Winnipeg’s Portage and Main yesterday

For nearly a month now indigenous protests against the Harper government and its policies have been exploding across Canada and beyond. Under the banner of “Idle No More“, protesters have targeted Bill C-45, our second budget omnibus bill which cuts funding and environmental protections while making it easier for outsiders to lease reserve lands (among many other changes). Adding fuel to this fire is Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who’s been on hunger strike since Dec 11th demanding to meet with Harper himself, who’s remained remarkably absent since the whole ordeal begun.

Within weeks, the mobilization had reached or exceeded the peak of turnouts for the Occupy movement in most parts of Canada. Given that First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples make up less than 4% of Canada’s population (rather than “99%”), and that December is one of the hardest months to organize, that’s a breathtaking achievement. Flashmobs of hundreds have struck some of Canada`s most iconic urban centres (malls, plazas and intersections). Blockades have begun on highways and railway tracks (like Aamjiwnaang, near Sarnia, which ended last night and Tyendinaga) and many more are planned. Tensions are rising quickly, solidarity demonstrations and words of support have been coming in from around the world, and at this point even organizers are having trouble keeping track of all the demonstrations happening.

In my experience, this kind of rapid and resounding success only comes when tensions below the surface are close to the breaking point. There have been a number of high-profile indigenous protests in the last decade, from the Aboriginal Day of Action in 2007 to years of events surrounding the controversy in Caledonia. Many have inspired solidarity demonstrations (including road/rail blockades) across the country, going right back to the infamous armed standoffs of the 1990s (Oka, Gustafsen Lake, etc). Few, though, have seen this kind of rapid and viral spread. What seems different this time, if anything, is the response – one which this time is seeing far more solidarity and less hostility.

Whether this is a continuation of inertia from the Arab Spring, Occupy and Quebec Student Strike (among others), a reaction to the increasingly radical and unilateral actions of our Prime Minister or simply the culmination of centuries of frustrations, it’s certainly about time we saw a mobilization like this.

The Big Tent
Idle No More, like Occupy, is a very broad, “big-tent” styled movement. Both the tactics and demands up until this point have stayed fairly moderate, considering what often happens at these protests. Even to the usually unsympathetic Canadian public, there’s very little which could be deemed unreasonable. After the national embarrassment which was the PM’s handling of the Attawapiskat housing crisis (later deemed illegal in court), ongoing struggles over pipelines and other Northern development and the horrific revelations which emerged from BC’s inquiry into missing native women, it’s becoming harder to pretend that anything’s really changed since the passage of the Indian Act in 1876.

This moderation hasn’t come without criticism, though, from more radical sectors who haven’t been “idle” for quite some time now. Particularly controversial has been the involvement of Band Council leadership in mobilizations, who many regard more as representatives of the Canadian government than their respective bands. Monday, organizers issued a statement distancing themselves from the chiefs and stating a “mandate from the grassroots to work outside systems of government”. The next day, Spence responded that the chiefs must “humble themselves and be one with the grassroots”, admitting their “imperfect past” by “becoming one and the same as the people”. I certainly share many of these concerns, and a longstanding respect for traditional leadership such as the Confederacy Chiefs and Clan Mothers at Six Nations, but I’m also inspired by the grassroots focus shown so far also can’t deny the incredible grassroots show of support so far. No movement is free of such internal conflicts, but is this a chance any of us can afford to pass up?

Our Home On Native Land
Canada has an utterly atrocious record when it comes to indigenous peoples, at home and abroad, which continues up to the current day. Last February, Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth And Reconciliation Committee was forced to admit that Canada’s Residential Schools clearly qualified under UN Conventions as “an act of genocide“. There have been involve in forced relocations, sterilisation programs, deposed governments, incredibly strict racially-based laws (an “Indian” could not vote, drink, gather in public, hire a lawyer for treaty matters or play pool for much of the last century) and sweeping efforts to strip groups (women, professionals etc) of their “status”. Reserves have been stripped of hugely valuable resources (timber, metals, oil, uranium) and dosed in return with nearly every kind of toxin imaginable, up to and including many cases of nuclear irradiation (Serpent River, etc). Then there’s the history of sexual violence, so pervasive and depraved that one can scarcely find words for it. “Atrocious” hardly seems strong enough a word for this horrific history, except in its literal meaning – the above-mentioned acts aren’t just crimes, they’re atrocities.

It’s time for Canadians to abandon cute and cuddly notions of our nation’s history. This isn’t a footnote, it’s a defining feature – without colonization of indigenous peoples and lands there wouldn’t be a “Canada”. First, because (treaties or not), it’s where we ultimately got every square millimetre of this country. Second, because the Fur Trade was the nation’s economic base for the first few centuries. And third, because we’d likely be an American state were it not for the warriors who fought alongside British troops in the war of 1812 (while most redcoats were occupied across the ocean with Napoleon and the Luddites). Even the names Canada, Ottawa and Toronto have their roots in indigenous languages.

At some point, as a nation, we will have to face the ugly realities of our past. We’ve been putting it off for decades, still hoping, like they did a century ago, that Canada’s native peoples would just die off or assimilate already. That’s not going to happen – in spite of centuries of efforts, aboriginal peoples are Canada’s fastest growing demographic. Indigenous rights are becoming just as large an international issue in the 21st century as they were in the 19th, and it’s sad that a country so willing to promote itself with native imagery has fallen so far behind in practice. No apology, no inquiry and no “Royal Commission” is going to suffice – only meaningful action on our parts can go toward healing these rifts. This isn’t something the government will or can do for us – they will continue on their path until they can no longer count on complacent and racist citizens to support them. Saying we’re sorry isn’t enough here, but showing a little solidarity might be.

The issues facing Canada’s native communities – pollution, neglect, corruption and poverty (to name a few) are the same which afflict every other community – white, black and brown – across the country as well. Regional autonomy and cultural are issues for Western, Eastern, Northern, rural and French communities, just as they are for inner-city neighbourhoods in Southern Ontario. This is not and has never been “just an Indian issue”. For many years indigenous activists have played crucial roles in broader struggles (poverty, development, environment etc.) – it’s time to return that favour. This is one movement which none of us, not even the Prime Minister, can afford to sit idly by and watch.