‘Idle No More’ and colonial Canada

Activists call to reenvision Canada’s relations with its indigenous people.

Idle No More protest in Canada - pic 1
Protests took place across Canada to mark International Human Rights Day last December 10 [Al Jazeera/Thien V]

Canada’s colonial reality is now in the spotlight, as Idle No More protests voice the struggles of indigenous people against sustained political and economic oppression.

Thousands are joining historic actions to call for fundamental changes in Canada’s relations to aboriginal people.

Central to Idle No More are longstanding indigenous demands for justice around land rights, economic resources and self-determination that rest at the heart of both Canada’s history and future.

Winter hunger strike

Idle No More protests first took place across Canada to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, 2012.

“Politics surrounding aboriginal struggles in Canada are different after the historic action by Chief Spence, a catalyst for the ongoing Idle No More grassroots protest movement.

Early the next morning Chief Theresa Spence, from Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, began a hunger strike in a tepee on Victoria Island, just minutes away from Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa.

After surviving on only broth and medicinal tea for over six weeks, Chief Spence ended the political fast after inspiring major protests across Canada and parallel hunger strikes in support.

Chief Spence was hospitalised hours after the strike ended, spending a day and a half under medical supervision for dehydration and deterioration resulting from 44 days without food.

Politics surrounding aboriginal struggles in Canada are different after the historic action by Chief Spence, a catalyst for the ongoing Idle No More grassroots movement.

Canada’s major opposition parties in Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) have co-signed a joint declaration in response, outlining “the need for fundamental change in the relationship of First Nations and the Crown”, a text nearly unimaginable prior to Idle No More.

Key to the declaration is the symbolic mention of the Crown, also highlighted by Chief Spence during the hunger strike in calls to include the Governor General, the representative of the British Crown in Canada, in any talks on aboriginal-Canada relations. A demand pointing clearly to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, a colonial document of persisting importance, commonly referenced in indigenous land struggles and legal negotiations, that forbids the colonial settlement of territories or utilisation of resources without the clear consent of aboriginal peoples.

Today, the historic importance of Chief Spence’s hunger strike is clear, as political energy around Idle No More builds. Another national day of action involved more than 30 cities in Canada yesterday, including a rally outside Parliament in Ottawa.

Still the Conservative government refuses to engage directly with Idle No More, instead holding discordant talkswith officials from the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), a political body strongly tied to the Canadian state, not historically involved in aboriginal protest movements.

Indigenous activist group Idle No More has launched fresh protests in Canada recently [Al Jazeera/Thien V]

“Decision-making in the name of the AFN is not designed for fighting government, but merely consulting with government,” writes Arthur Manuel, spokesperson for Defenders of the Land network from the Secwepemc Nation, openly critiquing talks with the Conservative government until clear conditions on respecting treaty rights are outlined.

“There is basically a fundamental change that Harper must make before ‘engaging’ with Harper could be useful,” continues Manuel. “The Harper government does not recognise Aboriginal and Treaty Rights on the ground. Indigenous Peoples believe in Aboriginal and Treaty Rights on the ground. That is the fundamental difference.”

Canada’s broken treaties

Beyond contemporary extremes in inequality for aboriginal peoples in Canada, increasingly labelled “Canadian apartheid“, Idle No More actions sound the alarm on questions of colonial injustice that reach to the political depths of Canada’s existence and national character.

Today, most of Canada falls under signed treaties, agreements between First Nations and Canadian settler society, outlining bilateral obligations in regards to political relations and land rights. “In places where treaties are in effect, every building, business, road, government, or other activity is made possible by a treaty,” outlines a recent post on The Media Coop.

Central to the Idle No More movement is a call for all Canadians to respect treaty rights, highlighting the constant refusal to acknowledge treaty obligations by successive Canadian governments over the past century.

 Indigenous movement gains momentum

“The spirit and intent of the Treaty agreement meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources,” outlines the Idle No More manifesto. “Instead, First Nations have experienced a history of colonisation which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources and unequal funding for services such as education and housing.”

Beyond treaty areas, large sections of Canada’s north and the majority of British Columbia remain unceded indigenous territories, lands where no signed treaty is in effect. Legally speaking Canadian society exists in colonial limbo on these lands, outside the framework of both Canadian and indigenous law, areas including major urban centres like Vancouver.

Despite this legal reality, Canadian political and economic power rigorously avoids recognising the fundamentally colonial character to large territories in Canada, that today can be understood as Canadian settlements in occupied indigenous lands.

Key to the political energy around Idle No More today in Canada is a growing political alliance against the conservative government.

Aboriginal activists lead Idle No More, but the movement also involves voices for environmental justice, while receiving active support from a broad spectrum of Canadian society critical toward the policies of the current conservative government.

Recently in Quebec, l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), the face of the 2012 Montreal student uprising against austerity-driven tuition fee hikes, issued a strong declaration supporting the Idle No More movement.

“… in relation to major ‘developments’, like pipeline extensions to Canada’s oil sands industry, limitations that cut down space for indigenous people to play a meaningful role in defining the future of their historic homelands.

“Last year the streets of Quebec vibrated to the rhythm of hundreds of thousands of marching feet, as our student strike against an increase in university tuition fees blossomed into the political awakening of a society,” writes ASSÉ.

“Today, malls and public squares and railways across Canada are vibrating to another rhythm, the drum beat of a surging and inspiring movement of Indigenous peoples, for cultural renewal, for land rights, for environmental protection, and for decolonisation.” 

In Canada, Idle No More is building creative political space to openly challenge controversial Conservative policies, including key provisions in the government’s recent omnibus federal budget bill C-45.

Including changes to Canada’s Indian Act, toward easing regulations on the commercial leasing of reservation lands, that will, if implemented, equal the further erosion First Nations territory within Canada’s borderlines.

On Canada’s Navigation Protection Act, the Conservative bill includes changes to allow for more rapid confirmations on industrial development projects over waterways, namely power and pipe lines.

Altercations that erase earlier requirements for major development projects to not damage or destroy navigable waterways in Canada. Idle No More outlines that these changes will “remove protection for 99.9 percent of lakes and rivers in Canada”.

Also the Conservative bill aims to limit Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act, in relation to major “developments”, like pipeline extensions to Canada’s oil sands industry, limitations that cut down space for indigenous people to play a meaningful role in defining the future of their historic homelands.

“Idle No More revolves around Indigenous ways of knowing rooted in Indigenous sovereignty to protect water, air, land and all creation for future generations,” outlines an official movement text.

“The conservative government bills beginning with Bill C-45 threaten Treaties and this Indigenous vision of sovereignty. The goal of the movement is education and to revitalise Indigenous peoples through awareness and empowerment. This message has been heard around the world and the world is watching how Canada responds to the message sent by many Idle No More supporters.”

Apartheid economics

Recent changes to Canadian law, introduced by the Conservative government, in relation to aboriginal rights, are directly rooted in Canada’s growing economic dependence on natural resources.

Today, Canada’s economy is often highlighted as an example of relative stability amidst global financial turmoil.

Today the annual median income for aboriginal people is 30 percent lower than the Canadian average, according to recent national census data.

“The Canadian economy is still performing relatively well, despite the challenges in Europe and elsewhere,” outlines a major Canadian bank official, “we’re continuing to see demand in interest for the resource sectors in Canada, both mining and oil and gas.”

Today, Conservative politicians openly claim that Canada has “weathered the storm” of global financial crisis, very often pointing to the strong “energy sector”, while never addressing the intensely colonial dimensions to Canadian economics.

Canada’s major mining and oil and gas sectors are largely wired to totally ignore and undercut previously signed treaty agreements and Canada’s international legal obligations to aboriginal people.

In Attawapiskat First Nation, Chief Spence declared a state of emergency in 2011, to draw focus to serious poverty on the isolated reserve, where many families live in wooden sheds, without running water or adequate insulation to face Canada’s northern winter winds. Only 90km away from Attawapiskat is Victor Diamond Mine, operated by De Beers, that according to reports is extracting around 600,000 carats of diamonds per year.

“Great riches are being taken from our land for the benefit of a few, including the government of Canada and Ontario, who receive large royalty payments, while we receive so little,” outlines Chief Spence in a 2011 speech.

Today the annual median income for aboriginal people is 30 percent lower than the Canadian average, according to recent national census data.

In reality the development of extraordinary mineral and energy wealth on First Nations territories, has done little to address the intense poverty and political marginalisation for the majority of aboriginal people.

Idle No More sounds an alarm on this colonial reality, accurately highlighting Canada’s relative economic success as dependent on harvesting land and resources on indigenous territories without meaningful consultation, consent or remittance.

Decolonising Canada

Central to understanding this current winter unrest, sparked by Idle No More, are the urgent calls to revise Canada-aboriginal relations against the backdrop of persisting colonial injustice.

“It’s high time for Canada to scrap discriminatory approaches dating back to colonial times and begin to respect the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples under Canadian and international law,” outlines Amnesty International in a recent statement on Idle No More.

Canada’s political landscape now faces an alarm on colonial questions commonly evaded in the halls of power.

Idle No More presents an incredible opening to collectively reenvision Canada, to finally address Canada’s unjust past and present policies toward aboriginal people. A call to collectively explore a new social contract, rooted in indigenous traditions and contemporary conceptions of social justice, that can unravel the violent colonial roots to current economic modes that are destroying mother earth.

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal based community activist, musician and writer.

Follow him on Twitter: @spirodon