On January 28th Idle No More protests rallied in at least 30 Canadian cities as part of a Day of Action planned to coincide with the return of MPs to Parliament in Ottawa.
In Vancouver hundreds of First Nations marched with supporters. The People’s Summit on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project organized ways opponents could join Idle No More. They were sending a message of solidarity to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Premier Christy Clarke and Enbridge that the people of British Columbia oppose the tar sands pipelines and tankers and are willing to defend the waters, lands and coasts of their province. First Nations, the British Columbia Metis Federation, UBCM, Okanagan Valley residents, along with several local governments, marched and passed resolutions banning pipelines and opposing Enbridge.
Even in Calgary, Alberta—the heart of oil and gas interests—more than 300 INM performed a huge dance protest. In Edmonton, Alberta more than 200 people, including representatives from Greenpeace, joined activist Morning Star Mercredi in Churchill Square to protest Bill C-45 with placards, flags, drums and dancing. They asked the provincial government to diversify its economy, saying that the XL Pipeline is not the answer, even if the Nebraska governor has now okayed the pipeline.
In Regina, Saskatchewan another 300 attended an evening of music and speeches about native and environmental rights.
In Winnipeg, Manitoba 2,000 created a flash mob dance celebrating native rights.
In downtown Toronto, Ontario more than 400 gathered to protest Bill C-45. In Ottawa, the thousands of aboriginals and supporters gathered, beginning on Victoria Island, then making their way to Parliament Hill to make speeches and to dance. So as the ministers returned to Parliament, it was to the sound of drumming, dancing and cries of protest on the snowy ground outside.
In Montreal, Quebec more than 250 attended a sunrise ceremony.
In Sackville, New Brunswick natives rallied, saying they were “proud to be native” and proud to stand up for their land and future.
In Nova Scotia 500 marched from Dartmouth across the McDonald Bridge to Halifax. An entire lane of the bridge had to be closed for the peaceful march, which braved the bitter cold. Native drums beat, banners and “Stop Harper” signs waved, as the INM made its way up Citadel Hill in the wind, and then wound down to the Commons for a huge friendship dance.
The pressure Idle No More is placing on the government is beginning to work. The New Democrat Party (NDP) has a new bill which aims to force the Conservative government to respect indigenous rights, making sure future federal laws are consistent with the UN 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people. NDP MP Romeo Saganash, a veteran Cree leader and lawyer from the northern James Bay region of Quebec, helped to negotiate that UN Declaration. He states that Harper’s support for the Declaration “has proven empty” and that Harper has “failed to respect commitments to First Nations.”
Furthermore, Saganash called on the Prime Minister to recognize that his recent Budget Bill C-45 disrespects the federal government’s “constitutional obligation to consult and accommodate First Nations.”
But immediate economic development is Harper’s primary focus. He fears INM demands for environmental protection could mean a shift to ecosystem based management of Canada’s natural resources or at least obstruction of pipelines—and he’s right. That’s exactly why so many non-natives are joining the INM cause. Natives and non-natives are against Bill C-45 because it tramples on both human rights and the environment. They are concerned about the environment in the present and for future generations. They thus want Bill C-45 changed or scraped.
The National Farmers Union supports the INM movement, “The NFU is proud to declare its solidarity with INM, which is bringing people together from across Canada to stop the Harper government from riding roughshod over our collective rights.”
INM’s grassroots movement also threatens Harper because it translates into less top-down control by the government, control which has led to much corruption and mismanagement of funds allocated to First Nations.
Nevertheless, Saganash believes the UN Declaration could be a “document of reconciliation” for Canada and that respecting its principles could mean that “everybody can feel safe” because the Declaration provides a balance between economic development, environmental stewardship and social benefits.
Bob Ray of the Liberal Party agrees with INM, saying a better working relationship with First Nations is overdue. He recognizes that the poverty, unemployment, high suicide rate, housing crisis, unsafe drinking water and sub-standard schools are some of many problems afflicting natives that need to be recognized, faced and solved with the involvement of First Nations, Metis and Inuit.
The Inuit are the indigenous people of the Arctic, 53 communities spread over a massive northern geographic region. These communities are municipalities, not reserves. All but one, Inuvik, have no permanent road links to the rest of Canada. And they share most of the problems of the First Nations listed above.
In so many cases “reserve land” or Inuit municipalities are in fact mostly government land. Natives have to ask permission to do anything on their traditional land from the government. The government acts as a trustee. It is understandable that indigenous people want their land transferred back to them. They want to develop their homelands and educational systems according to their own visions. Ninety seven percent of band councils are fiscally responsible. They are capable of self-government. At the very least they need revenue sharing, financial rewards and environmental checks if the government is going to use their lands and not strip away their resources as it has done in the past.
Idle No More is awakening both the native and Canadian conscience. It will continue to pressure government and industry to protect the environment and human rights—and it is growing in strength. It wants more than the false promises of the past. It is understandably distrustful of the federal government and its arrogant, unilateral approach to environmental and native concerns.
As Michael Stephens, a Mi’kmaq of Millbrook, Nova Scotia First Nations said, he’s “fighting for his people and for posterity.”
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Editor: Maja Despot & Brianna Bemel