Canada‘s placid winter surface has been broken by unprecedented protests by its aboriginal peoples. In just a few weeks, a small campaign launched against the Conservative government’s budget bill by four aboriginal women has expanded and transformed into a season of discontent: a cultural and political resurgence.
It has seen rallies in dozens of cities, a disruption of legislature, blockades of major highways, drumming flash mobs in malls, a flurry of Twitter activity under the hashtag #IdleNoMore and a hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence, in a tepee minutes from Ottawa’s parliament. Into her tenth day,Spence says she is “willing to die for her people” to get the prime minister, chiefs and Queen to discuss respect for historical treaties.
The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan has dismissed the escalating protest movement, saying “that’s social media, so we’ll just have to see where that goes.” He told international media that relations with First Nations are “very good”. If only that were the truth. What remains unspeakable in mainstream politics in Canada was recently uttered, in a moment of rare candour, by former Prime Minister Paul Martin:
“We have never admitted to ourselves that we were, and still are, a colonial power.”
The evidence – and source of the current anger and unrest – is hard to dispute. While Canada has the world’s largest supply of fresh water, more than 100 aboriginal communities have tapwater so foul they are under continual boil alert (pdf). Aboriginal peoples constitute 3% of Canada’s population; they make up 20% of its prisons’ inmates. In the far north, the rate of tuberculosis is a stunning 137 times that of the rest of the country. And the suicide rate capital of the world? A small reserve in Ontario, where a group of school-age girls once signed a pact to collectively take their lives.
Such realities have not stopped politicians and pundits from prattling on about the sums supposedly lavished on aboriginal peoples. The myth that aboriginals freeload off the state serves to conceal the real scandal: that most money pays for a sprawling government bureaucracy that keeps aboriginals poor, second-class, and dependent. The widespread notion that First Nations mismanage and squander what funds they do receive is simple prejudice:government reports acknowledge that communities are buried under a mountain of strict accounting; they are no more corrupt than non-native municipalities.
Billions have indeed been spent – not on fixing housing, building schools or ending the country’s two-tiered child aid services, but on a legal war against aboriginal communities. Every year, the government pours more than $100m into court battles to curtail aboriginal rights – and that figure alone went to defeating a single lawsuit launched by two Alberta First Nations trying to recover oil royalties essentially stolen by bureaucrats.
Despite such odds, the highest courts of the land have ruled time and again in favour of aboriginal peoples. Over the last three decades, they have recognized that aboriginal nations have hunting, fishing and land rights, in some cases even outright ownership, over vast areas of unceded territory in British Columbia and elsewhere. And that the treaties Chief Spence is starving herself to see upheld – signed by the British Crown in the 1700 and 1800s, and the Canadian government until the early 1900s – mean the land’s wealth should be shared, not pillaged.
Federal and provincial governments have tried to claw back these rights using every means at their disposal: unilateral legislation and one-sided negotiations, spying on and demonizing aboriginal activists, and, when all else fails, shuttling troublesome leaders to jail.
Parliament will soon debate a bill that would break up reserves – still, mostly, collectively held – into individual private property that can be purchased by non-native speculators. The undeclared agenda of government policy is the same as it was a century ago: a grab for resource-rich lands, and the assimilation of aboriginal nations.
Canadians have often turned a blind eye, having been taught to see the rights of aboriginal peoples as a threat to their interests. Dare to restore sovereignty to the original inhabitants, the story goes, and Canadians will be hustled out of their jobs and off the land. Or more absurdly, onto the first ships back to Europe.
But here’s the good news. Amidst a hugely popular national movement against tar sands tankers and pipelines that would cross aboriginal territories, Canadians are starting a different narrative: allying with First Nations that have strong legal rights, and a fierce attachment to their lands and waters, may, in fact, offer the surest chance of protecting the environment and climate. Get behind aboriginal communities that have vetoes over unwanted development, and everyone wins. First Nations aren’t about to push anyone off the land; they simply want to steward it responsibly.
Think of this as a sign of things to come: an image of Vancouver’s mayor, flanked by aboriginal chiefs, speaking out together against a destructive pipeline project. After all, who would Canadians rather control enormous swathes of rural, often pristine land : foreign corporations who see in it only dollar signs over the next financial quarter, or aboriginal communities whose commitment to its sustainability is multigenerational?
The importance of #IdleNoMore cannot be overstated. Grassroots movements are what have ensured the survival of aboriginal culture, and what remains of an aboriginal land base. If it grows in energy and coordinates in a network of activism like Defenders of the Land, it could be a powerful force toreset aboriginal-state relations.
It will not only ensure Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally takes the short drive from his office to visit an ailing Theresa Spence. It may also inspire non-native Canada itself, idle for too long, to reckon with the past and envision a very different future.