Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief Ω
The rhythm of the drums and the emotion of the chanting that rose from the block-long procession on Victoria Street in downtown Kamloops, B.C. on Dec. 21 was infectious. You could feel there was something larger and deeper going on than just these 100 or so people with their signs and their music, but what exactly that was has yet to be established.
What had been established is that yet another movement was (and is) upon us — one that possibly gets to the core of how we, as Canadians, feel about what it is to be Canadian — and the health of one woman who was outside the front door of Parliament in Ottawa was in serious jeopardy. She was starving herself until Canada’s Prime Minister came out to have a chat and the attention of the country was upon her.
“She sits below Parliament Hill prepared to die for our children, and for our children’s children,” said Michelle Good, one of the many who came out to Coopers Foods on Landsdowne Street that day. “Her stand is about more than Attiwapiskat — it’s about stopping the pain.”
The woman she was talking about is, of course, Chief Theresa Spence of the now famous Attiwapiskat community in northern Ontario.
Attiwapiskat made national headlines in late 2011 when it was declared to be in a state of emergency. The rest of Canada was exposed to how the people of that community had been living and the uproar soon followed.
For some the uproar came in the form of attacks on the people for what the accusers assumed was misuse or misappropriation of government funding allowing their own community to crumble into such a sorry state.
For others the assessment was that the Canadian government wasn’t doing enough to ensure its citizens weren’t living in such a ruinous situation.
“Let’s acknowledge very clearly, there is no easy answer for the challenges that First Nations people continue to face in this country,” said CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi on Dec. 19, 2012 in the opening essay for his national radio show. Nine days into Chief Spence’s hunger strike, the national media was (some say finally) fully absorbed.
“That it takes a crisis like Attiwapiskat to focus our attention on the situation is highly problematic and should be a major source of concern for all Canadians,” Ghomeshi continued. “And even then, of course, the national media and the general public do tend to lose interest in a situation like Attiwapiskat after a week or two.”
That last sentiment was about to change.
The general consensus is that the Idle No More movement began when a few First Nations women in Saskatchewan were talking via email about certain pieces of federal legislation (most notably Bill C-45, dubbed the “Omnibus Budget Bill”), and getting angry about the perceived lack of consultation with First Nations peoples and communities. They started a Facebook page to discuss these matters, and when the hashtag #IdleNoMore started to circulate on Twitter, the growth of the discussion was meteoric and unexpected.
According to many First Nations, Bill C-45 is not merely a 400-page document that implements the federal government’s most recent budget, it also makes significant and worrisome changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act as well as altering the Indian Act, negatively effecting the people living on treaty lands and their ability to make decisions about those lands and the resources contained within them.
Yes, Chief Theresa Spence was killing herself over a “budget bill,” but many think Spence’s hunger strike and the movement that has grown from it is about so much more than any one document — it’s about opening lines of communication and taking charge of our own situation as Canadians.
As Ghomeshi said, “Idle No More is a way of reframing the debate. A way for people, especially young people, taking initiative and taking action and making their voices heard to affect change in our country — to get the notice of those in power and to send them a message.
“Hey, it might be unfocused, it might be messy, but it is the way we should want our democracy.”
What are they complaining about?
“I think it’s pretty amazing,” said former two-time federal Green Party candidate and current Kamloops city councillor Donovan Cavers as he surveyed the numbers and watched the breath rise over the gathering of people waiting for the march to begin. “Given the time of year, a few days before Christmas, the middle of winter — and there’ll probably be more before we walk.”
“For me, Bill C-45 is one of the worst pieces of legislation our federal government has ever passed,” he said. “As far as protected waterways going from millions to thousands…it’s a pretty remarkable step backwards, so that’s why I’m here.”
The protest has gained the support of all three national opposition parties, and though it could be claimed that anything bad for the ruling party is good for the opposition, there seems to be an unusual level of unilateral support amongst politicians not affiliated with the federal Conservatives.
“A lot of indigenous people are really tired of the way they’ve been treated … it’s not too surprising that this is building momentum and people are coming forward who have been silent for a long time,” said Cavers, clearly wanting to mingle with the assembled people. I let him go join the mass as I watched those assembled being cleansed with the smudge bowl, a tradition and cultural nuance that I could never understand — but watching them employ this tradition brought forth even more respect and appreciation for the gathering itself.
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Chief Shawn Atleo told the Globe and Mail his view on the movement in an interview mid-December.
“I think we are going to see a continued expression of this frustration in an effort to break a very toxic system that, in fact, in my view, is life or death,” he said. “The cycle of heartbreaking tragedies has to end and that’s what our people are saying.”
That “cycle of heartbreaking tragedies” refers to the treatment of continual neglect and abandonment felt by the First Nations communities in this country.
Some of that treatment results in the Aboriginal Peoples demographic making up a mere three per cent of the Canadian population but 20 per cent of Canada’s population of incarcerated prison inmates.
That neglect results in a country with the largest supply of freshwater on the planet also having more than 100 First Nations communities living under a continual boil water alert.
That abandonment often comes about when the Crown takes small First Nations communities to court over oil reserve royalties. During the process, the Crown often ignores treaties signed by First Nations and British colonists.
An article in The Guardian published Dec. 20, 2012, entitled “Canada’s First Nations protest heralds a new alliance,” proclaims the Idle No More movement to be uniting the First Nations and non-First Nations people of Canada, because, “After all, who would Canadians rather control enormous swaths of rural, often pristine land: foreign corporations who see it in only dollar signs over the next financial quarter, or aboriginal communities whose commitment to its sustainability is multigenerational?”
But is that true? Are we really coming together on this issue?
So much hate
Not everyone agrees with First Nations’ assertion that their rights and treaties are being infringed upon, or with The Guardian’s assessment that the movement is uniting Canadians. In fact, based on the commentary below many articles regarding the movement, some would say it is dividing Canada even more.
As is the case with every uprising, Idle No More has its opponents.
When the national media had taken up the cause (and some say it took far too long for widespread coverage to begin) the feedback on message and comment boards of the major national publications seemed to be overwhelmingly negative towards the movement.
“This movement hopefully will free Canadian taxpayers from the scourge of providing large sums of cash with no accountability to the Chiefs and Councils,” said one poster in the comment section of a story by the National Post.
“Stick to your position Harpo, govern Canada, don’t give in to this nut,” said another, adding, “By the way, how is it that those Canadians who live in Attawapiskat are not entirely responsible for the condition of their homes and community? Especially as I understand that they are a superior class of Canadian citizen that for no real reason other than racism gets more government money than the rest of us.”
That reader’s analysis garnered an even more detailed and negative response regarding First Nations “entitlements” and perceived accountability issues:
“Remember your mortgage, insurance, maintenance costs when you realize they do not pay a penny. Plus they receive a monthly stipend, how much I do not know. One native friend in Nova Scotia told me his reserve PAYS $4,000 per month to each PERSON over 18 years of age. Hard to believe? Get after your MP for details. Remember when your child pays university and its ancillary costs—the native child pays NOTHING. Why anyone prefers to live in Bands like Attawapiskat is hard to fathom? It is isolated, surrounded by mosquitoes and muskeg. PS. One chief of an 87 person, yes eighty-seven people reserve in NS, received $250,000 tax free. Plus one relative Councillor received almost one million tax free, including eight hundred thousand for work down on the reserve from his company. It was never revealed what he did for the money. The Native Councils of Canada must be held to account for the actions of those Chiefs who make a mockery of the system.” (All errors sic)
These feelings are echoed all over the comment sections of the online coverage of Idle No More — from CTV, CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star — often (though not always) by people who admit within their own posts that they have no first-hand experience, documentation or statistics to back up their claims. A seemingly very large percentage of people are engaging with this topic basing their opinions on hearsay, rumour and long-held assumptions.
Obert Madondo, who used a hunger strike to personally protest Bill C-10 in March 2012, penned an article for the Huffington Post. “What Chief Spence’s Hunger Strike Says About Canada” provides a realistic and accurate expression and interpretation of the history of hunger strikes as a negotiating tactic in Canada and abroad. It is a first-hand account of what it’s like to devotedly protest for a cause in this country and has garnered many responses similar to those seen on the National Post boards.
Responses like, “Let’s cut off hydro, water and sewer. Don’t build any roads, stop selling gasoline… No schools, no hospitals, no department stores… Let them live the life of real native people… if this is what they want,” were rampant.
The attitude from the public that First Nations people should not be “entitled” to anything rages on.
“Within our lifespan, what have I taken from you? Oh that’s right…don’t let a little thing called reality take you away from blaming the white man for all your problems. Laying back and blaming me for everything is soooooo much easier than growing up and taking responsibility for your actions,” seems to be the general feedback on mainstream media articles from national publications — whether that’s just because the pro-Idle No More people are busy rallying (or for whatever reason aren’t engaging on comment boards) or if it’s the general feeling of the Canadian public remains to be seen.
Although, as if spurred on by the feedback being received, more and more national publications are starting to publish pieces themselves that come from that side of the argument.
Articles and columns like the Jan. 5, “Too many first nations people live in a dream place,” written by Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, which implies the desired world (and relationship with the Canadian government) described by the pro-Idle-No-More community is unattainable and they should just move on and join the real world.
“[T]oo many communities remain within the dream palace, hungering for a return to a more separate existence, even if the lands on which they sit are – and likely always will be – of marginal economic value,” he wrote. “Attawapiskat, Chief Spence’s community, is subject to severe flooding, given its location on the James Bay plain, but it refused to consider moving farther upriver or near Timmins, where there might be employment opportunities.”
He concludes his column with the statement, “To imagine that isolated communities of a thousand or so people can be vibrant and self-sustaining, capable of discharging the panoply of responsibilities of ‘sovereignty,’ is to live within the dream palace of memory,” confirming his implied assertion throughout the piece that First Nations people of Canada should just suck it up, move somewhere they can get a job and assimilate into the capitalist culture that is the driving force of this great nation.
As of the writing of this piece, Chief Spence is still awaiting a meeting with Prime Minister Harper, hungry and cold in her tepee on a small island in the frozen Ottawa River below Parliament Hill, though a meeting has been scheduled between Prime Minister Harper and the AFN for Jan. 11, which Chief Spence has said she will attend.
Shopping centres, ferry terminals, railways and border crossings are still being overrun and disrupted, banners are still being flown and Twitter and Facebook are still being flooded with support or resistance, promotion or frustration.
While the fallout from the movement will be seen in time, it is certainly not accurate to say that the uprising is bringing Canadians together.
The only thing that is certain to come of this is that Canada will change because of this.
The direction and extent of that change depends on too many ever-changing factors to even hazard a guess at this point, but there’s action being taken, a discussion brewing around that action and the attention of the nation is being held.
As Ghomeshi said, this is the way we should want our democracy. Here’s hoping it changes for the better when all is said and done.