From Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call. Published by Between the Lines in 2015. Unsettling Canada won the 2016 Canadian Historical Association Aboriginal History Book Prize. Manuel was a member of the Neskonlith Indian Band of the Secwepemc Nation and the spokesperson for the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade. IAA stands for Indian Association of Alberta.
During the meeting, I was not shy in speaking out and, somehow, when the election for a new Youth Association president was called, I ended up elected to the post. I think the group wanted to shed its university student image and engage more at the street level, like we had done in Alberta. In the board meeting afterward, we discussed the planned Indian Affairs takeover. After having experienced the rapid funding cut-off of the IAA in Alberta when the association had stood up to the government, I warned the board that if we took over the Department of Indian Affairs, this organization was probably finished because the government project funding we were receiving would disappear.
The board was undeterred by this, and so was I. When you find yourself clinging to an organization just to continue it in an ineffective way, you have to seriously ask yourself why. Our role was to confront unjust government policies toward our peoples, and it is impossible to do that in a way that will please government funders. This is a reality that too many of the current generation of leaders have yet to face.
The twenty-four-hour takeover was planned for mid-August 1973. A few days before the target date, we amassed 350 activists on St. Regis Island on the Akwesasne reserve, which straddles the Canada-US border near Cornwall, Ontario. At the time, we were still discussing whether we should actually go through with it, and we made it clear to all that it could be the end of our organization if we did. Some were still arguing that we should try to work with the government from the inside, but when the great majority of members rejected that idea, everyone agreed to carry out the action as planned. Late that night before heading to Ottawa, I found a pay phone and, as a courtesy, called my father, then head of the National Indian Brotherhood, to let him know what was happening. He said little, just thanked me for letting him know.
He was, of course, already well aware of what was going on. The day before, my Uncle Joe, then Neskonlith band chief, had arrived on the island after driving with some Neskonlith youth right across the country. Others have since told me that my father had asked Uncle Joe to join us and to keep an eye on things.
We crossed the river in barges before dawn and made the hour-and-a-half drive to Ottawa in a cavalcade of cars, vans, and motorcycles. We arrived at the deserted street in front of the Indian Affairs building on Laurier Avenue at sunrise, feeling the power of our numbers and our cause as we began to stream into the building. The security guard met us in the lobby, but seeing hundreds of young Indians, many carrying sleeping bags and blankets, filling the building, he took a tactful approach. He asked us politely what we were up to. We explained that we would be there for twenty-four hours and we would remain peaceful. He seemed satisfied, handed us the keys to the door, and left.
The occupation was a political act, but it also had a more practical objective. Indian Affairs was where the minutiae of our lives were controlled and where the strategies like the White Paper were hatched. Among us were some activists who well understood the importance of those files to our people, and they went to work rifling through the filing cabinets looking for specific pieces of information.
They found much of what they were looking for in the office of the assistant deputy minister, John Ciaccia, a Quebec Liberal who many believed was sent to Chrétien’s Department of Indian Affairs for schooling on how to deal with Indians before taking over the file in Quebec.
On a personal level, Ciaccia had made an impression. In contrast to their attitude toward most DIA bureaucrats, people actually liked Ciaccia as a person. Even the radical elements around my father liked him. He had set up a few progressive youth-oriented programs around the country, and at the time, my brother Bobby was working on contract on one of them. It was based in Alberta, but Bobby was in Ottawa that week and he heard about the Indian Youth Association takeover on the radio while driving to work that morning. The radio announced that the Indian Affairs building was shut down and the downtown core was cordoned off, with the building surrounded by the RCMP. With a smile on his face, Bobby turned his car around and headed back home.
Inside, the burst of busyness continued. Our people found a number of locked filing cabinets inside Ciaccia’s office. They hauled them up to the roof and began using fire axes to break off the locks.
The initial buoyant atmosphere began to recede as dozens, then hundreds, of RCMP riot squad officers amassed in front of the building with their menacing-looking helmets, shields, and clubs. Since Indian Affairs was a federal department, Minister Chrétien had been made aware of our presence as soon as we arrived, and he had immediately called in the RCMP riot squad. Inside, Dutch Lerat, our security chief, and some of our more resourceful colleagues had liberated buckets of industrial soap from the janitorial supplies. If the RCMP charged in, they said we should retreat to the second floor, block the elevators, and dump the liquid soap on the stairs to slow the police assault.
When the RCMP began to beat their shields with their clubs in that universal riot squad intimidation tactic, some of our biggest guys stood in front of the lobby to signal that we were not going to give up without a fight. It was a serious group, and we were prepared for serious consequences.
A short time later, an Ottawa police officer came to the door and yelled, “Who’s in charge? We want to talk.”
At first I was reluctant to go outside, thinking that perhaps it was a trick and I would be arrested and prevented from coming back in. I was so suspicious and, in retrospect, naïve, that it took some coaxing for the police to get me to step out to meet with them.
I was surprised when the Ottawa police chief, in his brocaded jacket, came up to speak to me. He was forthright. “You are just here for twenty-four hours, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
He nodded. “To tell you the truth, I have no problem with you being here for twenty-four hours, as long as you don’t damage property or harm anyone.”
I told him that we would be peaceful if we weren’t attacked.
“Okay,” he said. “If that’s your promise, you can stay. I’ll tell the Mounties to go home.”
Apparently there was some kind of jurisdictional issue. Chrétien had called in the RCMP to protect federal property. But it turned out that the DIA office was not a government building but private property under lease to the government. The Ottawa police chief, who was not at all happy about the RCMP’s planned rumble with hundreds of Indian kids in downtown Ottawa, told the RCMP they had no jurisdiction and forced them to move away from the building. We watched with some relief as the RCMP riot squad was moved further back and replaced by Ottawa police.
A few minutes later, we were interrupted by some kind of commotion on the upper floors of the building. An early bird Indian Affairs employee who had apparently been in the building when we arrived was waving and holding a sign that read: COME AND GET ME.
We sent someone up to tell the gentleman that he was free to leave. The police escorted the early bird away but remained on the sidewalk with their cruisers parked all along the street. Later we also saw that they had taken up positions on the surrounding rooftops, which caused another problem when the sharpshooters reported that some kids were up on the roof smashing government filing cabinets with fire axes.
The Ottawa police were at the front door again.
“You gave us your word,” they said to me, “that you would not do any damage to property. But there are kids on the roof damaging property.”
I apologized and promised we would put an end to that. Word went up to our team to get off the roof and finish whatever they had to do inside the building.
In early evening, I went back out to the police to tell them that some of our younger protesters wanted to go home and ask if they could be let through the police lines. The police agreed, and the young protesters walked through the lines with the files we had collected wrapped up in their sleeping bags. These files eventually made it, through a circuitous route, to the National Indian Brotherhood, where they provided valuable insight into past and current Indian Affairs activities.
The rest of us marched out the next day, as planned, and returned in caravan back to Akwesasne on the American side. Then we had one more protest to make, this one against the Canadian-American border that cut through our lands. When we left Akwesasne, we didn’t bother stopping at the Canadian immigration and customs booth. A posse of Canadian border police pulled in behind us and brought us to a stop a few kilometres inside the country. But when we left our cars to meet them, the lead officer, seeing our number and our determination, barked that we were to get back into our vehicles and get out of there.
I drove to Ottawa to meet with my father, proud of the courage and discipline we had displayed. I still see many of these former Youth Association people today, as they have gone on to become leaders of their nations. Although some of them, sad to say, left their sense of defiance in their youth.
As expected, the action against Indian Affairs caused the Secretary of State funding for the Youth Association to immediately dry up. We had run a youth drop-in centre in Ottawa, and we had to close it down and lay off our handful of staff. Soon our organization existed only in newspapers, where stories began to appear, no doubt placed by the Department of Indian Affairs, about visits by some of our members to places like Communist East Germany. The Department was engaged in its own little Cold War against us, one that continues today long after the wall has come down in Germany.