A conversation with Bob Lovelace
Bob Lovelace, former chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and Queen's University professor, is serving a six-month sentence for refusing to promise to obey a court injunction forbidding protests against a uranium exploration company that has staked claims across 30,000 acres of traditional territory. Six members of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (Big Trout Lake) First Nation have also been sentenced to six months in jail in Thunder Bay for opposing mining exploration.
Lovelace was interviewed by phone from the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario.
Indian Country Today: You were born and raised in the United States. How did you become a member of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation?
Bob Lovelace: I'm 60 years old; it's been a long journey. When I was a youngster, my mother and grandfather, they're Cherokee, and they raised me with an understanding of my aboriginal roots. We were always called part-Indian. My mother sent me to cultural school when I was a child, so I learned quite a bit from other people, from older people.
When I got older, I went to college and university. But in my early 20s I had come to Canada. I was a draft resister during the 1960s, and in '69 came to Canada.
ICT: Why were you a draft resister?
Lovelace: My father had always promoted being part of the military, had always hoped that both his sons would join the Army as he had. It was during the period of the Vietnam War. At first I was quite enthusiastic about that type of thing - but as I looked at what was happening to Indian people in the States and in Canada, and the effects of colonialism in what was happening across the world, I changed my point of view. I was also influenced a lot by Martin Luther King [Jr.] and the nonviolence movement.
ICT: So you ended up in Canada.
Lovelace: Yes. I spent several years in Ottawa and I met a friend who invited me up to a farm he had just bought. And I did some work on the farm and I realized there were other Indian people around and I got to know them. As our relationship grew, I guess it was about 1979 or '80 that Harold Perry, one of our elders, came to my house and asked me if I would help him and we started fighting to preserve the wild rice in our area.
ICT: What was happening there?
Lovelace: Ontario had given away the license of our wild rice stands to a non-Native commercial harvester. In 1981, after we had won a hearing in which the government was told they couldn't give commercial harvesting rights to a non-aboriginal person, they reversed that decision and gave the permit away to a commercial harvester. The whole community decided it was time to say no, and we manned a blockade during the entire season when rice was ripe and was harvestable. And for 27 days we kept the province out of the territory.
ICT: Did they cave in?
Lovelace: In the end, after about a year of haggling. At one point, they had raided the community with 50 police cruisers and hundreds of OPP officers, helicopters - they were unable to get the rice harvester on the lake. ... So they finally backed off and they haven't bothered us since about the rice.
ICT: You had a close relationship with elder Harold Perry.
Lovelace: Harold is the man I admire most in life. He is a self-made man; as a child, he grew up in poverty and a great deal of prejudice. We live in an integrated community, so he grew up with a lot of prejudice around him. He saw some of the worst of those things. He saw the [Department of] Lands and Forests come in and burn his relatives' houses, he saw children being picked up by the Family and Children's Services and taken to be indentured on farms in the south of the county, he saw horrible things.
When he was 14, he went to Toronto to get a high school education and he was refused entry into school because he was an Indian. But that didn't stop him - he went to night school, he got several trade licenses. Then he came back and started building and became a very respected builder in the area.
ICT: He was the reason that you became part of the Ardoch Algonquins?
Lovelace: Yes. After the rice war, he felt that I had contributed quite a bit and had asked me a number of times if I would consider being adopted. I would always say I'm proud of my Cherokee roots and I don't need to be adopted to feel part of the community. But after he asked me about 10 times, it got to the point where I realized I was actually being disrespectful. And so, I think it was in the early '90s, there was an adoption ceremony on the beach in Sharbot Lake and the community came out, and it was really a great experience.
ICT: You were chief negotiator for the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation on the uranium mining issue. What's your view of the provincial government's dealings?
Lovelace: You know, the longer I sit in here, and the longer I think about these things, it irks me that really great minds of this generation have been wasted and just squandered on a relationship where colonialism runs the show. We can't have real good negotiations to settle issues because the government of Ontario and the government of Canada simply want to limit their liability. They don't want to respect aboriginal rights; the government of Ontario hires hundreds of lawyers and academics to discredit aboriginal claims.
ICT: When you say some of the best minds have been wasted, you're talking about aboriginal people?
Lovelace: On both sides - I've seen non-Native people just waste their careers trying to untie a Gordian knot. They're working in an adversarial system. And instead of working in an adversarial system, they should be trying to solve the problem.
ICT: Premier Dalton McGuinty says that in court, the government opposed the incarceration of the KI Six. In your case, is that the role the government played?
Lovelace: No, absolutely not. The province sat back and allowed a corporation to prosecute both the guys from Big Trout and myself. ... They never once spoke out against a prison sentence. McGuinty is wrong. I look at what's being said in the paper these days between Mike Gravelle, the minister of Northern Development and Mines, and Michael Bryant, the minister of Aboriginal Affairs, and what's said by the premier - it's a cabinet that's either immensely divided, or they're just playing a ruse that none of them will say the same thing so that no one will understand what the problem is.
ICT: They say they want to reform the Mining Act. Do you see that happening?
Lovelace: The Mining Act is a colonial law. It's a law that belongs to Ontario. Aboriginal people can have input into that; but in the long run, ultimately, it's Ontario's responsibility. And they can either reform it with an idea to end its colonial effect on aboriginal people, or they can amend it in such a way as to be an excuse for that colonial strategy. They will amend it because public relations demands it.
ICT: You're getting support from a wide range of people and groups. Is there a confluence here between aboriginal and non-aboriginal interests?
Lovelace: I think that things like the protection of the environment bring people together. I think that we all have an innate sort of indigenous belief that we have responsibilities to the Earth, whether we're aboriginal or not. And I also think that many Canadians are fed up with colonialism. I think a lot of Canadians are sick to death of having enjoyed advantages because of the suffering of others. There's a moral uncertainty that goes with that and I don't think they want to pass that on to their children and grandchildren.
ICT: There is a section within the aboriginal community that doesn't support the Ardoch Algonquins because they don't have status under the Indian Act. What do you say to them?
Lovelace: I'm disappointed. I have some understanding, but I'm disappointed. I feel the Indian people aren't defined by blood quantum, they're not defined by the shade of their skin. We're not defined by the Indian Act, not in our own laws and not in our own customs. We're defined by our family and our clans and our communities that we live with. I don't spend a lot of energy worrying about it. ... But I do think it's time that people stopped letting colonial authorities and definitions divide us.
ICT: Any other point you'd like to make?
Lovelace: I think it really is time that aboriginal people stand up. I believe in non-violence and I'll never counsel anyone to take up arms against the government or colonial activists, but I really do encourage people to stand up. It's time to challenge the underlying foundation of colonialism; it's the only way things will change.
ICT: You stood up and you're in jail now. Do you know when you're going to get out?
Lovelace: I'm not sure. I have to appear on another set of contempt charges June 2. My release date on this charge is the 15th of August; but if there's still a threat to my community, I'll still be standing up and opposing the court injunction to allow the mining company in.
I'm hoping that on May 28, which is the date that's been set for an appeal of the sentencing for the KI Six - for the guys in Big Trout Lake and myself - I'm hoping that that will go well and that the appellate court will send the government and Judge [Douglas] Cunningham a very clear message that the sentences were inappropriate.
ICT: They certainly are punitive; and you also face a $25,000 fine. How does it feel to have this load on you?
Lovelace: Small price to pay for your conscience.