The Idle No More movement for indigenous civil rights and environmental protection has spread like a prairie wildfire across Canada and around the globe, with a major impact on the political landscape of Canada, the largest trading partner of the US.
On Friday, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally agreed under pressure to meet with First Nations' leaders on Jan. 11, exactly one month to the day after the nation-wide rallies started. For a movement only several weeks old, Idle No More has clearly tapped into a groundswell of concern across Canada and around the world.
The most visible face of indigenous activism is Chief Theresa Spence who today is on her 27th day of fasting in a teepee on a traditional Algonquin island, just across the river from the Canadian Parliament. Massive concern about her failing health from citizens of all backgrounds, from civil society, and from an unprecedented coalition across the political spectrum is what finally led Harper to agree to the Jan. 11 meeting. Chief Spence is continuing her hunger strike until the meeting takes place and all parties commit to substantive change, and Idle No More has likewise stated that they expect actions, not just words, and will continue to speak up. The outcome of this Friday's discussions between the government and First Peoples will be a pivotal event for native civil rights, global warming and future Canadian politics.
Idle No More is a grassroots movement started by four indigenous women in Saskatchewan to organize teach-ins about the Conservative government's pending legislation. In early December the Harper government passed a sweeping omnibus budget bill C-45 in which were hidden numerous - largely undiscussed - changes to existing Canadian laws. Most notable is erosion of First Nations' treaty rights without the full consultation and consent required by the Canadian Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The bill also eviscerated the Navigable Waters Protection Act, weakening environmental oversight for over a million lakes and rivers and paving the way for pipelines and rapid resource and tar sands development, often on traditional First Peoples' lands.
Like the Arab Spring and Occupy, this grassroots movement has no leaders and its growth has largely been driven by social media. Many thanks to Fresno whose diary first alerted me to Idle No More at a time when no other media were covering it. The picture he posted also finally persuaded me to sign up at DailyKos after a decade of silence.On Dec. 11, International Human Rights' Day, Idle No More rallies were held from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and from remote northern reserves to the southern metropolis of Toronto. Since then, there are have been daily events across Canada, throughout the US and around the world. This map only shows some of the events held in the first two weeks of the movement since the Google limit is 200 markers. By now there have been many hundreds more and the movement is still growing daily.
What began as teach-ins soon evolved into nationwide political rallies. On Dec. 17, a group of young people in Regina used Twitter and Facebook to organize a flash mob at a mall packed with holiday shoppers, and held a traditional round dance around the Christmas tree. Since then countless round dances have been held in malls, streets and parks all over the world and they're still happening. Here are some of the early events, including a solidarity dance by Australian Aborigines and a huge round dance attended by many hundreds at the Minnesota Mall of America, the second largest mall in the US:
The movement has also taken on other forms of peaceful and lawful protest such as
temporary blockades of highways and railroads. The longest railroad blockade was ended after over a week by a court injunction not only against the organizer, but also the Sarnia police chief who had refused to remove the protesters; one of the iconic videos of the movement is a Sarnia police officer drumming with reserve members in a tent next to the blockade. Yesterday several Canada-US border crossings and bridges were briefly closed for rallies and round-dances.
The movement has resonated so deeply and spread so quickly because it has a simple message: respect constitutionally and internationally protected indigenous human rights, and protect the environment. Here's a video from my favourite grassroots spokesperson for Idle No More: an 11-year-old girl, Ta'Kaiya Blaney from Sliammon First Nation in southwestern British Columbia. We can feel her channel the oratorical brilliance of her ancestors' traditions as she succinctly summarizes the goals of the Idle No More movement. If you can, please watch this video.
For those who can't access streaming video, here are some excerpts:
Everything we do to water we do to life, because water is life. It's not just us, we're all connected and we have to respect everything that lives on this earth, that shares the same earth that we do...(Not transcribed but also worth viewing in this video are her blunt comments as an idealistic young delegate to Rio+20 about the Petrobras ads on the UN buses, the sale of diamonds at conference events and the spin given to the media that world leaders are working on sustainability by saving the polar bears. She reminds me of the child who finally blurts out that the emperor has no clothes.)
We have rights and we can stand and hold our ground and say and give our consent whether a development is going to go through or not, like the Keystone XL or the Enbridge pipelines, or pipe dreams as I like to call them. We are standing on unceded territory, and we have that right and that's what Idle No More is all about, it's about us standing up and speaking out. We've never really been asleep, and now more than ever we're awake and we're standing up.
It's so important with Idle No More that we're standing here today, because we're not waiting for our governments to change things, we're not waiting for the authorities to change things any more. Because we know now that if we keep waiting for the next day to come, we're denying the fact that if we keep waiting for change, it's never going to come. We stand united today to put an end to the pipe dreams and to the rights we're being denied. We stand united!
Both Canada and the US share what First Nations call Turtle Island. Below I explain the significance of Idle No More in the context of Canadian politics, a topic not often covered in US media. As well, because of treaty, constitutional and international rights, First Peoples have legal standing to contest the pipelines and tar sands development, and their assertion of native rights may be one of our last chances to halt exponential global warming. Please follow me after the fractal infinity sign.
Chief Spence's Hunger Strike
After weeks of ignoring Idle No More, Harper was finally and urgently forced to schedule a meeting with First Nations' leaders because of massive public concern for four indigenous elders and chiefs, all well into their fourth week of fasting. As noted above, the most prominent is Chief Spence who came to national attention in the winter of 2010-11 when Canadians were shocked to learn of the third-world conditions at her Attawapiskat reserve on James Bay, the southern part of Hudson's Bay. Children without a permanent school structure for 12 years; young and old sick from mould and contaminated water; families entering winter in tents and plywood shacks.
The situation was all the more appalling because the reserve sits 90 km from a $1 billion DeBeers diamond mine on traditional Attawapiskat land. A year later, there is still no school and while there have been new homes for some, other band members were evacuated for lack of adequate housing. With all the amazing bloggers from Native Net Roots and the incredible community support for supplying winter propane and supporting women's shelters, I don't need to explain the desperate conditions on reservations throughout Turtle Island.
Chief Spence's hunger strike is not only about her reserve Attawapiskat, but about all First Peoples who include the First Nations, Inuit and Métis (descendants of fur trappers and First Nations who often still speak their native languages). Well over 4% of Canada's population is indigenous, they are the country's fastest growing demographic, but they are Canada's "invisible minority." Idle No More has finally created a powerful native civil rights movement, and for the first time in history it has united Canadian First Peoples together.
Support from Civil Society
Grassroots activism and the urgency of the hunger strikes explain in part why Harper reversed his position not to meet with Chief Spence and other native leaders. But further pressure on Harper was the growing activism and support for Chief Spence and the movement throughout civil society: environmental groups, Amnesty International, unions representing millions of Canadians (Canadian Auto Workers, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, National Union of Public and General Employees, Public Service Alliance of Canada, and Ontario Federation of Labour), and churches representing over five million Canadians (United, Anglican/Episcopalian, Kairos.)
Canadian Political Context
Across almost the entire Canadian political spectrum, there were calls for Harper to meet with native leaders to address indigenous rights and poverty. The official Leader of the Opposition, NDP MP Thomas Mulcair, weighed in early asking Harper to address the situation and meet with Chief Spence. Two previous Prime Ministers - Conservative Joe Clark and Liberal Paul Martin - have met with her, as well as Justin Trudeau, the front-runner to take over leadership of the Liberal Party later this year and the son of long-serving PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau. To loosely translate this to the US political scene, it is as if Jimmy Carter, Richard Lugar, Nancy Pelosi and Ralph Nader were all actively advocating for the same outcome: meetings and consultation to address First Peoples' rights and concerns.
Harper has a majority of seats in the Parliament, but he only received 39.6% of the popular vote (the remaining ballots were split among the NDP, Liberals, Bloc Quebecois and Greens). Yet he continues to act unilaterally without proper democratic discussion, both in Parliament and with the general public, as if he had received some kind of sweeping mandate.
The Conservative party Harper leads only came into existence nine years ago, through a merger between the moderate Progressive Conservatives and the socially-conservative corporatist Alliance/Reform Party whose roots are in Alberta and its oil industry. At the time of the merger, Harper led the Alliance/Reform Party, and then was elected head of the new Conservative Party. Harper's home riding is in Calgary, the heart of the push to exploit the tar sands. So this history helps explain how Canada ended up with a far-right government that does not enjoy the support of the majority of Canadians, and why the coalescence of political opposition and public attention brought about by Idle No More is encouraging.
Right-Wing Press Encourages Racist Rhetoric and Misinformation
Traditional Canadian politics were characterized by moderation and tolerance. Canadians take pride that we are a "mosaic" of different cultures and peoples, rather than the US "melting pot." With the importation of hard-right ideology into the Canadian political environment, Canada has also seen its own versions of Fox news and Murdoch-style tabloids emerge. Like their US and British counterparts, these provide an echo-chamber for misinformation, prejudice and, in recent weeks, outright racist commentary.
All the Idle No More events have been peaceful, and there have been no arrests. So far the only violence related to this movement was the kidnapping, rape and attempted murder of an indigenous woman by two non-native men who hurled racist epithets at her and stated: "you Indians deserve to lose your treaty rights." She nearly became one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of missing native women and girls in Canada. Left for dead in the woods, she managed to return home. Her mother immediately made a public statement:
We felt it was important for us to get the word out because we are very concerned about the safety of our women in the community. And as well we want to tell people that even though this happened to my daughter, we are not the violent ones. We want to tell people not to get angry or to be violent. Its very important that the Idle No More movement to remain peaceful.So far such ongoing and repeated calls for peaceful action have prevailed in the Idle No More movement. But a great deal of education will be required to correct the rhetoric and misinformation presented to the public by the tabloid press.
First Nations Have Legal Standing to Stop Pipelines and Tar Sands Development
In recent weeks, many Canadians have been writing about why Idle No More Is Not Just an "Indian Thing" (and not just a "Canadian Thing" either): "Aboriginal people may be the canary in the coal mine. If we overlook one section of the constitution does that mean others are in similar jeopardy?... [I]ndigenous environmentalism is significant since the crown has a duty to consult with Aboriginal people before natural resource projects proceed...First Nations are Canadians' last, best hope of protecting the land, water, sky and plants and animals for their future generations as well."
Another recent article, A Settler's Guide to Idle No More, states:
Although the aboriginal issues are at the start of the movement, the ... exploitation of the Tar Sands, for instance, threatens First Nations, Canadians and the world as a whole. NASA scientist James Hansen said recently:I know this is not new information for Kossacks, but we have watched in despair as global leaders have remained idle in the face of catastrophic climate change, when even an 11-year-old child can see the consequences for our future. Canadian First Nations have the legal standing to stop the pipelines, which must pass through native reserves, and the tar sands, which are on traditional First Nation lands and therefore require consultation and consent under Canadian and international law.
"Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.” (May 9, 2012)"
Last month the Mayor of Vancouver, environmental groups and 130 First Nations reaffirmed the Fraser Declaration that "bans tar sands pipelines and tankers, as a matter of Indigenous law, from First Nations territories forming an unbroken chain from the U.S. border to the Arctic Ocean -- and spanning the entire length of B.C. from north to south.
While there have been some First Nations who initially welcomed resource projects, even communities that have seen new jobs are growing disillusioned. These mines and oil projects in the Canadian north are generally temporary "fly-in" sites, and do not contribute to capacity building in the local communities. Here's an overview of the problems, relating specifically to Chief Spence's Attawapiskat reservation with its third world conditions next to a $1 billion DeBeers diamond mine, but also more generally applicable: Unless these fundamental issues are addressed, it is unlikely if not impossible for mining development in Ontario’s “Far North” to contribute significantly to community development of remote First Nations.
In addition to the lack of long-term economic development, another reason for such disillusionment is the environmental impact. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, downstream from a tar sands project, has seen an alarming rise in cancer rates and in deformities among the native fauna. “We live a very traditional life; we live off the land and the water. We have been told again and again that contaminants are naturally occurring, yet in the last 40 years we have seen the health of our community decline due to cancers and illness that we didn’t see before.”
The Upcoming Meeting between First Peoples and the Canadian Government
By observing the news and the twitter feeds, one can see that all sides recognize the historic significance of Friday's meeting, and the dangers should the meeting fail. All stakeholders also agree on the one core issue: the current relationship between First Peoples and the government is hopelessly broken. For decades, both Liberal and Conservative governments have produced endless commissions and recommendations and reports, but until now there was no political will for the hard work of implementing major systemic reform in full partnership with First Peoples. Harper tried to legislate change without consultation and consent, but Idle No More provided a wake-up call to the Conservatives and the Canadian public that their voices need to be heard.
The grassroots have pledged to continue until dialogue and consultation lead to new policies respecting First Peoples' rights and the environment. By the time the meeting occurs, Chief Spence will be well into the fifth week of her hunger strike. Much rides on the outcome of Friday's meeting for all the people of Turtle Island, and around the world.