By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
For the most part, the arrival of European settlers in the Americas triggered decades of conflict, exploitation, discrimination, and destruction. From South America, all the way north to Canada, the same general pattern repeated itself over and over again, with Native Americans losing their land, resources, and culture to invading European forces. While relations have improved significantly in recent decades, there are still lingering prejudices – and injustices continue to occur. At the same time, there are still some Native American groups who are boldly fighting back – demanding respect, fair treatment, and social justice.
One example is “Idle No more”, an ongoing protest movement promoting environmental protection and indigenous sovereignty for native peoples of Canada and beyond. It’s a popular movement that has been active for three years, now, and shows no signs of slowing down, with activities including public protests, petitions, civil disobedience, and more. And during this holiday season, when most of us are giving thanks for the many blessings in our lives, it’s important to remember those who are still struggling to be accepted at the table and treated with the same level of respect and dignity that most of us enjoy every day and take for granted.
BILLS AND BETRAYAL
The rise of “Idle No More” started with the Canadian federal elections of 2012. The conservative government that had been in power had increased its seats in parliament. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the new government proposed a number of bills introducing sweeping legislative changes. One of the bills proposed was Bill C–45, which stripped forests and waterways of protection, something that caused great concern for indigenous peoples, as well as environmentalists.
One of the things that Bill C–45 did was to overhaul the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) of 1882, which mandated extensive consultation and approval for any kind of construction or development that would affect the waterways, many of which passed through First Nation lands. It was replaced with the Navigation Protection Act (NPA), which required that only one area require limited approval for development, leaving the rest of the previously protected waterways deregulated and at the mercy of commerce. The tar sands industry, notorious for its negative environmental impact, was just one that would benefit from these changes.
In addition, many bills that would have benefitted the First Nations had repeatedly failed to be passed in parliament over the years – thanks to opposition from conservative politicians. In particular, the Kelowna Accords, a series of agreements between the Canadian government and First Nation peoples, was dismissed by Stephen Harper. The accord was designed to help improve native people’s access to education, employment, and better living conditions through federal funding and other programs. With its cancellation, Canada’s Native Americans felt betrayed. They also felt that attempts at negotiating with the Canadian government in any traditional way had become meaningless. As a result, they began to turn to new, more aggressive tactics.
START OF A MOVEMENT
The “Idle No More” movement was started by four women – Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon. In November 2012, they initiated a teach-in, set up to discuss the passing of C–45 and its impact on the environment and on First Nations. It was the first of many attempts to capture the public eye and the government’s attention, and it led to a series of additional teach-ins, as well as public protests and rallies. Many of these activities coincided with other marches already under way, some over pipelines and other environmental dangers. At the same time that these protests were happening, the Chief of the Attawapiskat people was beginning a fast, demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Harper and the Governor General to discuss aboriginal rights.
Later that year, in December of 2012, the Confederacy of First Nations issued a press release stating that they did not recognize any bills passed that did not fulfill the government’s constitutional obligations to respect First Nations and to respect the environment. Of those obligations, one of them that especially raised the ire of aboriginals was the attempt by fossil fuel companies to gain access to tribal lands, since this violated the treaties written up between the Canadian government and First Nations long ago. At one of the protests that soon followed, a demonstrator was spotted holding up a sign that reflected the aboriginal’s mood on the subject: “Treaty Rights, Not Greedy Whites.”
As of January 4th, 2013, the goals of the movement had been narrowed down to two main objectives. First, the movement called for the establishment of a nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and the Government of Canada, rather than a relationship as defined in the outdated Indian Act – which was seen as outdated and too broadly interpreted. Second, the movement demanded policies that provided for social and environmental sustainability. Overall, the movement is against any type of resource exploitation, especially when it pertains to their land.
As Idle No More became more focused on their goals, they also became more organized in their protests. Throughout the month of December, the Idle No More group held dozens of public choreographed dances called a round dance, sometimes with as many as two thousand people. In addition, they blocked streets and railroad lines up for to three hours at a time, with the participants dancing and chanting, in acts of deliberate, nonviolent civil disobedience. In total, the number of protests totaled more than 100. And in every case, the demonstrations and protests were always peaceful.
As it gained momentum and public notice, the Idle No More movement began to spread to other countries, where protestors were eager to show solidarity. On December 27, 2012, various cities in the U.S., Sweden, the U.K., Germany, New Zealand and Egypt held demonstrations simultaneously. All told, there were an estimated 30 protests in other countries.
“Our people and our Mother Earth can no longer afford to be economic hostages in the race to industrialize our homelands,” said Eriel Derangar, a member of the Athabascan Chipewyan nation. “It’s time for our people to rise up and take back our role as caretakers and stewards of the land.”
A MEETING OF LEADERS
The mounting protests and increasing pressure finally made an impact. On January 7th, 2013, Prime Minister Harper announced a meeting would take place between his government and First Nation chiefs. Although he made no mention of Idle No More, their activities clearly contributed in a big way to this event coming about. And on the day of the meeting, the movement held a huge demonstration outside the parliament building and in cities across Canada.
The meetings were followed by additional gatherings between parliament members, and increased reporting on aboriginal matters to the government. One of the National Chiefs who had attended the meeting said Harper had, “moved a couple of posts forward.” For months, both sides continued to discuss the treaty process and specific land claims and how they were to be managed. Over time, government officials indicated a willingness to consult with First Nations on environmental issues and legislative matters that impact aboriginal territories.
Throughout the next two years that followed, the Idle No More movement continued to protest assaults on the environment, from tar sands and the forests destroyed to create them, to the infamous Keystone Pipeline.
Although the movement’s fight is still not over, there have been some victories along the way in indigenous rights and land concessions. Perhaps the biggest break the movement got recently was when Stephen Harper was replaced by the new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, a progressive liberal. Many observers believe this change of government offers a much better chance of the First Nations having their sovereign needs met more sincerely and respectfully.