by 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.