Working with Aboriginal Nations


Betty first learned about the Native experience in Canada when she was asked to represent the Society of Friends (Quakers) on Project North, a well-known interchurch group that focused on Aboriginal justice (now called the Aboriginal Rights Coalition). She soon realized that this was the Canadian equivalent of the Black struggle in the States that she had been involved in for 20 years.

Her first major encounter was in northern Labrador with the Innu First Nation in Sheshatshiu near the great Goose Bay Air Base where North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries were conducting flight training. Low-flying planes were creating panic among the Innu families on their seasonal forays into traditional hunting grounds where they sought caribou and medicines. Betty’s group was asked by the Innu leaders to return home and spread the word about what was happening. So Betty spent the next 10 years (1985-95) speaking in Atlantic Canada and elsewhere about the Innu problems and seeking support from other organizations such as VOW. Together, they helped bring Innu leaders to Halifax for speeches, protest marches, and key public meetings – even when NATO ministers officially met in Halifax. The Innu cause became well-known to Canadians via the media, and local, national, and NATO governments were pressured. In the early 1990s, VOW received a federal grant to do research on the impacts of low-flying NATO planes on Innu women and children. Although the research brief was presented to the Federal Environment Assessment Review Office, the Innu case was lost, but the military eventually moved elsewhere and the base was closed.

During this process, Betty made six trips to Innu land, tent camping with new friends, particularly Elizabeth Penashue, a now famous speaker and protagonist for her people and their land. To this day the friendships continue and Betty treasures her Innu name, Kukuminash which means “old lady with a hug”.

The Quakers asked Betty and an activist colleague to go to the Lubicon Lake Band country near Peace River, Alberta at the invitation of Chief Bernard Ominayak to join in a protest. In 1988, giant trucks with oil exploration equipment were crowding the narrow dirt road through the Lubicon Band’s village, felling trees and breaking trap lines in their traditional forests.

We participated in nonviolence training beforehand in case of possible outbreaks of violence, either by protesters or the RCMP, and prepared ourselves for several weeks. We were greeted jovially by the Chief, who said, “Well, are these the Rambo Quakers?”, which broke the ice, Quakers being well-known for their peaceful non-violence. We soon realized that they were good-natured, peaceful people, yet absolutely determined to stand their ground, many coming from across Canada in support. Each day, we few sat blockading the single dirt road and slept in our tents by night. Some nights later, we were suddenly awakened and ambushed by the RCMP in full regalia including rifles. As we refused to leave the road, we were hauled off to jail in Peace River and booked. In the cells, we sang ourselves hoarse all night to keep up our spirits. Upon release next day, we were returned to the village as heroes and given an honorary feast with drumming. The Chief declared me to be “Rambo Granny of the Lubicon.” Days later, after the Premier’s promise of land rights settlement, we returned to our respective homes to be on call for a future trial, but our charges were later dropped with promises of negotiation. But negotiations went nowhere between the Federal and Provincial governments, and today, 23 years later, Lubicon land is known as Tar Sands II.

Betty’s memory of experiences such as this episode with Native friends is enduring and strong: “Their wisdom, courage, and determination have long inspired me,” she says of the lessons learned from the Haida, the Lubicon, the Innu, and the Mi’kmaq Nations. In September 2007, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was finally adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, a victory for Aboriginal people worldwide. And while the long-awaited Apology for the Residential Schools from the Prime Minister of Canada in 2008 was a milestone, Betty believes that words can mean little without solid action to substantially improve living conditions. In the case of First Nations, such action would include honoring the treaties, residential school settlements, Truth and Reconciliation circles, and the restoration of hope with creation of equal opportunities and justice.