The Idle No More Movement in Canada was triggered by the current federal government’s abuses of indigenous treaty rights—especially to the recent omnibus Bill C-45.
Most aboriginals throughout Canada—First Nations, Metis, and Inuit—vow to disregard this bill because at no time in the nine months that the bill was being considered did the Harper government discuss matters relevant to the First Nations with them! As if this were not enough reason not to honor this legislation, Bill C-45 breaches Canada’s own laws on the legal duty to consult and accommodate First Nations!
Furthermore, most First Nations feel Bill C-45 undermines their sovereignty and treaty rights by amending the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canadian Labor Code. The lack of consultation with First Nations in these areas, which affect their daily lives, immediately caused Ontario chiefs to react, saying, “Bill C-45 will not be enforced or recognized by their First Nations.”
The chiefs adopted a Statement of Unity at the Assembly of First Nations’ Conference December 6, 2012.
It begins: “We, the original peoples of Turtle Island hereby assert our sovereignty as Nations, entrusted to us by the Creator…We unconditionally reject any Canadian or provincial legislation, policies, or processes that impact our lands, air, waters and resources.”
In other words, the First Nations do not want the federal or provincial governments to enter their lands to exploit their rich resources—their forests, minerals, fish; they do not want fracking to pollute their well water. They want not only a say, but they want control over their own land—which seems reasonable—and they are suddenly rising up on behalf of Mother Earth to say that, at least on their lands, exploitation will not happen.
Many environmentally conscious youth, union reps and provincial politicians are showing support for the Idle No More Movement. One thousand demonstrated in downtown Montreal, waving Mohawk and Quebec flags and dancing to native drums. A few hundred did the same in Toronto, while a significant rally congested traffic to the Winnipeg International Airport.
The Idle No More blockaded the Canadian National Rail Line in Nova Scotia between Truro and Halifax so that Via Rail had to take 53 passengers to Truro from Halifax by bus. In Cape Breton they stalled and stopped highway traffic.
The Idle No More movement is much like the Occupy Movement, except that it tends to show up in one place, dissolve, then show up in another; but throughout Canada, natives are celebrating their culture—one that includes an end to both human and environmental exploitation and demands respect.
Civil disobedience and fasting are legal, legitimate forms of non-violent resistance—and natives are finding these powerful pressure tactics.
One chief in particular, Chief Theresa Spence, is a prominent figure in the Idle No More Movement. The chief of the remote Attawapiskat First Nation in the isolated James Bay area, she is a mother of five daughters. Her Attawapiskat First nation has been enduring a severe housing and infrastructure crisis for years.
On December 11, 2012, she declared her hunger-strike and to date has not parted from this fast, taking in only lemon water, tea and fish broth. Her month-long strike prompted Prime Minister Harper to meet with her along with a delegation of First Nation leaders coordinated by the Assembly of first nations. Three thousand people gathered in a freezing rain outside while the meting took place, all of them chanting, drumming and waving banners in support.
But Chief Spence was not satisfied. Because the Queen of England is still figuratively Head of State of Canada and because native treaties were originally signed with the British monarch, Chief Spence wanted the Queen’s representative, governor General David Johnson, to attend the meeting and he declined.
The Idle No More movement believes in separate and equal nations requiring the presence of the Queen’s representative. Since he refused and the joint meeting with Harper did not occur, Spence continues her hunger strike, camped out on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River. This is no picnic in wintertime Canada!
Even though Spence is weak and tired, she feels Aboriginals have an opportunity now to hold the government to account for years of broken promises. So she continues her fast on the island in a makeshift encampment.
As Raymond Robinson, a Manitoba elder who has been fasting for more than 30 days alongside Spence said, “We were never respected as First Nations people of this land.”
It seems Harper’s omnibus Bill C-45 is the straw that has broken the patient natives’ backs. The Idle No More movement and many chiefs feel “Canada” was stolen from self-governing separate and equal nations, first by France, then by England and finally by millions of immigrant settlers who arrived since. They draw upon this view that is in accord with Canadian academia—from social theorists to geographers.
The Idle No More movement warns of further disruption if steps are not taken to rescind the Conservative government’s omnibus legislation. And this is no idle threat. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca-Chipewyan first Nation warns that he and several hundred on the reserve near Edmonton will shut down highway 63 to the oil sands.
The Canadian Green Party is loving this. The Canadian Auto workers and civil service unions across Canada are showing support for the Movement as well, saying they stand in solidarity with First Nations in their struggle against Bill C-45.
Aboriginals equal 1.5 million in Canada, and many are devastated by poverty, inadequate housing, abuse, poor education and illiteracy, financial mismanagement, alcoholism and suicide because of facing these very bleak prospects.
Idle No More and Chief Spence have forced the Harper government and the media to face these uncomfortable truths about Canadian aboriginal conditions.
National Chief Shawn Atleo, although facing some division among the chiefs of 600 sovereign nations, still vows to “drive the final stake in the heart of colonialism.”
Likewise, Manitoba Chief Derek Nepinak denounced “140 years of colonial rule in our territory.”
Pamela Palmater, an Idle No More spokeswoman, claims Indians are in a race against “legislative extinction.”
And Bill C-45 seems to be just that—threatening the very survival of natives, even on their own reserves.
Taiaiako Alfred, Professor of Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria, said that although the word “genocide” is a “powerful emotional trigger,” it nevertheless applies to Canadian Indians. The United Nations’ criteria for the crime includes committing any of the following:
- Killing members
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to destroy a group
- Inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical demise
- Imposing measures to prevent birth
- Forcibly transferring children to another group
Numbers 4 and 5 were inflicted upon Canadian Indians through the residential schools of the past.
Many natives see the Canadian government as illegitimate. They believe their chiefs entered into treaties agreeing to share the land. As the Idle No More movement gathers non-aboriginal supporters, it is showing signs of spreading to the USA as protests, rallies and flash mobs are springing up in Minneapolis, Chicago and Boston, as well as in Canadian cities.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel
Assist: Sara Crolick
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