Category Archives: Interviews

Interviews of, and by, Wayne K. Spear.

An interview with Justice Murray Sinclair

Wayne K. Spear in conversation with Justice Murray Sinclair | August 1, 2015
Murray Sinclair
Photo by Fred Cattroll

The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change

WKS: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an Executive Summary this June, and in December you’ll be releasing the full TRC report. What can we expect from that?

JMS: Many people are still looking for the basis for why we said what we said. The full report will reveal all of that. We have to produce that report in French and English, so that takes time.

WKS: At the final TRC event in Ottawa, the media seized on the phrase “cultural genocide.” Do you think this was a good place to start the conversation about the meaning of residential schools and reconciliation? Or would you have preferred the focus to have been elsewhere?

JMS: I was quite fine with it. We knew when we were writing the report that it was going to be the big question. It’s not only important to Survivors, but I think Canada and the political leadership of the country needed to know what we were going to say about it. It’s an important part of the foundation for the conversation going forward. It puts all of this experience into a proper perspective. This was not simply nice people who made a mistake. This was a truly unacceptable intention to wipe out Aboriginal people through the elimination of their cultures.

WKS: During the TRC you had occasion to comment on murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Your comments made me think of the death of Helen Betty Osborne and your work with the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. It seems that little has changed. Looking back over you long career, do you feel there’s been much positive progress?

JMS: I’ve always maintained that the kind of change we need—the change I’ve been talking about since the AJI [Aboriginal Justice Inquiry] days, which is really systemic change—is going to take a long time to achieve. It’s going to take several generations before we can realistically say that we are on our way to a decent end. Changing systems requires changing the way people believe about the law, they way they believe about their political systems, the way they believe about their institutions, and the way they believe about how they’ve been educated themselves. Those challenges are hard for people to come to terms with.

I think we expect that there will be some conscious, and unconscious push-back even, on the part of the people who are going to wonder if there’s not a different way of doing it. The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change.

WKS: How do we even have a conversation about systemic change when we are on the margins—of the media, of the institutions which will necessarily provide a space for conversations to happen? Aboriginal people have to be invited into these spaces, at someone’s good grace. It sounds to me like we may need to envision and create new institutions, new spaces to host the discussion about the change we need.

JMS: If we start thinking about things that way, we will immediately reject any solutions, because the idea of building from scratch is too overwhelming for most people. But what we’ve said in our report is that you can take what we now have, and you can build on that. This came out of the past. This will soon be our past. We need to figure out how do we take what we now have and change it enough that we can be assured that, in the future, we will have a better relationship, starting with a vision of what the future is going to look like. We have to ask ourselves “Is what we are doing each step of the way going to get us to that vision?” It’s feasible. Highly possible.

WKS: Thank-you, Justice Sinclair.

JMS: Thank-you.

External links: TRC | Murray Sinclair Biography | Settlement Agreement

My interview with former AFN National Chief, Delbert Riley

Former AFN National Chief Delbert Riley

I told the chiefs, “We’re not Indian Affairs. We’re not here to do things for you. We’ll help you do the things you want to do, and we’ll work hard.”

DELBERT RILEY is a First Nations leader from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, west of St. Thomas, in southwestern Ontario. He was the leader of the Union of Ontario Indians and, from 1980–1982, National Chief of the National Indian Brotherhood (later known as the Assembly of First Nations). Now, at age 70, he is launching a London court case against the government and the church for the range of abuses and injuries he suffered in an Indian residential school. This interview was published in the Journal of Aboriginal Management.

Let’s begin with how you came to be a political leader.

What got me into it was that I lived in the States for ten years. I was very impressed with Macolm X and Stokely Carmichael. I read their stuff, and I thought, “Holy shit, these guys are trying to get something going on about racism in the United States.” I was very impressed, so I thought, “I have to go back to Canada. Maybe there’s something I can do to help my people.”

So I did. I had been a machinist. I enrolled in university and I got a job while I was there, doing land claims research. When I heard about the job, I thought, “I gotta grab that.” I was very aggressive. I spent months and months in the national archives, reading from when it opened to when it closed. It was just so interesting. I also learned how they thought. So my mind could go back in history. I could get in touch with the thinking. It also gave me one heck of a background and understanding of Aboriginal and treaty rights.

You learned a lot about history.

I’m a historian. My First Nation sent 124 warriors to fight with Chief Pontiac. He captured eight or nine of eleven forts. He killed everybody—men, women, children. This is part of history they won’t tell you. Britain issued the Royal Proclamation, I think, because of that. It doesn’t say that in any particular place, but that’s what happened.

In 1764 the Treaty of Niagara came out. This is probably the only time our people sat down and said, “Okay, we agree with you on this. We will come and fight with you if you respect our sovereignty.” This is always on my mind. The British wanted us as their allies, to fight against the Americans. Before that we fought off the white man for at least 300 years. We were always fighting for one major thing: our sovereignty—our independence, our ability to control our lands.

The Iroquois ran off the Americans at Niagara, not the British. The British sent 1000 troops to fight with us against the Americans on the Thames. But 600 gave themselves up to their cousins, the Americans, and the other 400 ran off to Toronto. The only ones fighting were Indians. At the Thames and Niagara we drove the Americans back. They hated fighting Indians.

After the War of 1812, they concentrated on taking our lands using every device they could, including racism. The Indian Act was developed from a multitude of laws they were already using in other countries at the time, especially Northern Ireland. So this is how the Indian Act was born. They sent over [Sir John A.] Macdonald to draw it up. He didn’t create it, but he took bits and pieces from all over.

Because our numbers were decimated by disease, we weren’t able to fight back, although we protested as much as we could against this Indian Act. It is the most devastating piece of legislation in the world. I tell people today that it was a model for South African Apartheid and for Nazi Germany.

Let’s talk about the background to Section 35 of the Constitution Act.

I was an activist. Because I was doing so many things for the Union of Ontario Indians, they said, “We want you to run as our leader.” I’d never been in politics. They put me in, and I changed the organization around. Well, anyway, I served a couple terms and I brought the organization from the red into the black. I started out with about eight staff who were ashamed to work there, and when I left they were all proud to be a part of that organization.

I told the chiefs, “We’re not Indian Affairs. We’re not here to do things for you. We’ll help you do the things you want to do, and we’ll work hard.” That’s the approach we took.

So all the constitutional talks were coming up. Trudeau wanted an amending formula, because for him it was embarrassing to have the constitution in England—the BNA Act. The only way to amend it was back in England. So he wanted changes. He was fighting the provinces, trying to get them to agree on what was the best formula. Fifty percent of the people? So many provinces? So much of the population? That kind of thing.

They finally did work out a formula that all reluctantly agreed to. In the meantime, things were happening. The Calder case, land claims, whatnot. I had this background in Indian rights. The national chief job was coming up—of what was at the time the National Indian Brotherhood. I was trying to pull all the leaders across the country together. I was telling them, “Look, we’ve got to get moving on this stuff.”

I had it in my mind from the early ‘70s that our best choice was to get entrenched in the constitution and have them recognize our rights in the highest law of the land. Then they couldn’t take it out. So I said I would support anyone who ran for the leadership to do this. None of them had the background I had, and none of them would run. I said, “If you’re not going to run, then I will. At least support me. I’ll put us in the constitution.” That was my platform when I ran for national leader.

It took me a year before we made the decision on the wording of the draft constitution sections. It was about nine pages. The Métis supported us, and I promised them that they would be in there, as well as the Inuit. But they didn’t do anything to support the kind of effort we did. We did one massive lobbying effort in Ottawa. I probably met every cabinet minister and the Prime Minister multiple times. I ate in all three houses of Parliament. I was a hard worker, and it took a long time and a lot of work.

How were the negotiations?

They wouldn’t go along with all of our draft, which if accepted would have set out a totally different system from what we have here. It would have been the kind of system we want, because everyone had contributed to that draft. All they would do in the government was put in four sections. The most important was section 35, the recognition and affirmation of Aboriginal treaty rights. I had a heck of a time. I had to appear before the committee, because there was no definition of Aboriginal people. But there was a precedent for this—they’d put words in the BNA that didn’t have a definition. So I was able to use that, and they finally accepted it.

In fact, they liked that it didn’t have a definition. They figured that Indian rights were what the St. Catherines Milling and Lumber Company v The Queen case had said in 1888, which was that we had usufructuary rights [rights of land usage, but not title]. This was their thinking. My thinking was, no, it’s more than that. John Munro, the Minister of Indian Affairs, called me over one day. I went to one of the restaurants. He said, “We’re getting so much flak from Alberta that we have to take your Aboriginal treaty rights protection out.” He said, “Here’s how we’re going to write it.” I took the paper and rolled it up in a ball, and I threw it at him and walked out.

What eventually brought about the acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights in section 35?

We had a big protest. But Alberta insisted that the word “existing” would go in. So it became existing rights. You see, the fight was all about resources. Alberta did this because of a case with the Maori in New Zealand in which the court determined that “existing” meant only from the time it went into the constitution. But when it got to the court here in Canada, existing included everything. So it was even better. [Laughs]

They called me into an all-party meeting at the eleventh hour. I think it was 11 pm. [Jean] Chrétien and I were screaming at one another. I said, “Goddamn it, we’ve got to have the wording in there.” “Okay,” Chrétien says. “But I want to take out the word Métis. Will you agree?” I thought, you cagey old bugger, you’re going to take it out and blame me. But I had a promise to the Métis that they would stay in there, and I’m a man of my word. So I said No: they stay in. I’m probably the father of Métis rights! [Laughs]

What was Jean Chrétien like?

He was tough. They were trying to figure out how to get rid of Indians and Indian rights. Trudeau was the same. We were working in the other direction. It was tough, but their racist attitudes were more out in the open. They downplayed us as inferior beings.

So, they put our rights in, but of course they didn’t plan on observing them. A lot of court cases came, something like 180 as of today we’ve won on section 35. I was in tremendous emotional pain at the 11th hour to go with only those four sections, and not everything we wanted. But I had to make that decision. It was my decision alone. I couldn’t even call anybody. There was no time, so I made the decision.

How was this received?

Of course I suffered the negative comments for years, people saying it’s not enough or it’s empty. There was so much controversy about section 35 I sort of got ostracized for years. They just kept me out of things. [Laughs] The jury was out, but as of the Tsilhqot’in [Aboriginal title] case this summer, the jury came in and exonerated me fully.

You must have known that this would happen all these years later—that you were laying the groundwork for the future.

Oh yes, I knew it. For sure. This is the basis for our Indian governance. This is going to be the basis for everything. The legal power is unlimited in my mind, even right now.

So in many respects this was a thankless task.

Oh, it is. But it had to be done. I did it. I have absolutely no regrets. If I had to do it again, I would. I’d do the same damn thing.

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FNCFNEA: An Interview with Grand Chief Gordon Peters

Grand Chief Gordon Peters

Download entire interview (320 kbps mp3) | Visit The Roundtable on Facebook.

Grand Chief Gordon Peters is a citizen of the Delaware First Nation, near Chatham, Ontario, and the Chair of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians Chiefs Council. The Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI) is a non-profit organization which advocates for the political interests of its member Nations in Ontario – the Oneida, the Mohawk, the Delaware, the Potawatomi and the Ojibway.

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FNCFNEA: An Interview with Chelsea Vowel


In this interview with Chelsea Vowel, we discuss the recent Bill C-33 – the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. Download Bill C-33 here. Visit the AFN’s website here.

Download entire podcast (320 kbps mp3)

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“Residential School: A Children’s History” | CBC Interview

Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden

My friends and co-authors, Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, discuss residential schools and the forthcoming book Residential School: A Children’s History on CBC Radio.

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An Interview with Chelsea Vowel

chelsea vowel

Note: this interview took place in October 2012 and was originally recorded for a proposed (but unrealized) Nation Talk Radio program.

Visit Chelsea Vowel’s website âpihtawikosisân here. Read “Burden of Proof: What a native blogger found out about her country, and herself, in the wake of the Attawapiskat scandal,” by Christine Fischer Guy (Eighteen Bridges Magazine).

An Interview with Shelagh Rogers

Shelagh Rogers

ON SATURDAY, April 13, 2013, I chatted with Shelagh Rogers about the work of truth and reconciliation, books, and her years at the CBC. An excerpt of this discussion appears in The Roundtable episode 38. Here, for your enjoyment, is the entire interview.

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An Interview with Dave Tuccaro

Dave Tuccaro

DAVE TUCCARO is arguably the most successful aboriginal business person in Canada. The founder, President, and CEO of Tuccaro Inc., he was born March 3, 1958 and is third eldest of eight siblings. He grew up in Fort Chipewyan, a small community in northeastern Alberta. Dave is a member of the Mikisew Cree Band. After graduating from high school, he started working in the oil sands industry. He was trained as a crane operator; however, it was not long before he was pursuing his fortunes as an entrepreneur. He joined the Neegan Development Corporation as General Manager in 1991, at a time the company was on the brink of financial ruin. He turned the company around and in 1993 took over, buying out the four Indian band owners. He has been nominated three times for the prestigious Entrepreneur of the Year Award, as well as for the National Aboriginal Achievement Award. In 1995, he won the Regional Aboriginal Recognition Award and was also honoured by his hometown of Fort Chipewyan as “Outstanding Business Person 1994.” He was instrumental in the setting up of the National Aboriginal Business Association and is the founding President. In 1995, David spearheaded the formation of the North-eastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association and is the past president. Many similar associations, right across Canada, have been modeled on David’s conception.

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An Interview with Cindy Blackstock

Cindy Blackstock

CINDY BLACKSTOCK is a member of the Gitksan Nation, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta. Last year, she became the subject of media headlines when it was widely reported that the federal government had been spying on her. I spoke to her about her life, her work, and a human rights complaint launched by the Assembly of First Nations and FNCFCS against the Canadian federal government.

Please visit I Am a Witness.

Download the interview (320 kbps mp3).

An interview with Meaghan Daly

Meaghan Daly

MEAGHAN DALY is the President at Boxx Media. A former Bay Street equity trader, she specializes in capital markets, advanced trading and financial literacy. She is currently developing a line of computer game software to teach financial literacy in the public school system. I interviewed her near her Toronto home. This interview was published in the Fall 2012 edition of the Journal of Aboriginal Management.

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An Interview with Heather Menzies

[The following was first published in ASH Magazine Volume 4 Number 1, Winter 1996.]

Your argument, in the book Whose Brave New World?, is that a corporate agenda is “colonizing” the institutions and services upon which we depend in this country. Would you comment on the choice of this word?

In a colonization model, what we are talking about is empire rather than democracy —the empire of technique, but also the new corporate empires imposing their centralised authority, which is what empire is all about, over more and more of the territories of our lives. Colonization has to do with the fact that there is a cultural component, and related to that an ideological component. We’re shifting from an ethic of public service to an ethic that treats services as commodities and service transactions. In the health care field this is very dramatic, and therefore something very important to watch. This is coming out of the United States, where health care is an industry, where sickness is the raw material for a profit-making industry —their bias is built into that— and these are completely taking us away from prevention of debility, prevention of disease, and taking us toward simply the treatment model, where people can make money off a continuing dependence on medicines and treatments and so on. So the colonization aspect gets at the cultural component and the shift toward this more commoditized approach to life, generally, and then within that, service being transformed from an engaged and empathetic human interaction, to a service transaction —which is a business.

There is also colonization in the sense of an existing knowledge base being pushed to the side and treated as completely unimportant while this new knowledge base, and the new sets of technological skills being imposed by the colonizers —by the new technological agents— are being treated as the only ones that count. It’s the same kind of way in which you had the imposition of the pricing system and the commodity form that displaced barter, exchange, and the subsistence basis of an economy based on the commons of the land here.

Neil Postman has stated, in Technopoly, that a technology will “play out its hand” when introduced —that is, it will do what it’s designed to do, regardless of our efforts to control it. But you seem to believe we have a good degree of control.

I’m neither for nor against technology: I’m for a particular use of technology, one that extends what people do, rather than replaces people and replaces what they do. And so, at a fundamental level I understand and I work with the definition of technology as a social construction. Now, there’s a point at which it begins to become deterministic. It’s a bit like what Ursula Franklin said, that once values are incorporated into the design of a technology, they cannot be negotiated. That speaks to the fact that, for instance, once software monitors people and has taken over more and more of the knowledge required to do a job effectively —taken that knowledge away from people and de-skilled them — once that system is put into place, you can’t negotiate around it. There is a time when one has to negotiate. That is in the initial stages of design, and the initial stages of organizing work and the place of technology. There is scope for intervention at that point. I am somewhat sanguine about the possibility of people gaining control. People still have the capacity to negotiate. People are endlessly inventive.

What do you say to the people —and some of them aren’t necessarily pro-business— who find your critique of corporations “conspiratorial,” or at least so dark that it’s hard to accept? I have to admit I find it hard to believe that business has gotten so mean-spirited that it can enrich itself on human misery.

I think that people who subscribe to conspiracy theories are capitulating to the mystique of all-powerfulness associated with many of the institutions of power, which get all the press and are held up as being the only institutions of power. The corollary of that is that these people are betraying and not sufficiently having confidence in the power that in fact people out in the community still do have, to think for themselves, to speak for themselves, and to act. Where I think I come down is that those people who are in institutions of power do have, usually, access to faster means of communication, and they are therefore able to more quickly apprise the situation and seize an opportunity to exploit it. History is much more chaotic, much more fraught with possibilities than the conspiracy theorists would have us believe. And also it’s peopled on the other side with an awfully lot more stupidity and laziness than conspiracy theorists would have us believe [laughter]

There is another enormous advantage for those who have power, and that’s the ability to define the public interest. Until a public interest is defined, it’s impossible to get any sort of program underway.

And again, that comes back to this moral voice issue. I was giving a speech Friday, in which I stressed the importance of scale —the scale of the voices that are saying “This is in fact what the public interest is all about.” I proceeded to lay out what’s happening —the social devastations that globalization and restructuring are causing, with the downsizing and deficit being part of that larger agenda —and having done so, I was talking about the need for media paying attention to networking amongst all those voices, so that you can get the kind of sustained moral tone that is going to in fact communicate this different definition of the public interest: that the public interest is not deficit cutting, is not global competitiveness; the public interest is in fact defined by meeting people’s needs and positioning all these other agendas within the caring capacity of the larger social environment.

I find myself using the language of “community” when I speak of the public interest. But I suspect this is a buzzword — I mean, community is clearly important, but it’s hard not to be self-conscious. Do I really live in a community? And what’s the relation of business, on any scale, to the interests of community? — particularly given the erosion of traditional ties of business to employees, towns, and even democracy itself?

Too much of this gets discussed in the abstract. And abstractions can be so used by anybody. Community is a perfect case in point. You’ve got various ways in which “community” is being used. It’s being used by business to talk about corporate alliances —now they’re being called communities. Communities are also being defined around ownership of consumer goods, such as cars. And communities are being defined around lifestyles. These are all a redefinition of community into consumer roles and property relations. And that’s a complete betrayal of the historical origins of community. People don’t tend to pay attention to the hard work that communities involve. There’s this tendency to reach into the past and pull out this golden, hazy image of community where everybody gets along with their neighbours. But in fact there is no such community. Community-building is hard work. It’s the art of listening to the other person, putting up with their halitosis [laughter] —one of my ways of describing it— but it’s also the daily practice of dialogue, and dialogue doesn’t just involve speaking for yourself, and your family, and your locale, and the particularities of your group identity. It also involves listening. Listening, to be able to respect, so that freedom can be combined with responsibility, in the microcosm, and you can actually work out differences —you know, negotiate differences. That’s my sense of a real community. We need that kind of practice to avoid the idealisms: the golden age of community, which didn’t exist, and also to avoid the new commoditized images of community. The public interest isn’t an abstraction; it’s the people going to the food bank around the corner from where I live, or the Daily Bread food bank in Toronto, or the one where you live.

The current buzzwords do express an abstracted way of looking at the world which has not very much to do with people and a lot to do with processes and technologies.

One of the major shifts going on right now is we’re moving toward the equivalence of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda —they’re really one and the same. Democracy and democratic values are being subsumed by corporate values. Human rights are being subsumed, or eclipsed, by property rights. “Whoever has the most power wins” seems to be emerging as the ethic of the new era. It’s really important to name that for what it is, and then also know what you have to do if you want to turn that around. You don’t do it, I think, with abstractions about human rights. I think we can regain our perspectives by grounding ourselves, positioning ourselves in solidarity with the people who have been marginalized —who are being displaced. We’re not doing them a favour; we’re doing ourselves a favour. Because we can redefine the public interest with people at the centre.

The economist Paul Krugman has stated [in Mother Jones], “it will take another [Roosevelt], and perhaps the moral equivalent of another war” to bring back the decent society Americans had a generation ago. What do you think it will take here?

What I was also saying about “the empire versus a democracy” is that you get something imposed, versus something negotiated. The whole public discussion of this has almost shut out the notion, the idea, that this kind of thing should be negotiated. In other words, that there should be a debate, a negotiation, between an ethic of social justice and an ethic of business efficiency and corporate profit. And instead what we’re getting is the imposition of this one ethic, the business agenda. Negotiation is reduced to quibbling over the adjustment mechanisms. To be able to reassert that this is in fact an ethical discussion, and that there are moral choices to be made, requires leadership in a very engaged form. And I think there are already in Canada a number of voices that do represent the kind of moral equivalent of, let’s say, the Roosevelt era —people like Ursula Franklin, various people also in communities. We need to pay attention to the fact that the macrocosm is also composed of a bunch of microcosms.

You’ve written a half-dozen or so books about computers, and one about cheese [By the Labour of Their Hands]. Obviously, there’s more to Heather Menzies than technology.

[laughter] The Menzies were farmers in rural Ontario, so this is sort of my personal roots book. I was also as a child taken to the cheese factories. I got a sense of fascination with technology as part of the landscape. I think I gained a sense that machines had characters and were part of our story. And having written that book, it gave me a lovely perspective, because I jumped into 18th and 19th century technology. I learned a lot about technology in the process of writing [By the Labour of Their Hands], although it isn’t at all a technology book. It’s very much a book of the rural culture in Ontario, which has hardly been written on at all. The other thing is I’m a writer first; I hate being described as an expert on computer technology. Now I’m able to pose, at least for myself if not for others, some of the deeper questions about our society and the philosophies at work in it. It’s been an interesting journey.

Heather Menzies is the author of 7 books, including Whose Brave New World?: The Information Highway and the New Economy. (Between The Lines, 1996). She spoke to ASH from Ottawa, Ontario.