MTL Goddard Book Review

Lubicon Lake Indian Nation
Little Buffalo Lake, AB
FAX: 403-629-3939

Mailing address:
3536 - 106 Street
Edmonton, AB T6J 1A4
FAX: 403-437-0719

March 11, 1992

Enclosed for your information is a copy of a review on John Goddard's Lubicon book not written by Sleazy Bob (Coulter) and Goose-Step (Lorne) Gunter.

MTL, March 1992


Another book the government didn't want you to read:

Montreal journalist John Goddard's powerful account of the Lubicon Indians and their fight for survival

By Joel Yanofsky

When the Mohawk barricades went up at Oka in the summer of 1990, John Goddard was holed up too, in his home in Outremont, finishing LAST STAND OF THE LUBICON CREE -- a book in which he'd already invested three years of his life and most of his savings.

"But it was still hard for me to focus on my own writing when there was so much action going on here," the 41-year-old Goddard says over lunch at a St. Laurent Street cafe. "I wish I could have brought in the events at Oka, but I also knew I had to maintain the very specific time frame of the Lubicon story."

Staying in focus has turned out to be Goddard's most valuable asset. In one form or another, he's been covering the Lubicon story for the last eight years.

When Goddard committed himself to working on the book (his first) full-time in 1987, native issues weren't fashionable. And even when they were in the news -- during the Oka crisis, for example -- Goddard kept hearing the same thing: it's too bad the book isn't out now.

His research has also been routinely blocked by the government. As recently as last October -- just a few weeks prior to the book's publication -- the Department of Indian Affairs was circulating directives prohibiting its staff from responding to any request by Goddard.

"The truth is I felt quite alone a lot of the time. When the government was giving me a hard time, I often wished I had an office to go to or an organization to back me up."

The Lubicon are a small band -- no more than 500 people at any one time -- living in the remotest region in Northern Alberta. Their struggle to control their own land and lives, movingly documented in Goddard's book, has been going on for more than 40 years with little success and, until now, less publicity. With the discovery of oil in the area in the early 1980s, the Lubicon fight not only seemed hopeless, it looked like it would be over quickly.

Bernard Ominayak, the shy, stubborn Lubicon chief and the hero of Goddard's book, single-handedly stalled the inevitable. Ominayak brought his people's cause to international attention, boycotting the 1988 Calgary Olympics and enlisting the support of the United Nations. But once the Olympics were over, media and public interest disappeared.

Goddard didn't disappear -- even after his original publisher, Macmillan, dumped him two years into the project, even after everyone he knew kept telling him he was wasting his time.

Goddard isn't saying, "I told you so" now, but he could. Published by Douglas and McIntyre in November, LAST STAND OF THE LUBICON CREE sold out its first printing in three weeks. A second printing is scheduled for February. The majority of the reviews have been positive and Goddard has been invited to speak at several universities, including Harvard.

But the enthusiastic reception from native people has been more gratifying than anything else for Goddard. Native leaders like Ovide Mercredi have praised the book in public; other leaders have recommended that it be added to Canadian high schools and college curricula.

What native leaders and most reviewers have spotted in LAST STAND OF THE LUBICON CREE is a tragic case study of what happens when native interests come up against government interests. Goddard's book is a solidly researched work of investigative journalist; it's also a powerful metaphor for a historic pattern of institutionalized neglect and abuse.

"I believed this was a good story and I stuck with it for a lot of reasons: the personalities involved, the simplicity of the case and the starkness of the injustice. I like to think my instincts have been vindicated. But I also know that if it were not for Oka, this story could very easily have gone nowhere. The political climate and timing has turned out to be perfect."

Maybe so. But good timing and dumb luck are not the same thing. Goddard, who's lived in Montreal since 1978, has demonstrated a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He was in Zimbabwe in 1979 to cover the transition to black majority rule for the Canadian Press; a year later he was in Tehran for the release of the American hostages.

Ironically, high-profile assignments in the world's hottest spots could not offer Goddard what Lubicon Lake -- a singularly cold spot -- could: the chance to make an old wish come true.

"One of my favorite movies is Lawrence of Arabia because I've always envied that American reporter who was there when Lawrence was just starting out. I realized not too far into this book that I had a similar opportunity. There were no reporters around when the buffalo were disappearing or native society was being eroded and I was bearing witness to the same process in microcosm.

"In eight years I've seen it all: displacement from the land, the outbreak of diseases like tuberculosis, the beginning of social breakdown (the Lubicon recorded their first suicide in 1988). It was like watching Native American history in a nutshell. As a reporter, it was an opportunity I just couldn't pass up."

With that opportunity came some things Goddard hadn't bargained for -- including unexpected insight into his own prejudices.

"When I first went into the Lubicon community I secretly believed I was in a better position to solve the Lubicon's problems for them than they were. At a deep, fundamental level I did not consider native people my equal and it shocked me."

It also shocked Goddard to discover that the feelings he was struggling with mirrored a national superiority complex: "It took me a long time to see that this is the continuation of a deliberate process, a colonial mentality.

"I don't see where we've made much progress, where we've ever said we've got to stop dealing with native issues in this way. In fact, I believe as much native culture is being lost now as 100 years ago."

Goddard's book doesn't have a happy ending -- the Lubicon situation is more desperate now than ever -- and it doesn't solve any of the Lubicon's problems. Instead, it exposes our own.

"The Lubicon are trapped by history, but so are we," Goddard says. "The book touches on one of the great unspoken issues in this country: the investment Canadians have made in thinking of ourselves as good people and Canada as a good country where this kind of injustice could not be tolerated."