For 37 years, Gary Wassaykeesic has been seeking justice for his mother, who died on a remote reserve for indigenous people in Canada.
His quest to bring the alleged killer to justice has been enlivened by Idle No More, a protest movement led by Canada’s indigenous First Nations people that sprang up last autumn, and has forced politicians and the public to confront the challenges that face Canada’s 1.1 million indigenous people.
Many indigenous Canadians like Wassaykeesic have been emboldened by the Idle No More movement. On March 25, a group of First Nations youth arrived in Ottawa, the capital, after walking 1,600km from a northern community to draw attention to poverty and other social problems they face. In January, protesters blocked railway lines and roads across the country, some indigenous leaders have gone on hunger strike, and statues of past Canadian leaders have been vandalised.
Wassaykeesic says Idle No More has given him direction and a sense of hope that with First Nations issues gathering public attention, his own quest to find justice for his mother’s death may also gain steam.
He says being involved in a popular movement like Idle No More will help his chances of getting an official investigation into her death, and of confronting the man he believes killed her.
Canadian law enforcement and the federal government have historically turned a blind eye to crimes committed on First Nations reserves, critics say.
|Gary Wassaykeesic, a transient indigenous man from northern Ontario, has been searching for his mother’s killer for more than 30 years [Stephen Starr/Al Jazeera]|
Idle No More spread across Canada after the federal government in Ottawa introduced a bill known as C-45 last October. Activists say the proposed law threatens vast tracts of wilderness by reducing the number of federally protected waterways, among other things. The Canadian parliament passed the bill last December.
But the issues fuelling the movement go much deeper. Indigenous communities in Canada, which make up about three percent of the country’s population, have long felt socially and politically excluded. Many, particularly in the vast expanses of rural Canada, experience developing-world standards of living.
Suicide rates are some of the world’s highest, according to the Canadian Institute of Child Health. Statistics Canada has reported that more than half of First Nations members living on reserves have not completed high school. Drug and alcohol abuse is rife among some indigenous people, including in major cities such as Toronto.
Since last autumn, thousands of people – including many non-indigenous – have attended Idle No More demonstrations across the country. An Idle No More Facebook page has more than 100,000 supporters. Many angry and disaffected young First Nations men and women see this grassroots movement as an opportunity to highlight their social and economic plight, beyond Bill C-45’s perceived threat to Canada’s forests and natural beauty.
Fighting the government
First Nations communities were angered by the federal government’s failure to consult them on the changes Bill C-45 brings.
“Canada did not take the time to seek input from either Canadians or First Nations on Bill C-45,” says Pamela Palmater, spokesperson for Idle No More and a professor at Ryerson University’s Department of Politics and Public Administration in Toronto. “In fact, it sped up the process in parliament. This is undemocratic and violates the rule of law in this country.”
After demands from various Idle No More supporters and leaders, Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with leading indigenous figures – but not hunger-striking Idle No More leaders – at the height of the protest in January. Harper promised “high-level dialogue” to discuss the modernisation of treaty relationships.
At the core of the tensions is a push to exploit vast tracts of land rich in oil, gas and minerals, often putting mining and energy companies in direct competition with First Nations communities.
Though mining companies have provided jobs and services to rural settlements, and many First Nations have no qualms about their presence, resource exploitation has dramatically affected the natural environment in areas indigenous communities depend on for their livelihoods. In the last month, Canadian and American indigenous groups have vowed to block three major proposed pipelines transporting oil from Alberta in Canada south to the US.
The Stream – Canada’s native winter
Palmater said the bill affects all Canadians. “First Nations are opposing this bill not just because it impacts their rights, but also because we know that it impacts the future generations of both treaty partners,” she said. “The question really should be whether Canadians will rise to protect their children’s futures alongside First Nations.”
Not all First Nations support the movement, though. Part of the reason is their diversity: Over 630 bands represent around 800,000 people speaking more than 30 languages across huge areas (Inuit and Métis communities make up the remaining 300,000 indigenous population). A growing number now live in cities, and many have become disconnected from environmental concerns.
Some within Idle No More opposed talks with Prime Minister Harper without the country’s governor general – the British crown’s representative in Canada – also in attendance. Others wanted no meetings at all with the federal government, and some questioned the usefulness of civil disobedience itself.
One leading Idle No More figure, Chief Theresa Spence from northwest Ontario, went on a solid-foods hunger strike for 44 days last winter in protest against the bill. But her see-sawing stance on meeting government officials was criticised by some First Nations leaders. Chief Spence has also come under attack for troubling accounting practices on the impoverished reserve she heads.
“There’s a good reason that aboriginals in Canada should be upset,” said Mark Milke, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute in Calgary, a right-wing think-tank, who believes it is the governance structures on reserves that damage First Nations communities. He said Idle No More protesters “have it backwards” and should be protesting their own leadership.
“In a non-native town in Canada, no mayor would be allowed to capture public funds in the ways it happens in reserves.”
Milke said that through Bill C-45, the Canadian government is trying to allow First Nations communities to make their own decisions.
The movement’s future is unclear. Already, there are some signs that it is petering out. Eldon Yellowhorn, chair of the First Nations Studies Department at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, says the government is unlikely to change its stance. He predicts that come summer Idle No More will be a slogan during protests, but will cease to exist as a coherent movement. “It’s very hard to maintain that momentum.”
“How come we can’t have justice? How come we can’t have closure?“
– Gary Wassaykeesic, crime victim
In search of justice
For Wassaykeesic, however, the Idle No More movement has served as a motivation not only to get to the bottom of his mother’s death, but also to improve his life.
Since childhood, Wassaykeesic, 52, has faced many difficulties such as alcohol abuse, prison time and problems holding down a job, though says he hasn’t drank in 25 years.
In 2007, a $1.9bn government payout to people who suffered abuse while in residential schools for indigenous communities helped Wassaykeesic to get his life together and begin investigating his mother’s death. Before this, he says he carried a sense of injustice about what happened to his mother, but never did anything about it.
The official reason for his mother’s death is alcohol asphyxiation, though no post-mortem was conducted, he said.
Wassaykeesic believes she was choked and beaten to death by a man he knows, whom he thinks is still alive. Others from his reserve came forward last month to tell him they suspect the same man of abusing their own relatives during the 1970s.
Emily Hill, a lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, handles Gary’s case, and says progress has been slow and difficult. “The death took place many years ago. He’s been working very hard to get to the bottom of things. I can’t say what will happen, but he’s obviously very motivated,” she said.
“I’ve been telling everyone – we’re going to deal with this one way or the other. We’re going to try deal with this legally,” said Wassaykeesic. “But because of all the things that have happened to me: Jail, living on the streets, addiction. How come we can’t have justice? How come we can’t have closure?” he says.
“I’m not the hunted no more, I’m the hunter.”