Georges Henry Erasmus has been a central figure in local, regional, national, and international Aboriginal politics since the early 1970s. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1987. Criticized by some for being too abrasive and by others for being too conciliatory, Erasmus has also been referred to as Canada's "Eleventh Premier," in recognition of the distinction and reach of his leadership, particularly in the area of Aboriginal self-government and constitutional reform.
Throughout Erasmus's career, his work has reflected a broad spectrum of concerns including the social, environmental, cultural, educational, and political. He is the Canadian delegate to the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and has served on the boards of the World Wildlife Fund of Canada, Operation Dismantle, Energy Probe Research Foundation, and other environmental and human rights organizations. In 1998, Erasmus received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Public Service. He is currently president and chair of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Perhaps the major role of his distinguished career was his appointment in 1991 as co-chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which issued its final report in 1996. Amidst continuing debate, the Commission's findings are gradually (and variously) being implemented in Canadian policy. One of the effects of the Commission hearings and final report was the federal government's issuance of a formal apology for the widespread abuse that Aboriginal people experienced in residential schools.
The significance of the Commission's works also includes development of a government strategy titled "Gathering Strength," aimed at addressing economic and social concerns of Aboriginal peoples, and creation of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, whose board Erasmus chaired. Its mandate was designed to address the disastrous effects of misguided social programs on Aboriginal people, such as the removal of children from their families and communities to government- or religious-run residential schools, the physical and sexual abuse that many students endured in those schools, and the effects of other assimilationist programs on language, culture, and community. A number of pivotal agreements, court decisions, and land claim settlements between government and First Nations—and the agreements (one political, the other a land claim settlement) creating Nunavut Territory— have also followed. While not specifically attributable to the Commission, they were undoubtedly spurred and probably hastened by its work.
Erasmus's talent for leadership was recognized early on. While still in his twenties, he served on the Yellowknife Band Council, cofounded and directed the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre, and from 1971 to 1975 served as president of University Canada North. He headed the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories, which became the Dene Nation—for which he served as president from 1976 to 1983, the year he became founding president of the Denendeh Development Corporation. The crowning achievement of his seven-year term with the Dene Nation was his successful campaign against the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and the environmental hazards the Alaska Pipeline posed for the Canadian Western Arctic. Erasmus's articulate and passionate presentations to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry led to his election in 1985 as the first National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), a position he held for two three-year terms.
Erasmus's work on behalf of the AFN raised his national and international profile, which continued to increase as he played a key part in negotiations and public communication during the "Oka Crisis" involving local, Québec, and federal governments and Mohawk people. He laid much of the groundwork for developing policy on self-government for Canada's First Nations, participating in several First Ministers' conferences on constitutional reform. His position as national spokesperson has continued to be both respected and challenged. His ability to communicate Aboriginal concerns to a wide range of people has been seen as both asset and liability.
Similarly, some critics have praised the scope of his vision in integrating Aboriginal concerns in a global political and environmental context, while others have criticized him for losing focus, or for citing too unques-tioningly the successes of other countries. For example, at a three-day Self-Determination Symposium held in Toronto in 1990, Erasmus voiced an Amerindian vision of a new order characterized by "sharing, recognition, and affirmation"(Dickason, 1992: 416). He was sharply critical of Canada and uncritical of the United
States, which he praised unequivocally for being "comfortable with recognizing that tribal peoples.. .have the right to govern themselves in many areas. we have problems getting the government to even mouth the words 'nation to nation." (Dickason, 1992: 416, 519). To suggest that the United States has a more enlightened policy, without qualifying or explaining that assertion, requires ignoring much of America's history. In 1998, Erasmus called for government action, warning that if the problems facing Aboriginal people were not addressed, the next generation would be more militant. In the introduction to his 1989 book Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country, he articulated both his anger and his determination to counter the colonial inheritance: ". for generations, Canadian governments have treated us as a disappearing race, and have administered us accordingly. 'I want to get rid of the Indian problem,' Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott told the House of Commons in the early 1920s.' Before a quarter of a century is gone, perhaps, the savages will be no more than a memory! wrote a Québec civil servant in 1897.. .We native people have been subject to such reasoning throughout our history. Yet, we have not disappeared; we have survived." (Erasmus, 1989: 11).
Twelve years later, a year after the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was released, Erasmus addressed a conference at McGill University's Institute for the Study of Canada. The report recommended creating an Aboriginal parliament and an independent land claims tribunal. Erasmus stated, "We see Canada in the 21st century as a single nation state within which about 60 Aboriginal nations would exercise jurisdiction and law-making authority over a wide range of instruments of governance, on a renegotiated and, in most cases, extended land base. Aboriginal people would be citizens of their nations and of Canada" (McGill Reporter, 1997: 2).
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