Georges Henry Erasmus

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Georges Henry Erasmus

Canadian Native American leader Georges Erasmus (born 1948) was an outspoken proponent of self-determination for the native peoples of Canada. He served as president of the Dene Nation and of the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories and later as vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a national organization representing Canada's status Indians.

Georges Henry Erasmus was born August 8, 1948, at Fort Rae, Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. His family moved to Yellowknife, NWT, when he was one year old; he was educated at the Catholic high school there. He was a member of the Dene, the Athapaskan-speaking peoples who have lived for centuries in the Mackenzie Valley and Barren Grounds of the NWT.

Erasmus has been described as "the personification of his people's demands for self-determination." As a charismatic leader with a talent for clear, impassioned oratory, Erasmus rose quickly to prominence. His political involvement began in the late 1960s with the Company of Young Canadians, where he developed organizational skills as well as a radical political stance that made his transition to the larger political scene a controversial one.

Erasmus' life and career cannot be understood without some knowledge of the history of the Dene and their relationship with the government of Canada. In the late 18th and the 19th centuries, the Dene participated in the fur trade while maintaining control over their lands. Increasing knowledge of the mineral resources of their lands, dramatized by the discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896, brought profound changes. As prospectors poured in, the government of Canada hastily drew up Treaty No. 8, covering parts of northern British Columbia and Alberta and the NWT up to Great Slave Lake. Similarly, the discovery of extensive oil fields led in 1921 to a second treaty, No. 11, covering a large area of the NWT north of Great Slave Lake. The Dene way of life was threatened by rapidly increasing populations that brought European diseases and extensive economic and social dislocation.

The desire of the Dene to reassert their culture and to reclaim sovereignty over their lands shaped Erasmus' career. Unlike the government, which asserted for years that the treaties extinguished their title to the land, the Dene see the treaties as peace and friendship agreements. In 1970 the Indian Brotherhood of the NWT (IBNWT) was formed to address Dene concerns about Treaties 8 and 11. Erasmus was active in the IBNWT from the beginning, first as director of community development, later as president of the brotherhood and its successor organization, the Dene Nation, formed in 1978. The government of Canada introduced in 1973 a policy allowing aboriginal peoples to negotiate land claims, a belated recognition that aboriginal rights do exist. The next year the Dene started the lengthy, difficult, frustrating business of negotiating their claim to 450,000 square miles of the NWT. During these years Erasmus articulated a view of the Dene as a colonized people who had never given up their sovereignty to the dominant power. This theme of the right of self-determination, or self-government, supported by an adequate land base, is reflected in the Dene Declaration of 1975. It forms a constant theme through Erasmus' writings and public statements.

Erasmus was involved heavily in the claims process. Seeking a consensus in the traditional manner, representatives from the 25 Dene communities in the Mackenzie Valley and IBNWT leaders met a number of times to work out the wording of the claim. An on-going problem for Erasmus as IBNWT president was the issue of unity, both within the IBNWT, which tended to split along moderate/radical lines, and among the aboriginal peoples of the Mackenzie Valley. The Dene, most of whom were status Indians registered under the federal Indian Act, and the Métis, nonstatus people of mixed native and European background, presented separate claims to the federal government, which insisted that they reach consensus on a single claim. This requirement does not reflect the differences in needs and goals of the various native groups. Also, government offers involving millions of dollars and limited rights in return for the land have been turned down because they fail to include the fundamental right of self-determination.

In the mid-1970s resource development and the issue of Dene land rights entered a collision course. In 1975 the government established an inquiry, headed by Judge Thomas Berger, that held extensive hearings into the Mackenzie Valley pipeline proposal, a plan to ship natural gas from the Arctic Ocean to Alberta. Erasmus and many other witnesses gave the inquiry a clear message: no further resource development until the Dene land claim was settled. Berger recommended a ten-year moratorium on development to allow time for the settlement of the Dene claim. This time passed, and the claim was still unsettled.

When land claims negotiations ground to a halt in 1983, a tired Erasmus stepped down as president of the Dene Nation. He was not inactive for long, however. Shortly after resigning, Erasmus became northern vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), founded in 1980 as a national organization representing the interests of Canada's status Indians. He was elected national chief on July 30, 1985, a position he held until 1991.

The AFN takes an active role in many issues affecting Canada's native peoples, including health and welfare, education, child care, prison conditions, unemployment, economic development, and funding for native media. It lobbies both the federal government and the United Nations. As national chief, Erasmus was senior spokesperson for the AFN on many of these issues. He was also active with Indigenous Survival International, an organization set up to counter the anti-fur movement that has created serious economic difficulties for aboriginal trappers. But the achievement of self-determination is the fundamental goal for Erasmus and the AFN. In the 1980s and 1990s, this issue has led to considerable debate over the position of native peoples in Canada's Constitution. The AFN represented native peoples at a series of First Ministers' Conferences held between 1983 and 1987. Erasmus was deeply involved in this process, and its failure to place clearly in the Constitution an aboriginal right of self-government was deeply disappointing.

Erasmus was invited to participate in a special committee planning Canada's 1992 celebrations of 125 years of confederation. After years of struggle, there was little to celebrate, Erasmus told the committee, for native Canadians were still at the bottom of the economic and social order. His understandable disappointment was tempered by a stubborn optimism that eventually the rights and claims of native peoples would receive just recognition.

Erasmus has been awarded many honors, including appointment to the Order of Canada in 1987. He has received honorary degrees from Queen's University, University of Toronto, University of Winnipeg, York University, and University of British Columbia. Erasmus is also a published writer, having co-authored Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country.

Further Reading

There are no major books or articles about Georges Erasmus as yet, but a good deal has been written about the Dene and the issues they face. An extensive inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley pipeline resulted in the two-volume Berger Report, officially titled Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1977). A selection of these testimonies has been edited by Mel Watkins and published as Dene Nation: the colony within (Toronto: 1977). Moratorium: Justice, Energy, the North, and the Native People (Toronto: 1977) by High and Karmel McCullum and John Olthuis is a sympathetic analysis of the problems inherent in reconciling the conflicting claims to the resources of the north. The documentary history of Treaties 8 and 11 has been assembled by René Fumoleau in As Long as This Land Shall Last (Toronto: 1973). Fumoleau also contributed the photographs in the amply illustrated Denendeh: A Dene Celebration (1984). Those who want to know more about the traditions of the Dene can turn to When the World Was New: Stories of the Sahtu Dene, edited by Dene elder George Blondin (Yellowknife, Northwest Territories: 1990). Native publications such as Windspeaker, Kahtou, and the Dene Nation Newsletter contain valuable information; articles can be located through various periodical indexes.

Georges Erasmus contributed to a number of books. Dene Nation includes his statement "We the Dene." He wrote a lengthy introduction to Drumbeat, a volume published in 1990 by the Assembly of First Nations in which native leaders tell their own stories about their struggles for justice. Larry Krotz interviewed Erasmus for a chapter in Krotz' book, Indian Country: Inside Another Canada (Toronto: 1990). □

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Georges Henry Erasmus

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