Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

How to prevent native uprising

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Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, declared earlier this week "that Canadian society must heal the damage caused by the Indian residential school system or deal with the violence that will be undoubtedly unleashed against it."

As alarming as that sounds, Canadians seem as oblivious to the plight of aboriginal people as they are to their own vulnerability should aboriginal anger boil over into insurrection. Imagine what would happen, for example, were "warriors" to roadblock every intersection of the Perimeter Highway. Imagine how quickly such actions could escalate from anger to outrage to violence. Now imagine what might be done to prevent it.

Quite clearly, Canadians are not much interested in fixing the consequences of the residential schools era any more than they are interested in fixing the deplorable conditions on First Nation reserves, home to more than 300,000 native Canadians.

But why should Canadians rush to redress these matters, what certain benefits would flow to the larger Canadian society if they were fixed?

Aboriginal policy in Canada has been and will continue to be directed at servicing and benefitting the aboriginal community.

It is seen by those few Canadians who take an interest in aboriginal policies almost as a "righteous duty" or an obligation to the down-and-outs in our society. For most other Canadians the matter is unimportant because fixing the problem would provide no noticeable benefit to them or their families.

Serious attention -- and not just money -- will be focused on these and the many other dysfunctions in aboriginal-Canadian affairs only after aboriginal leaders create a credible story aimed at convincing Canadians that fixing the problems will serve their immediate interests.

However, if it were possible to do so in a peaceful way, it would have been done by now.

Unfortunately, for all the aboriginal-Canadian constitutional conferences, the heartfelt apologies, the flow of billions of dollars into the aboriginal community, there is no positive story of national benefits aboriginal leaders are willing to tell or Canadians are willing to believe. Thus, the widening fracture between our founding societies exemplified by Justice Sinclair's dark message of "the great violence" that is in our future "if we do not learn how to fix" what he termed "injustices."

There is, of course, another way beyond aimless violence to convince Canadians to redress past wrongs and to engage the aboriginal community in a seriously and urgent effort at nation building. Paradoxically, a unified nationwide aboriginal rebellion may be the best way.

Rebellions or insurgencies, however, are very difficult to launch and simple grievances, such as the residential schools issue, would never provide sufficient motive to mobilize the aboriginal community to follow such a desperate strategy. Current research suggests the key motive that initiates rebellions is "feasibility."

As Paul Collier, Oxford scholar and international award-winning expert on the "root causes of insurgences," concludes, "(W)herever an insurgency is feasible, it is most likely to occur."

In other words, when people can be convinced a rebellion can be effective, the state's vital interests are vulnerable, and success has been demonstrated in some manner, then ordinary people will support the cause and some will actively participate in rebellious actions.

Research suggests feasibility is greatly reinforced when three preconditions coincide.

First, there must exist within a relatively affluent or politically advantaged society of a distinct, culturally separate, and socially-politically disadvantaged community.

Second, this distinct community is composed of a high ratio of young -- 15 to 35 years old -- males (the 'warrior cohort').

Third, that at least 25 per cent of the state's economy is dependent on the export of resources or products through a large, geographically difficult to defence territory inhabited by this disadvantaged society.

All these conditions exist today in Canada.

Vulnerability is the second key ingredient in this equation.

In Canada, this vulnerable target is the nation's critical infrastructure that transports natural resources and manufactured goods from mines, oilfields, hydro-electric facilities and factories to international markets. Without these reliable systems, Canada's economy would collapse.

Native leaders know this fact. Shawn Brant, the famous Mohawk highway and railway blockader in eastern Ontario remarked to the international media in 2010 "the government ran its infrastructure through our land... now it serves as an incredibly powerful tool of influence that allows us now as a society to engage governments in a dialogue, a relationship, based on us having the power."

Police, politicians and Canadian intelligence services understand this dynamic well.

Manitoba and Winnipeg are classic examples of political entities especially vulnerable to any aboriginal resource-based insurgency. More than 175,000 First Nations people, 15 per cent of the total population, live in Manitoba. The critical factor, however, is the concentration of inter-provincial and international transportation infrastructures in the narrow corridor north of the Canada-U.S. border and south of lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba. Even more critical is the concentration and convergence of these road and rail systems in Winnipeg. None of these systems is defended and most are indefensible against a wide-scale aboriginal purposeful disruption of them.

Imagine the effect on Canada's economy if unarmed convoys brought thousands of members of Manitoba's First Nations to blockade -- "for as long as it takes" -- all the intersections of the Perimeter Highway and all the east-west railway systems in and out of the city. Imagine the difficulty the province's small police forces would face if it attempted to intercept these convoys or dismantle transportation barriers supported by huge numbers of men, women and children.

Such a gathering of First Nations people, peaceful as it may begin, would be fraught with the threat of sudden escalation at the first sign of aggressive Canadian responses.

Any attempt, for example to use the army to clear away blockades, would be a very dangerous escalation that would most likely result in the widespread sympathy blockades by other First Nations across the country.

It was just this concern that prevented the Ontario government from enforcing the law even off-reserve during the long and violent Six Nations' insurgency at Caledonia in 2006.

And the best national response to disarming this approaching violence and rebellion is, what?

The simple-to-suggest but difficult-to-implement answer is a program aimed at reducing the feasibility factor in the equation.

Hardening and otherwise securing all the critical infrastructure in Canada is obviously impossible. We cannot divert or redirect the resource supply lines either. The First Nations' population, the youngest in Canada, is growing rapidly and that trend does not seem likely to change soon. Thus, we cannot expect to reduce the growing 'warrior cohort' any time soon.

We could, however, work with the First Nations' community vigorously and immediately to reshape this young population into a positive, community-oriented work and leadership cohort. Finally, and again in co-operation with First Nations' leaders, we could launch a national campaign aimed at convincing these young people they are indeed prized citizens in our national community.

No matter the history of failed aboriginal policies and of our prejudices against the aboriginal community and our assumption the community can only fail, Canadians must see the danger they face and act in their own interests to diminish it peacefully and immediately.

Douglas Bland is the former chair of the defence studies program at Queen's University and author of the new book Uprising, the story of the coming First Nations insurgency in Canada.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2011 J1

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