Canada's great native uprising


National Post - Wednesday December 7th, 2011

 , National Post · Dec. 7, 2011 | Last Updated: Dec. 7, 2011 5:13 AM ET

One of my most enduring political memories occurred during the 1995 referendum campaign. The 16,000 Cree Indians in and around James Bay illuminated their resistance to Quebec's separation from Canada with a reminder that the fate of Quebec's remote, undefended (and indefensible) hydro-electric facilities was theirs to command. Their not-so-veiled threat awoke me to the obvious fact that Canada's great territorial mass, a bulwark against external menace, also makes it vulnerable to domestic insurgents.

Most of Canada's energy and transportation hubs run through native lands. Revanchist natives sometimes taunt Canadians with merely inconvenient road and rail blockades; yet these also semaphore the real economic disaster they could inflict on us if they chose to wage an actual sustained campaign of violence and disruption. Covert, sometimes overt, intimations of an approaching crisis speckle the discourse. Recently, for example, Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said, "Canadian society must heal the damage caused by the Indian residential school system or deal with the violence that will be undoubtedly unleashed against it."

It seems the more money that is thrown at native problems, the more resentment over past injustices grows, which in turn leads to contests over ungoverned spaces. When that happens, natives are treated with kid gloves. Former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino, for instance, admits that he backed off from confronting natives decisively in the Caledonia, Ont. fiasco because, otherwise, "we'll have an uprising across the country."

An uprising. Most Canadians would prefer not to imagine such a scenario - including those whose job it is to do so. In 2008, during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, Senator Roméo Dallaire put this question to former prime minister Paul Martin: "Is the internal security risk rising as the youth see themselves more and more disenfranchised? In fact, if they ever coalesced, could they not bring this country to a standstill?" Mr. Martin's reply: "My answer, and the only one we all have, is we would hope not."

Hope not? Hope not?

It was out of frustration over Martin's - and other political leaders' - passivity on this file that Doug Bland, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Forces, now chair in defence studies at Queen's University, wrote his recently published novel, Uprising. A riveting read, the book posits a series of loosely co-ordinated, but crippling, panic-inducing strikes by native guerrillas on Canada's most vulnerable energy and transportation installations.

As someone who is knowledgeable about both military campaigns and aboriginal communities, Bland offers a detailed and plausible account of how easily Canada could be rendered dysfunctional. One critic dubbed Uprising, "the most dangerous book in Canada," a how-to manual in insurrection. But Bland waves away such criticism. The scenarios he describes in Uprising have, he says, been openly discussed amongst restless native militants, who closely scrutinize successful David vs. Goliath insurgencies elsewhere, such as what just happened in Libya.

Why do insurgencies erupt? Not because of "root causes" like poverty or dictatorship, but because they can. Bland is a disciple of the "feasibility" model articulated by Oxford scholar Paul Collier in his 2007 bestseller The Bottom Billion. In Collier's paradigm, there is high feasibility - even inevitability - of an insurgency in countries meeting the following conditions: The population is small relative to the territory; the territory is rugged and difficult to defend; a disaffected, disadvantaged group within a relatively wealthy, diverse population festers with real or perceived injustices; the alienated group has a ready supply of aggressively inclined males, aged 15-34; and the national economy is dependent on exports that move through vulnerable territory controlled by the grievance group. Canada rates very high on this scale.

Insurgencies are set off by accidents or policy errors, with leaders arising organically during the action, as they did in Hungary in 1956. Bland warns it is a mistake to imagine that scattered native gangs are ineffective against national forces. If the 33 reserves in northern Manitoba collaborated in blockading the single highway to Flin Flon in order to paralyze the mining industry, they initially would have to deal with only 40 RCMP.

Insurgencies may be inevitable in some cases, but their success is never assured. Much depends on the political leadership of the time. When faced with a potential insurgency in Quebec, Pierre Elliot Trudeau did not "hope" it would go away. Bland well remembers his own military stint in Quebec during the FLQ crisis, and the enormous human and material resources - two Quebec-based brigades plus the airborne from Edmonton - dedicated to protecting hydro and other infrastructure.

The FLQ were just a ragtag bunch of anarchists, but Trudeau understood that contagion is the great danger: A lit match can become a raging forest fire within hours. Uprising is a valuable book for a country whose leaders have forgotten this lesson.

bkay@videotron.ca