In memory of the Late Elder Elmer Courchene
In memory of the Late Elder Elmer Courchene from Sagkeeng Anishinaabe First Nation, Treaty 1, who passed on Dec. 5/2018 at the age of 83, we wanted to pay tribute to the respected leader by sharing his speech from last year’s World Water Day on March 22nd 2018 at the Thunderbird House in Winnipeg Manitoba. The passing of Elmer Courchene was a huge loss still felt by those who knew him and those that worked with him over the years advocating for Indigenous peoples with the Assembly of First Nations and the community of Sagkeeng. In honouring Elmer Courchene, we hope that his knowledge will continue to spread hope and bring justice across this land.
Elder Elmer Courchene Sagkeeng First Nation
March 22, 2018
Thunderbird House, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Today is World Water Day. The United Nations says that the theme of this year’s focus should be called ‘Nature for Water’. That is – exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges we face in the 21st century. Many people know of the special relationship that our people – the original inhabitants of this land – have had with our natural surroundings. We believe that the Creation is sacred – that everything in nature – including human beings – are all interconnected. And when balance is lost everything suffers. The spirituality of our people has always been nature based. It is simply a way of life for us. The fact that this way of life was more humane and held a more lasting legacy is shown by the way the settlers first experienced our lands. The state of our country was one of pristine and uncorrupted integrity. In thousands of years we did not destroy the earth. We understood the primacy of plants, animals and the natural environment. Human beings were the most dependent of creatures. From that awareness came the wisdom of the need for respect for all living things and stewardship of the environment – including the water. We are a river and lake people.
The primary means of traveling our territory to the East came through the Winnipeg River. When the dams were built that way of life was destroyed. But it didn’t just affect human beings. It wrecked a whole ecosystem – both in the water and on the lands surrounding the Winnipeg River. The sturgeon suffered the worst. These magnificent creatures which once grew enormous in their long old age are now on the verge of extinction. Where once the fisheries provided our people with essential staples for survival we are now being told to limit the intake of fish due to toxicity concerns.
We have lost lands along the Winnipeg River and Lake Winnipeg and we continue to suffer from the effects of erosion. We have lost mobility and hunting and harvesting ability within our traditional territories. The developments in the north have produced even more terrible results. And the continuing impacts are being felt all through Lake Winnipeg. The southern basin of Lake Winnipeg is being used as a reservoir and this is creating huge and increasing problems with erosion. Pollution from farmlands and redirected water flows make the problems worse. Many experts are predicting that Lake Winnipeg fisheries will collapse and the Lake will essentially be dead very shortly.
My ancestors, my people’s ancestors, have been fishing in what they now call Lake Winnipeg for generations. We fished sustainably, knowing that it was our responsibility to protect the fish, because if we ignore them, or if we abused them, we would not have food. But when Manitoba Hydro build their dams, and the polluters let their runoff pollute our lake, they think only of what they need to do to make their next dollar. We cannot accept this. Past governments and later Manitoba Hydro maintained the attitude that they knew better and never took into account the adverse effects that their developments created. It was an attitude driven by colonialist mentalities. It’s not easy accepting the effects of colonialism. It is easy to view historical dramas about India or Africa and plainly see the everyday portrayal of colonial actions. It is more difficult to see what is right in front of your eyes and is happening in your own backyard.
As an Anishinaabe person, indigenous to this land, it can be challenging and even frightening to begin to absorb this reality. The system is geared against us. They are still implementing colonial policy against us. The government, the corporations, the policing and the courts are all programmed to do so. We struggle daily with bureaucrats and corporate underlings. The courts cannot be trusted to deliver justice. There has never been any free, prior and informed consent with regards to any development within our ancestral lands. The numbered Treaties were signed between the Crown and the First Nations beginning in 1871. They are entrenched in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. Sagkeeng is signatory to Treaty 1. But we also maintain a seat at the Treaty 3 Grand Council as signatory to that treaty. Our traditional territories within our ancestral lands covered a great deal of what is now known as Manitoba and Ontario.
When the treaties were signed our people viewed these documents between the Crown and our Nations as the understanding from which we would share this country and live in peaceful co-existence with each respecting the rights of the other. We already had laws when the colonizers came. The laws were from the Creator and passed down by our Elders. These laws said very clearly that we were responsible for the land, the water, the air. So when the Crown says we agreed to “cede and surrender” the land, we KNOW that they’re not telling the truth. Because our laws, the Law of the Creator, would not have allowed us to just give up the land. We agreed to share. And when we said to the Crown they could share the land with us, they came, they stole and they pillaged. From the beginning the objective of the government was our assimilation and the extinguishment of our Treaty and inherent rights. They did not want to deal with the resource issue. They did not want to hear our interpretation of the Treaties. This is still the prevailing colonial strategy. When the Crown and the Government of Canada completely ignored the Indigenous World view they also deprived themselves and future generations of an essential insight into how nature works and how humanity fits into it.
In their arrogance they believed they knew best. The fact that the natural world is on the verge of collapse – that the extinction of species is a daily event – and that within 20 years the world will have reached an irreversible tipping point of 2 degree temperature increase – shows how wrong they were. Corporations – whether they are private or crown owned bodies are well known for their immoral qualities and their focus on profits at the expense of anything else – including people. Why did they embark on such a monumental development with its dams that are destroying the north and so negatively impacting the south? Manitoba did not need this extra power. Motivated strictly by the profit motive Manitoba Hydro greedily looked at U.S. sales and cared nothing of the damages they were causing within our traditional territories.
Past and current provincial governments share in this responsibility. They are still benefiting from the destruction of the environment. The Manitoba government recently released its budget for 2018. In this document it shows that they are receiving their annual payment from Manitoba Hydro of 118 million dollars as part of water based revenues. Manitoba gets approximately 20 million dollars a year in licensing fees from the dams along the Winnipeg River alone. Sagkeeng does not receive a single penny for the dams they build on our water and destruction they cause to our land.
Prime Minister Trudeau has spoken repeatedly and clearly about the need for the Crown to show greater respect for First Nations in order to promote reconciliation. In his ‘Mandate Letter’ to Minister Bennet in her new positions as Minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, the Prime Minister wrote about the relationship between the Crown and First Nations that: “This new relationship must be based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership”. He also mandated that the Minister “work with Indigenous Peoples to support their work to rebuild and reconstitute their nations, advancing self-determination, and for First Nations, facilitating the transition away from the Indian Act and toward self-government.”
If the First Nations are to fully participate in finding solutions to these problems, we must have the means to do so. This is our country. These are our resources. Yet we remain the most impoverished of peoples. And we are still not being heard. When we try to negotiate fairly with Manitoba Hydro we are not asking for hand outs. We are asking for recognition of our inherent and Treaty Rights and the ability to fully participate as partners. We feel we have something vital to contribute. In recent years the courts have issued some rulings that further require governments and corporations to consult and accommodate with the First Nations.
Accommodation means that they must compensate us for past and continuing damages. They must also allow us economic participation in what we consider to be ethical activities and involve us directly in the day to day operations of their developments – even if this only means a monitoring process. Manitoba Hydro’s response has been to attempt to set up a meaningless consultation process and then do little to accommodate. You cannot have nature based solutions to water related problems when you continue to discount and ignore Indigenous knowledge. You cannot have nature based solutions without social and economic justice.
Much has been stated about truth and reconciliation. But there can be no meaningful reconciliation without truth. Reconciliation means little if colonial mentalities and policies continue to exploit the lands and waters in the name of ‘progress’ and the profit motive is more important than life itself. Reconciliation also means working together. Our people have always been inclusive in our approach to life. Together Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples still might be able to recognize our common problems and come together to try to solve these. We are not involved in a ‘race war.’ We are all caught in this together. And the only way forward is together. We must all learn to look seven generations ahead and think about the conditions of those to come.
Elmer Courchene Aug 16, 1936 – Dec 05, 2018
Elder Courchene was fluent in Ojibwe and English. His first educators were his parents until the age of five, when he was sent to the Fort Alexander Residential School where he received education until Grade 8. He travelled, working in several fields as a Tradesman, Labourer and General Contractor. Traditionally practicing Anishinaabe customs, Elder Courchene was a pipe carrier and sundancer, and helped at traditional ceremonies. He was instrumental during the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (precursor to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) in the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. He participated in discussions of the 1969 White Paper, Wahbung: Our Tomorrows that included the movement of Indian Control of Indian Education, with his home community being the pilot to transfer administrative control from the federal government to the First Nations government. As well, he became Advisor to Chief and Council for several years. In 1997, Elder Courchene served as the Elder Advisor and Spiritual Giver to then National Chief Phil Fontaine at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). Elder Courchene sat as the Manitoba Elder representative to the AFN Senator Council. Most recently, Elder Courchene served as the Elder Advisor to the AMC Executive Council of Chiefs and to the TRCM Council of Elders.