When Russell Diabo was a 16-year-old Kahnawake Mohawk living in Pennsylvania, he became captivated by an American Indian Movement march on Washington, D.C.
It was the culmination of a cross-country journey known as the Trail of Broken Treaties, resulting in an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters.
“I hitchhiked down to see what was going on,” Diabo recalled in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “When I got there…the building had been trashed and graffiti was painted over the walls.”
The next year, Diabo travelled to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where AIM leaders and Oglala Lakota members staged a 71-day occupation of the town.
These tumultuous events ignited Diabo’s lifelong interest in researching First Nations history and understanding the ways in which governments have suppressed Indigenous peoples on both sides of the border.
He became a scholar, studying at several universities, and he later worked for the National Indian Brotherhood, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Interior Alliance of B.C. Indigenous Nations, among other organizations.
Almost 46 years removed from the Trail of Broken Treaties and Diabo is one of four Indigenous people running against incumbent Perry Bellegarde to become national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
The other candidates are former CBC and CTV broadcaster and Grand Chief Sheila North, former Haida Nation president Miles Richardson, and former Manitoba AFN regional chief Katherine Whitecloud. The election will take place on Wednesday (July 25) at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Diabo is the radical in the race, claiming that under Bellegarde the AFN has been “weaponized” by the Trudeau government against the interests of Indigenous people.
It’s a remarkable turn for Diabo, who was once the vice president of policy for the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission of the Liberal Party of Canada and who advised the ruling party in 1993 on its Aboriginal platform.
Trudeau accused of recolonizing
Diabo described the Trudeau government’s 10 principles regarding its relationship with Indigenous peoples as “10 principles to recolonize us”.
And he claimed that Trudeau and his government are merely implementing the agenda of his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, whose controversial 1969 white paper aimed to assimilate all Aboriginal people into the Canadian state and abolish all treaties.
“They want to convert bands into municipalities and reserves into private property,” Diabo alleged. “That’s the objective.”
When asked how this is taking place, Diabo launched into a detailed dissertation, touching on everything from the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 to the illegitimacy of post-1990 Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence to the objectives behind Ottawa’s comprehensive-land-claims policy.
He maintained that the Trudeau government’s 10 principles are based, in part, on the doctrine of discovery, which European colonizers invoked to seize lands already occupied by Indigenous peoples.
He added that these principles are preconditions guiding upcoming legislation that will affect First Nations.
Diabo also claimed that the Liberal government is going to use that doctrine to assert its sovereignty and territorial integrity over the land.
This is despite the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ recommendation that the government stop citing the doctrine of discovery and terra nullius—Latin for “nobody’s land”—to back up the Crown’s assertions.
“Yet they’re cherry-picking other recommendations from the royal commission, like dissolving the Department of Indian Affairs and creating two new federal departments,” he noted.
The Constitution Act, 1982, recognized and affirmed existing treaty rights, including “rights that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired”.
Sections 37 and 37.1, which have since been repealed, called for constitutional conferences that would define the scope and meaning of Aboriginal treaty rights.
According to Diabo, premiers and former prime minister Brian Mulroney “ran out the clock arguing whether self-government was an inherent right or a conditional right depending on agreements with Crown governments”.
“The national Aboriginal organizations said, ‘No, it’s an inherent right. It’s already in the Constitution; it’s already an existing Aboriginal right,’ ” Diabo said. “The premiers and the prime minister said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to reach agreement with us.’ ”
In the absence of an agreement, the Supreme Court of Canada began interpreting Aboriginal rights under the Constitution, starting with the Sparrow decision in 1990.
But Diabo insisted that judges on the country’s top court are in a “conflict of interest” because they’ve accepted that underlying title belongs to the Crown, even in the landmark 2014 Tsilhqot’in ruling.
“That’s based on the doctrine of discovery,” he said. “They’re maintaining that legal position.”
He also claimed that the court’s actions fall short of the international standard for Indigenous human rights, including the right to self-determination.
In fact, Article 3 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that this right exists.
Diabo pushed for change within Liberal party
From 1990 to 1994, Diabo tried to convince then Liberal leader Jean Chrétien to accept the inherent right to self-government.
His party promised in 1993 that a Liberal government would act on the premise that self-government was already recognized in the Constitution.
And in 1995, the Liberal government under Chrétien began negotiating with bands for self-government.
“But that policy has preconditions to it, which amount to basically agreeing to become municipalities,” Diabo said.
One of Diabo’s intellectual influences over the years was Arthur Manuel, the B.C.–based former president of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and the National Indian Brotherhood (now the AFN) who died in 2017.
Diabo and Manuel have both argued that a key aspect of the comprehensive-claims policy is placing the burden of proof on First Nations.
This forces them to borrow massive amounts of money to conduct the necessary research to prove their arguments.
Rising debt loads then impose pressure on elected band councils to settle for less than that to which they are legally entitled.
“The purpose of the policy is to extinguish Aboriginal title, which my friend Art Manuel equated to the evil of slavery,” Diabo insisted. “How can you ask Indigenous peoples to give up their birthright in exchange for recognized rights?”
Candidate opposes Kinder Morgan pipeline
Diabo suspects that the federal government is sharing its plans with the premiers, including B.C.'s John Horgan.
"They disagree on the [Kinder Morgan] pipeline but they're definitely working together on terminating aboriginal title," Diabo stated. "I just want to make the point that Justin Trudeau is implementing his father's policies."
He also maintained that Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is playing a central role in the government's legislative agenda. She's a former B.C. regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations.
Diabo claimed that the other key players are Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and the clerk of the privy council, Michael Wernick.
Wernick was the deputy minister for the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development for nine years when the Conservatives controlled the government.
"His fingerprints, as far as I'm concerned, are all over what Trudeau is doing," Diabo said, "because he knows basically all the leaders across the country. He knows the funding and he knows how to get the results, using the federal funding, that he wants."
And according to Diabo, the feds know that because they hold the purse strings, they have a good chance of forcing their agenda through unless there's a strong response from the Assembly of First Nations.
Diabo is a vocal opponent of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which the Trudeau government is buying in a deal that will close next month.
And Diabo said if he wins the election as the next Assembly of First Nations national chief, he will tell Trudeau that the organization is "putting the brakes on support for his legislative agenda".
"He has 11 bills that are either in Parliament or are being introduced into Parliament that affect Indigneous rights," Diabo declared. "AFN hasn't done any critical analysis of the 10 principles, the implications of dissolving Indian Affairs, and restructuring the machinery of government...
"In fact, I would be organizing the chiefs that support me and the people to mobilize against Ottawa if they insisted on continuing," he added. "I would definitely mobilize the leadership and the people to be active. We would stop it."