in 1996, contained numerous recommendations for government action, including calls for increased funding for Indigenous communities, greater recognition of Indigenous rights and titles, and the establishment of mechanisms for self-governance.

While not all of the RCAPs recommendations were implemented, the commission’s work laid the foundation for future efforts to improve the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government.

“If you look at what he did for Riel at the same time what he did for our people, he was the first prime minister to actually recognize the Red River Métis,” said David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

In October 1991, Mulroney recognized the historic Métis Nation, followed by his government’s passage of a resolution through the House of Commons recognizing Louis Riel as the founder of Manitoba and supporting the attainment of the Constitutional rights of the Red River Métis.

In addition to his work on Indigenous issues, Mulroney was also known for his efforts to protect the environment and promote sustainable development.

Dubbed the “green prime minister” in a survey by Corporate Knights magazine of high-profile environmentalists and others. During his time in office, Mulroney’s government passed several important environmental laws aimed at regulating pollution, protecting wildlife, and conserving natural resources.

These laws included the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Canada Water Act, among others.

With ongoing debates around reconciliation, environmental sustainability, and Indigenous rights, Mulroney’s legacy continues to be felt in the decisions and policies of successive governments.

“If you do not want your legacy to be tarnished, then make different choices. That is an important lesson for politicians in the era of so-called reconciliation today,” said Carleton.

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