Inside Story America

Canada’s indigenous movement gains momentum

Are the country’s First Nations groups being denied their rights and being targeted by the government?

Canada’s Idle No More movement began as a small social media campaign – armed with little more than a hashtag and a cause.

The movement’s really been in play for a long time … but the kind of spark was this legislative initiative by the Harper government which started with Bill C-45 but also includes 14 other pieces of legislation that’s being imposed on First Nations people …. But Bill C-45 … impacts both Canadians and First Nations …. And so what you had was an imminent threat, something that we couldn’t put off for negotiations for 25 years, it was a piece of legislation that was being rushed through the House without any input or consultation. So we had no choice but to gather very quickly and react.”

– Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University

But it has grown into a large indigenous movement, with protests and ceremonial gatherings held almost daily in many of the country’s major cities.

The movement is spearheaded by Theresa Spence, the leader of the Attawapiskat, a small native band in northern Ontario.

Spence is now 22 days into a hunger strike on Ottawa’s Victoria Island, just across from the Canadian parliament.

Spence and other First Nations groups are demanding better living conditions for Canada’s aboriginals, and they are angry at the country’s government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which they accuse of trying to erode their land and sovereignty rights.

Canada’s aboriginal communities have long been disproportionately affected by poverty.

A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that, in 2006, the average income for aboriginal people was just under $19,000, which is 30 percent lower than the $27,097 average for other Canadians.

Although that is a slightly narrower gap than 10 years previously, it would still take 63 years to achieve income parity.

The same study also found the annual income gap between other Canadians and aboriginals is $7,083 higher in urban settings, and $4,492 higher in rural settings.

It is important to understand that Canada is currently being governed by a very extremist power …. The reality of Bill C-45, and the complete gutting of 30 years of environmental approvals enforcement and regulatory mechanisms [is that it will] significantly kick open the door for international investment in tar sands, and other unsustainable and harmful and devastating extractive industries, which disproportionately impact our native people and our way of life … “

– Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous rights activist

Another study by the Campaign 2000 advocacy group found that one in four children within First Nations families in Canada lives in poverty.

And First Nations groups say Bill C-45, which is one of their main concerns, is just the latest bid by the government to change laws protecting the rights of Canada’s indigenous people.

Its changes affect all Canadians, not just First Nations.

The bill amends laws that govern waterways and environmental protection. Canada’s government says the changes are necessary to clear up ‘red tape’ and protect the economy.

But First Nations protesters say their lands, treaty rights and sovereignty are being eroded.

They say they were never consulted while C-45 was under consideration, and that is a violation of Canadian law, even though native groups repeatedly asked Harper to meet with them to discuss their concerns.

They also point out that the government has repeatedly supported limits on First Nations’ authority, despite promising not to approve any changes to the Indian Act.

Spence says: “It is time for everybody to work together. That means the government too – to treat us with respect and honour the treaty. The purpose of that treaty was to go in peace and honour each other and respect each other and slide together with the future, not to go separate ways. And this is what’s been happening with the government. He’s not listening or honoring our leadership.

“So that was the purpose of that treaty – to be partners. But we feel like the way it is right now we are more like a slave to the prime minister, not a partner.”

So, are Canada’s First Nations groups being targeted by the country’s government? And what are the rights of the indigenous people?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Kimberly Halkett, discusses with guests: Pamela Palmater, a lawyer and chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto, and Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous rights activist and tar sands campaign co-director at the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Inside Story Americas invited several conservative MPs to join the panel but they all declined. However, John Duncan, the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, sent the following statement.

“The Minister and the parliamentary secretary have made repeated efforts to reach Chief Spence to engage in discussion on the issues she has raised. We will continue trying to engage the chief and other First Nation leaders to discuss how we can build on the progress we have made since 2006

  • Built over 30 new schools
  • Renovated over 200 schools
  • Built over 10,000 homes and renovated thousands more
  • Invested in safe drinking water systems
  • Increased funding for child and family services by 25 percent
  • Introduced legislation to protect the rights of women on reserves
  • Settled over 80 outstanding land claims
  • Invested in over 700 projects that link aboriginals to job training and counseling services

“We believe that working together is the best way to build on this progress.”