When history means managing the message

CanadaBy John Bell

As I write Stephen Harper continues to ignore the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. In this context it is worth recalling a speech he made to the 2009 G8 meeting in Pittsburgh, extolling the virtues of Tory-ruled Canada. Among other things he made this rather astounding statement: “We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.”

Canada is a creation of imperialism and violence. The conquest of indigenous First Nations was a holocaust, from the extinction of the Beothuk people on the Atlantic coast to the use of British gun boats to destroy the communities and cultures of the Pacific Northwest. That holocaust took different forms as French colony was conquered by British Empire, and colonial status was succeeded by nationhood. But a domestic genocide it remains.

Whatever else he is, Stephen Harper is neither stupid nor uneducated. Less than a year earlier he had publicly apologized to the survivors of Canada’s horrific Residential School system, guilty of an official policy of “aggressive assimilation”—cultural genocide is the term preferred by most First Nations people. The explicit mission of the Residential Schools was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” So what can we make of Harper’s ridiculous pronouncement to the G8?

It only begins to make sense when seen as part of a bigger project to rewrite history, to sanitize the violence of imperial conquest, to justify the plunder of natural resources found on or under land belonging to First Nations, and to promote future military adventure at home and abroad by glorifying a mythical military past.

I’ve written in previous issues about how the phony “celebration” of the War of 1812 fits into this project. Harper’s Tories are throwing millions of dollars away to celebrate a “victory” that is historically dubious, ignoring the real story of pacifism, draft-dodging and desertion that characterized the colonial population in 1812.

But the grand project of Tory historical revisionism goes much deeper. It involves cutting funding and access to libraries and archives, where the raw data of our real past stories reside. It involves huge cuts to Statistics Canada, and privatizing the task of gathering data to military mega-corporation Lockheed-Martin. It involves muzzling scientists and cutting environmental protections.

So it is not surprising that the Tories are changing the name and mandate of the celebrated Museum of Civilization to the Museum of Canadian History. As McGill history professor Allan Greer told the Globe and Mail, “There is a kind of a narrowing of a sense of the Canadian past with this emphasis on the military and on deeds of State. The War of 1812 matters, Confederation matters, but the discomfort comes from the sense that so much else is being erased and getting less attention.”

As the mandate changes, expect a loss of curatorial autonomy, and more direct and indirect government interference into what parts of our history are displayed, and how they are portrayed.

Much of the old Museum of Civilization focused on archeology, and celebrated the richness of First Nations cultures. In this way it reinforced the idea that these were not just primitive bands of poorly organized hunters and gatherers, but rich and well-developed societies deserving to be dealt with as sovereign nations. These ideas are meant to be enshrined in the museum building itself, designed by celebrated Metis architect Douglas Cardinal.

This is anathema to the Tories and their plans to gouge as much profit from the land as they can, as quickly as they can. That requires that they sweep aside the First Nations that reside on the land, have never ceded their control of the land, and whose cultures put defence of the environment at the very centre of their world view.

Museum of Civilization workers are privately complaining, but speaking out in public would result in loss of livelihood and being black-listed in their profession. To see what their future will entail, look no further than the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights, slated to open in Winnipeg sometime in 2014.

It was supposed to be open this coming year, but cost overruns and an ongoing crisis of staffing has pushed that back. The pricetag is at $351 million and counting. And already 24 employees have been fired or have quit.

The departing workers have not spoken publicly about problems at the museum – since they are bound by a gag order telling them “not to disparage or make negative comments, publicly or privately, oral or written about the [museum], including employees of the [museum]. Any breach of this provision will result in forfeiture of some or all of the settlement proceeds.”

The fact that disgruntled employees of a Museum of Human Rights must sign away their right to free speech is beyond ironic. We’re entering Orwellian territory here.

One person who has not been so gagged is Mary Eberts. She is a law professor and expert in women’s equity issues, and was a member of the museum’s advisory council of human rights experts. On quitting the museum, she openly complained about a culture of political interference, a toxic workplace and poor morale.

With much of the finding coming from private donors, solicited by Tory politicians, would this Museum of Human Rights have the nerve to exhibit the human rights abuses heaped on Canada’s First Nations, past and present? What about the gross rights abuses taking place in Palestine? The exodus of museum workers and human rights experts is answer enough.

Shrugging of the signs of crisis, professional complaints and political interference, Museum CEO Stuart Murray stated: “This is going to be a museum for human rights, not human wrongs.”

Chief Theresa Spence wants to tell the genuine story of her people and their treatment at the hands of successive Canadian governments. Harper wants to silence her and control the message. That, in a nutshell, is what rewriting history is all about.

Coal port expansion will produce more climate change than Northern Gateway pipeline

coal-pollutionBy Anna Roik

Vancouver is set to become North America’s largest coal exporting port if the Port Metro Vancouver corporation approves two new permits. These coal exports could release more carbon into the atmosphere than all of the oil exports from the planned Northern Gateway Pipeline.

Fraser Surrey Docks, near New Westminster, and Neptune Terminals, in North Vancouver, applied last June to increase their coal exports. Neptune Terminals applied to increase their exports of metallurgical coal, used for making steel, from 12 million to 18 million tonnes per year. Fraser Surrey Docks’, however, is looking to build a new terminal solely for the export of thermal coal, primarily to Asian markets. Thermal coal is burned and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Importing Coal
The new terminal will not export coal from BC’s expanding coal mines. They will import the coal by rail from Wyoming in the US, starting at 4 million tonnes per year, potentially doubling soon after. The US coal industry is looking for an alternative port after protests in Oregon and Washing states have already stopped one of six proposed export terminals. As well, demand for coal has fallen off in the US as the country has increased both renewable energy production and shale gas extraction. The industry needs new markets to remain profitable.

Port Metro Vancouver was set up by the Government of Canada in 2008, and is responsible for shipping and port-related land and sea use. It is the sole entity in charge of applications such as those by Neptune and Fraser Surrey Docks. Port Metro Vancouver makes decisions without formal public hearings. Even local politicians cannot influence Port Metro’s decisions. Kevin Washbrook of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change (VTACC) says that a decision like this should not be handled by a small number of staff at Port Metro.

Protests have been held recently in opposition to the pending permits. Local residents are concerned about the potential for pollution from the increased coal exports. Health organizations including the BC Lung Association and Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment have written letters expressing their concern. Not enough research has been done on the cumulative regional health effects from increased coal dust in the air and diesel pollution from trains passing through residential areas – at times within a kilometre of schools, daycares and seniors’ homes.

Coal dust settling into the Fraser River delta and offshore areas will likely affect the sensitive salmon populations and their habitat. On 7 December a coal ship being escorted by two tugboats ran into the causeway at Westshore Terminals in Delta, BC, dumping a third of a rail car of coal into the ocean. The cause of the crash remains unknown, as well as the eventual environmental impact of that much coal – which contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury and lead – being dumped into shallow water.

Port refuses to consider climate change
Port Metro is considering the environmental and neighbourhood issues of the coal terminal expansions – noise and air pollution – but not the climate change implications. According to them, the “port is here to facilitate trade” and ensure the coal is transported safely. They refuse to consider the environmental footprint of coal as a fuel as this is “out of Port’s jurisdiction.” The Port directs people concerned about this to the Government of Canada who makes the decisions on which commodities will be traded.

These port expansions are the latest step on Canada’s path to becoming a dirty energy superpower. Patrick Johnstone, geologist and member of New Westminster Enviro Partners, says that “coal shipments are only one symptom of a larger problem, that being an unethical approach at every level of government regarding our responsibility to the global greenhouse gas problem.”

Canada has the technology to eliminate fossil fuels by replacing them with renewable energy sources. We need to build a movement to make this happen before it’s too late.

Idle no more, from Canada to Mexico

idle-no-moreby Liam Barrington-Bush

Canada’s colonial past continues in the present. Battles over natural resources, massive inequality of income, lifespan and cultural freedom, and ongoing deadly conflicts with settler governments are still very much the norm for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. As one Canadian First Nations journalist described the situation recently, “We have been backed into a corner and we are literally fighting for our lives. We are literally dying, in so many preventable and unacceptable ways. I’m not being poetic or hyperbolic here and I don’t just mean culturally. We are dying.”

She is right. An indigenous man in Canada lives fifteen-years less than the national average. Nearly 600 First Nations women have disappeared since 1980, without significant public investigation. Communities that find themselves in the middle of any natural resources deemed of economic value have found their drinking water poisoned and local food left inedible, as pollution from mineral and oil extraction are casually dispersed amongst the homes and traditional lands of Canada’s First Peoples.

And things are no better further south.

In the disproportionately indigenous south of Mexico, Oaxaca has become one of the most dangerous places in the country to be an indigenous activist, while the Zapatistas home state of Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest, with over three-quarters of the population living in poverty.

Idle No More

Across Canada, 21 December 2012 saw the largest yet day of action since the #IdleNoMore banner was unfurled earlier this month. Indigenous-led protests across the country, including a mass-demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence, who passed the tenth day of a hunger strike demanding a meeting with PM Stephen Harper, is being called the most unified show of native resistance in Canada for at least twenty years.

Members of Alberta’s Fort Chipewyan First Nation launched a road blockade against the tar sands oil industry in Fort McMurray, which has been linked to rises in rare cancers and respiratory illnesses in their community. At the same time, activists in Vancouver brought intersections to a standstill, carrying out traditional dances in the city’s cold winter streets, while over a thousand people joined a flashmob in Toronto’s Dundas Square, shutting down parts of the city’s commercial centre during the peak holiday shopping period.

Zapatistas

zapatistas-march-21-dec-2012Meanwhile, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, several thousand members of Zapatista indigenous communities took a different approach, marching silently on four of the state’s major cities, reasserting themselves as a major political force under the slogan, “To be heard, we march in silence.”

The Zapatistas have been living autonomously in six pueblos (towns) around Chiapas since they asserted their traditional rights of ‘autonomia,’ to coincide with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Since then, they have remained mostly quiet, with but a few notable public statements and action, modelling a different way of living and organising that has attracted the attention of activists, the world over.

But they have been under regular attack throughout this period, with yesterday’s action marking the fifteen year anniversary of the massacre of 45 community members in Acteal in 1997, in which 17 state officials were implicated, but none charged.

Yesterday they reasserted their presence in the thousands, wearing the traditional balaclavas and bandanas, and quietly filling the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, Las Margaritas, Ocosingo and Palenque.

Whether these protests will be sustained, only time will tell, but there is a growing sense that a new era is indeed upon us, and it cannot be reconciled with the ongoing injustices of colonialism that have marked the last five hundred years. As these – and other – struggles for social and environmental justice spread through our increasingly networked world, we can expect that only greater numbers of people who have long-endured the hardships of Western “progress” and “development” will indeed become “idle no more.”

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist and journalist from Toronto, Canada, currently living in Oaxaca, Mexico. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades.

Quebec austerity budget: zero deficit policy benefits 1%

pauline-maroisby Jessica Squires

In November we reported that the PQ budget shows how bankrupt the strategic vote was. The PQ exposed themselves as the neoliberals they are. Since then, the picture has become even clearer. We present here a brief analysis of the budget and its impacts.

First of all, as Bernard Rioux observes in his article on Presse-toi à gauche, the left-wing Quebec blog, the PQ has maintained the cuts and attacks on social programs introduced by the Liberals. By insisting on a zero deficit policy, they have a giant excuse to attack workers, women and the poor.

The first step will be a wave of “compressions” – deep cuts – in government departments, which, mirroring the cuts to the Federal public service, will mean the loss of substantial numbers of jobs. Already the budget has announced deep cuts to education, including cégeps and universities – and these cuts are not even contemplated for next year; they apply retroactively to September. Universities must find millions of dollars in savings in this year’s budget – a near impossibility. It certainly places tuition fee reductions, or even continuing the freeze, well beyond certainty. This happens in the context of the Summit on post-secondary education which is supposed to discuss the whole picture, including alternative means of funding universities.

The zero deficit policy reminds people of the moment when, for most, the PQ stopped hiding its essentially ruling class alignment: the same policy was announced in 1996 by Lucien Bouchard. Today’s Marois PQ is no different and in many ways worse. They support the Canada –EU free trade deal, despite their earlier criticism of the process. They are not only continuing, but strengthening the Plan Nord – basically a plan designed to pillage Quebec’s north and aboriginal lands and resources in the name of profit – with Marois shoring up the message of tax havens and subsidies during her recent trip to NYC.

No redistribution or positive tax reforms for Marois’ PQ: only more tax cuts and subsidies for the private sector and user fees for everyone else. More private exploration of the Gulf of St Laurence for oil resources; oil trade with Alberta, Enbridge, and the northeastern US; user-fee models and private funding of public services… far from being indepententist, the PQ are staunch allies of Stephen Harper.

Even shale gas fracking is still a possibility despite the moratorium; only a grassroots mass movement won that moratorium in the first place.

Many PQ members tore up their membership cards with Bouchard’s zero deficit policy. Make no mistake, the PQ is still in crisis; but it will take a movement to defeat them.

Michigan: wake up call for the Canadian labour movement

michigan protestBy Pam Johnson

The passage of “right to work” legislation in Michigan has been called a catastrophe for the US labour movement. Michigan, the birthplace of industrial unionism, is the 24th state to enact legislation that means workers can opt out of the union.

The legislation was rammed through the state assembly by Republican governor, Rick Snyder. Snyder, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, publicly stated he would not push for “right to work.” He changed his tune and in one week introduced a bill and had it passed with no public hearings or consultations.

This undemocratic event did not go unchallenged: 12,000 trade unionists descended on the Michigan capital in Lansing to protest the change, where they were met by police with tear gas.

The economic crisis and the austerity “solution” are the cover for grabbing hard fought for union rights. The post-war “truce” between labour and capital that followed the massive working class upsurge, in the 1930s and1940s, has come to an end.

This is a chilling development for US labour and it is a big wake-up call for the Canadian labour movement as well. The public sector unions with the highest union density–just over 30 per cent–is under attack from every level of government in every province. Bill 22 in BC and Bill 115 in Ontario, both enacted by Liberal governments, attack teacher bargaining rights. Harper’s Tories undermined bargaining rights repeatedly by preempting strikes and job action through legislation for postal workers, Air Canada and CP rail workers. The Tories just passed legislation to force unions to open their books and they have floated a plan to attack the Rand Formula.

Behind the push in the US are the flag bearers of US capital like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family in Michigan. These billionaires have poured millions of dollars into anti-union campaigns, the Tea Party and politicians like Walker and Snyder. Canadian capital is more covertly funding anti-union policy groups like Fraser Institute and The Canadian Labour Watch Association (CLWA) to do its dirty work. But any notion that capital is kinder or gentler in Canada is a myth.

Despite the overt union-busting by capital and governments in the US and Canada, the response of Canadian labour leaders has been shockingly cool. One labour activist called it “fiddling while Rome burns.”

Labour bureaucracy and the rank-and-file
As the pillars of collective bargaining are being eroded at a brisk pace, labour leaders are surreally calling for bargaining as usual. Even worse, some leaders are offering up concessions, as the CAW did this fall despite 90 percentile strike votes in hand and car companies posting profits.

The response by labour leaders to Bill 115 is another sad example of inaction Passed by the Ontario Liberals, Bill 115 is draconian in its scope, giving the Minister of Education complete control over teachers’ contract. Teachers union leaders and the leaders of other public sector workers, in the Ontario Public Service Employees union (OPSEU) facing the same threats, have offered no strategy to fight. Only the Elementary teachers union (ETFO) has moved into action with one-day strikes, under pressure from its membership.

OPSEU leaders have even taken a further step away from a fightback by disaffiliating from the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) just when labour movement solidarity is most needed.

The demoralization that the inaction of the leadership has produced, especially among activists, has some musing that maybe getting rid of the Rand Formula would force the unions to step up to the plate. But the end of the Rand formula would be a step backward for labour, even if it would not necessarily spell the end of trade unionism,.

That the labour leadership is shrinking from the fight just at the moment when they should be leading is really no surprise. First of all, the material conditions (higher salaries and removal from the daily grind of the workplace) and very function of the labour bureaucracy (negotiating the terms of exploitation between capital and labour) make the trade union leadership reluctant in general to lead fights. Secondly, we are decades away from the last period of labour struggle in the 1970s; the current labour leadership, entrenched in business unionism, is wed to its position as negotiator the employer and workers.

The question of who will win this struggle, workers or employers, is very much in the balance at this moment. Transformation of the union into a more militant fighting force for workers is not likely going to come from this leadership. But, as the Chicago teachers, Toronto Library workers and Rio Tinto workers have shown it is possible for rank and filers to grab hold of existing union structures and engage members to fight.

Demonstrations at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention on January 26 called by the OFL will be an important opportunity to up the ante against the attacks on union rights.

J26

Who profits from the ‘war on drugs’?

thehouseiliveinThe House I Live In, directed by Eugene Jarecki,
Reviewed by Darren Edgar

The “war on drugs” is a total failure. This is the argument put forward by the new documentary film The House I Live In, written and directed by Eugene Jarecki who previously made a documentary about the rise of the “military-industrial complex” after WWII titled Why We Fight.

The House I Live In offers a scathing critique of failed US drug policy. Through interviews with various policy experts and those involved at every level of the justice system, it’s made clear that the “war on drugs” was a flawed concept from the start: that it was unnecessary, not to mention ineffective in achieving even its stated aims, but also deeply racist.

The modern-day “war on drugs” began in 1971 when the administration of Richard Nixon first coined the phrase after cynically calculating that a tough on crime stance would help secure him the upcoming federal election. He claimed that drugs were America’s “number one enemy” even though it was estimated that only two per cent of the population actually used illicit drugs—this was a response to the growing epidemic of heroin use among US soldiers in Vietnam.

Racism
But the roots of the US “war on drugs” and its inherently racist prosecution goes back even further. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese migrant workers in California were being scapegoated for “stealing” jobs from white workers and subsequently they were policed and criminalized for their perceived connection with the use of opium, which was inaccurately labeled a growing problem and feared would spread to the white upper classes (who were already using it). The same process replayed itself with the criminalization of cocaine, only this time it was black labourers migrating from the South to northern cities looking for work who were targets of racist legislation and increased policing. With the criminalization of heroin and marijuana, racist drug policies would be applied again and again to mostly black populations—although latin, hispanic and indigenous populations would increasingly be scapegoated as well—for fear of the spread of drug use to “unaffected” white populations.

However, it has been with the criminalization of crack cocaine and its users that the racist nature of these policies is most clearly laid bare. Since crack’s entrance into popular usage during the mid-1980s, primarily within impoverished inner-cities (i.e. black communities), it has been disproportionately criminalized to a huge degree.

Comprising the majority of the population, white people also make up the vast majority of illicit drug users in the US, including the majority of crack users and most powder cocaine users.

For decades, simple possession of crack cocaine carried a five-year minimum sentence while there was no such minimum for powder cocaine; possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive the same minimum sentence as possession of just five grams of crack cocaine—a ratio of 100:1. But in 2010, US Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which removed the five-year minimum sentence for simple possession of crack and reduced the ratio from 18:1—a ratio which still has no basis in any but a racist logic. The fact is that a larger percentage of crack users compared with powder cocaine users are black and that black people are frequently stopped and searched by police—where many of these drug charges stem from—while white people do not have to face this kind of aggressive policing as part of their daily lives. And once found guilty of drug possession or trafficking, mandatory minimum sentencing forces judges to hand out equal sentences for all crimes in the same category, precluding them from exercising any judgment over the particulars of a case—stripping them of context and treating all “criminals” the same.

Class war
However, in recent years, the huge increase in methamphetamine use and subsequent increase in its criminalization—where the vast majority or producers, traffickers and users are white—has exposed the underlying connection between drug use and conviction and incarceration on drug charges: class.

It is predominantly poor people—whether inner-city blacks, rural whites or indigenous people living on reservations—who fall into problematic drug use in an attempt to escape their dismal lack of opportunities to make a better life for themselves and their families. Unlike wealthier or “recreational” drug users, it is these poor and working class people who can’t access treatment to overcome their addictions, who begin selling drugs in order to feed their addictions or provide an income for them and their families when job opportunities are non-existent and avenues for quality education have already been denied them. In effect, the “war on drugs” is a class war. Those who run afoul of the law but can afford quality legal representation will always be able to defend themselves in court against charges, receiving minimum sentences if any, or enter the best drug rehabilitation programs (again and again, if need be)—assuming they’d be charged at all—while those who are disproportionately targeted and criminalized by the justice system and cannot afford quality legal representation, if any at all, can only throw themselves upon the mercy of a system which shows absolutely none.

Prison-industrial complex
There is also lots of money to be made through the vast expansion of the justice system. New state-of-the-art prisons, many of which are privately operated for profit, are being built to house a ballooning prison population mostly comprised of non-violent offenders sentenced on drug charges, often relating to marijuana possession or distribution. Beside the lucrative construction and operation contracts for newly built or recently privatized prisons, there is also money to be made on the manufacture and sale of policing equipment—guns and artillery, tasers, uniforms, vehicles—as well as the products and services required of the prison population itself—food, clothing, healthcare. All of this goes to fattening the bottom lines of the huge corporations who win these contracts, while they either set-up shop in, or threaten to leave, towns which are desperate for any new jobs at all, allowing them to pay their employees poor wages and offer few benefits.

The increase in police officers, prison guards, lawyers and judges required to operate such an expanded justice system broadens the layer of people dependent on it for their livelihood, further solidifying its hold on people economically and enabling it to present itself as a benefactor of a more humane society. It creates the material conditions to perpetuate itself and its ideology, allowing the justice system to do what it has always done: represent the interests of the ruling class at the expense of the working class. But even still, there are some within this system who recognize how utterly broken it is and they provide much of the interview footage for The House I Live In.

In the film, it is the interviews with those personally affected by the “war on drugs” where the film resonates most powerfully. Whether it’s interviews with young black men facing decades-long prison sentences, loved ones being left behind (often by the family’s primary bread-winner), parents mourning the loss of their children to drug addiction, HIV/AIDS or prison sentences, or fathers regretting the cycle of poverty and drugs which finds their sons facing lengthy and life-destroying jail terms, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the heartbreaking stories of human lives wasted—by poverty, drug abuse and a wholly unjust system which perpetuates them.

Unfortunately, instead of remaining unseen and unheard the director narrates and frames the film with his personal relationship with one of the protagonists in a way which seems opportunist or self-serving, and which ultimately detracts from the power of her story. This, combined with a near total lack of solutions being offered, is the only weakness of the film. Otherwise, it is successful in revealing the racist and class-based nature of the “war on drugs” and, implicitly, the entire justice system—exposing those who are perpetuating this war, despite in whose name it is claimed to be fought, and humanizing those against whom this war is waged.

The “war on drugs” has seen trillions of dollars spent only to have drugs as readily available as ever and rates of illicit drug use remain unchanged. But lest one be content with dismissing it as a product of a puritanical American culture or US-style reactionary politics, we only need to remember that the Canadian justice system also polices racialized communities disproportionately, incarcerates aboriginal people at an alarming rate, detains and criminalizes immigrants and refugees, and that the Harper government has its own plans for building massive new super-prisons to house anticipated increases of inmate populations as a result of sweeping new criminal laws and harsher sentences.

Knowing that the people being incarcerated and having their lives destroyed by draconian laws are our friends and family, our neighbours and co-workers, it is incumbent upon us to expose the hypocrisy of the Canadian state and its capitalist ruling class, and to fight for a truly just society—one in which indigenous people as well as settlers, new and old, are able to thrive. This is why we must fight for indigenous sovereignty and for Quebec’s self-determination, to defend immigrant and racialized communities against racist scapegoating, to assert a woman’s control over her own body and to defend the right to choose, to champion the great diversity in human sexuality and gender expression, to remove the impediments to full participation in society for the aged and disabled. And we must do all this while simultaneously fighting for workers’ rights and good, green jobs that won’t devastate the planet. Only through these united struggles will we have the ability to overthrow this rotten capitalist system once and for all.

 

Idle No More: First Nations rise up

Idle No Moreby Evan Johnston

“Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities (such as Attawapiskat) have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit. The taking of resources has left many lands and waters poisoned – the animals and plants are dying in many areas in Canada. We cannot live without the land and water. We have laws older than this colonial government about how to live with the land.”
– Idle No More Manifesto

In his popular 1866 textbook History of Canada, the award winning author and developer of the education system of Upper Canada J. George Hodgins wrote that “Canada was one of the few countries which was not originally settled by (or for purposes of) conquest. The pursuits of her inhabitants were always peaceful, not warlike.”

Nearly 150 years later, one would hope that such blatant whitewashing of Canada’s founding violence would be relegated to the dustbin of history. But at a G20 news conference in 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper commented that, thankfully, Canada has “no history of colonialism,” reflecting a national discourse saturated by the long-cherished myth of honest dealings by the Canadian state with indigenous peoples (compared to the more blatant genocide perpetrated by the United States).

While it is easy to laugh at Harper’s pronouncement, the belief that the Canadian state was an honest broker with the First Nations remains widespread. In spite of the genocidal practices of early British and French settlers; of the residential school system that murdered, abused, and attempted to erase the culture and language of First Nations children; of the regular theft of First Nations land, water, and natural resources for profit; of the number of missing and murdered indigenous women that remain ignored by non-indigenous society; of the poverty, addiction, and poor sanitation imposed on reserves across the country; in spite of all of these effects of the colonization of indigenous people, past and present, one would think that such a belief in Canadian exceptionalism would be difficult to sustain.

Fortunately, history provides us with moments when harmful ideas are vanquished not by the power of words, but by the self-activity of the masses. A new movement has erupted that has already begun to shake up the dominant ideas about indigenous people and the role the Canadian state plays in oppressing First Nations. Known as Idle No More, it has sparked a grassroots mass movement of First Nations people and their allies all across Turtle Island, demanding treaty rights be honoured and that the poor living standards of indigenous people all across the country be addressed.

Origins of #IdleNoMore

On October 18, the Harper government introduced Bill C-45, its omnibus budget bill. At over 400 pages in length, the bill is part and parcel of the “age of austerity” that we have been seeing since the Great Recession hit in 2008. Bill C-45 includes measures to raise the age of retirement, creates a two-tiered public sector pension system, and crucial to the birth of Idle No More, it reduces the amount of federally protected waterways and makes changes to the Indian Act that will lower the threshold of community consent in the designation and surrender process of Indian Reserve Lands.

As the Canadian ruling-class sets its target on public sector jobs and social spending, it also looks to expedite the process of selling indigenous land to profitable mining and oil corporations. Canada’s petroleum sector now ranks third in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and Canada is home to 75 percent of the world’s mining corporations. For capitalism, treaties and sacred lands are seen only as temporary barriers to profitability, and Bill C-45 signals a renewed preoccupation by the Canadian ruling-class on the question of land ownership.

The impact of the bill on First Nations communities will therefore be significant, and First Nations leaders are angry that they have not been consulted over the proposed changes to the Indian Act. They insist on having their voices heard.

On December 4th, First Nations chiefs from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario clashed with security guards on Parliament Hill after they tried to enter the House of Commons in order to deliver a message to the Harper government. The images of security guards preventing First Nations leaders access to the centre of “Canadian democracy” summed up the current state of disregard for treaty rights and for the sovereignty of First Nations.

It was in this context that the Idle No More movement was initiated shortly after the introduction of the bill in parliament, by four (indigenous and non-indigenous) women from Saskatchewan: Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon. As they state on their website, IdleNoMore.ca: “they could no longer stay silent in the face of what is a legislative attack on First Nation people and the lands and waters across the country.”

The four women began with a series of rallies, teach-ins, and public outreach to indigenous communities in order to help build a grassroots movement that could put enough pressure on the government to stop Bill C-45 in its tracks, and to start a public discussion around respect for treaty rights and the treatment of First Nations by the Canadian state more broadly. To that end, they called for a National Day of Solidarity & Resurgence on December 10th, which saw a wave of rallies, protests, blockades, and other actions across the country.

The National Day of Solidarity & Resurgence

From province to province, First Nations people and their allies took to the streets. In Alberta, an estimated 1,500 people took to the streets in Edmonton, while hundreds attended a rally in Calgary, where they delivered petitions and letters to Stephen Harper’s constituency office. Hundreds also took part in rallies and marches in Saskatoon, Manitoba, Whitehorse, Vancouver, and Toronto, among other cities.

In Labrador, the RCMP arrested three NunatuKavut elders – Jim Learning, John Learning and Ken Mesher – on the access road leading to Muskrat Falls. The RCMP have accused them of violating a court order to stay away from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric construction site, which is being built on  NunatuKavut land.

Idle No More protesters blockaded the country’s busiest highway, the 401 near London, Ontario. Highways were peacefully blocked in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

On December 11th, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike near Parliament Hill on Victoria Island, announcing that she is “willing to die” for her people. Spence is demanding a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the crown, and First Nations leaders in order to discuss the current state of treaty rights.

In a supreme exercise in missing the point, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan offered to tour her reserve to ensure that her people have everything they need for the winter, failing to grasp that what she is protesting is something greater than the needs of one community.

Coinciding with the start of Spence’s hunger strike, members of the Samson Cree Nation blocked an Alberta highway as an act of solidarity. A few days later, a group of First Nations leaders and supporters of Spence’s hunger strike taped a letter to the gates of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s home, demanding that he agree to a meeting with First Nations leaders. Raymond Robinson, an elder of the Cross Lake First Nation, and Emil Bell, a 72-year-old man from the Canoe Lake Cree Nation, have also begun hunger strikes in support of Spence.

Not surprisingly, the Harper government and representatives of the crown have been silent and as of yet have refused to engage with any of Spence’s or the broader Idle No More movement’s demands. Governor General David Johnston refused to even answer a question on Theresa Spence earlier in the week when approached by reporters from APTN asking if he was going to meet with her.

Declonization and Settler Solidarity

Despite its name, First Nations people have been anything but “idle” in their resistance to the ongoing colonization by the Canadian state, and have been fighting back ever since British and French settlers first arrived. Recent examples include the Haudenosaunee and Grassy Narrows First Nations marching to uphold their treaty rights, a successful campaign by the Musqueum Band to stop destruction of their sacred land, and couintless actions leading the anti-tar sands fight–from a Freedom Train across the country to a mass sit-in in Victoria.

These have contributed to Idle No More’s widespread and united resistance by indigenous people from all across Turtle Island, and the decision to mobilize around one of the central contradictions of the Canadian state; namely, the inability of the state to live up to its treaty obligations while continuing its path of stealing and destroying for profit the land that belongs to First Nations.

But it’s important to place Idle No More in the broader context of decolonization, which is the process of dismantling the social, political, economic, and psychological effects of colonialism that persist in the lives of, and relationships between, indigenous and non-indigenous people.

Colonialism is not an historical artifact but an ongoing reality, and to dismantle all that colonialism teaches both indigenous and non-indigenous people about their place and worth in this society requires difficult work that the Idle No More movement has once more placed at the forefront. One need only think of the land disputes in Oka or Caledonia to be reminded of the way in which many non-indigenous people respond toward the lives and land of indigenous people, and making it clear why decolonization remains so vital.

Roland Chrisjohn, Director of Native Studies at St. Thomas University, reminds us that “for about 90 per cent of Canada, even under the best possible scenario, there no legal transfer of title from the Aboriginal inhabitants to the Crown.”

Which is to say, when we talk about decolonization, we are not just talking about changing ideas, though decolonization certainly involves a lot of that. More importantly, though, it is an acknowledgement that Canada was built on stolen land which it has no legal right to, and that the struggle against the Canadian state is a struggle for the self-determination of First Nations as autonomous and self-governing.

In a set of recommendations released on December 19, indigenous scholars Taiaiake Alfred and Tobold Rollo argue: “The Government of Canada must enact legislation that recognizes the inherent rights of Indigenous Nations to designate political authority according to their own laws, governing principles, and customs.”

Further, it “must devolve control over social, cultural, economic, housing, health, and educational services to Indigenous governments, in accordance with Section 35 of the Constitution of Canada.”

We can thus see the struggle for respect and the honouring of treaty rights raising these questions around self-governance and political authority, for what is Theresa Spence demanding if not for her and her fellow First Nations Chiefs to be treated as leaders on equal footing with the Canadian state?

What the future holds for Idle No More, in terms of its direction and aims, remains unclear. But what is certain is that Idle No More has shown the status quo between First Nations and the Canadian state to be untenable, and has made it impossible to return to the daily misery that many First Nations communities live and work under. Non-indigenous allies need to be active in our solidarity with Idle No More and the First Nations communities that are leading the way forward. Many non-indigenous people in Canada have been idle for too long on issues facing First Nations, and now is the time to act.

At noon on Friday, December 21st, thousands of people are expected to attend a protest and ceremony on Victoria Island, who then march in solidarity to Parliament Hill. Idle No More Ottawa will feature voices from many nations and political stripes in a speakers rally that will last until late in the evening.