by Leah Temper.
The Harper government almost got away with it… The Conservative government in Canada, in power since 2006, has done everything to clear the way for further development of the disaster that is the tar sands mega-project, including plans for major pipeline construction that steamrolls over the consent of Native communities, backing out of Kyoto, slashing funds for environmental research and gutting Canada´s system of environmental enforcement and monitoring.
But maybe, the Omnibus bill, Bill C-45, was just one step too far. Designed to change land use and resource policies and to ease resource extraction, resistance to the bill has sparked huge protest from indigenous and environmental justice activists who say they will be “Idle No More” in the face of what they call the Government’s attempts to appropriate resource-rich lands and to treaty rights of First Nations in Canada.
The “Idle No More” movement was started by four aboriginal women in Saskatechewan. It led to a series of protests against the bill and has now evolved into a full-fledged movement with a wider agenda for political transformation and a renewed relationship with nature. It is firstly calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to honor treaties with aborigines, open dialogue with environmentalists and reject tar sands pipelines that would infiltrate First Nation territories. Like the Occupy movement, it has spread virally through social media and given birth to mass participation through impromptu roadblocks, railway blockages, occupations, teach-ins and “round-dances” in shopping malls and plazas across Canada.The website idlenomore.ca calls on people to “join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty” and “protects the land and water.” Meanwhile, Attawapiskat First NationChief Theresa Spence recently marked the one month anniversary of an on-going liquids only hunger strike she began on December 11th while camped out in a tepee just outside Ottawa’s parliament. She has said she will starve herself until she gets a meeting with Prime Minister Harper and Canada’s Governor General David Johnston, the representative of the British Crown in Canada to discuss the need to respect historical treaties. While Harper met with some indigenous leaders on the 11th of Jan, Spence refused to attend because the Governor General (the representative of the Queen, Canada´s official head of state) refused to participate.
Among the most controversial elements of Bill C-45 is the alteration of the Navigable Waters Protection Act which used to protect 2.5 million rivers and lakes across the country. The new bill only covers 97 lakes and 62 rivers. This gives the green light for mining and oil companies to use and destroy rivers of cultural and biological significance without any environmental oversight. For example, Shell Canada has proposed to mine out 21 km of the Muskeg river, used as a waterway by the Athabasca Chipewyan Nation. The Mikisew Cree First Nation and Frog Lake first Nation are also fighting mining projects on their treaty lands and have filed documents in Canadian Federal Court on Jan. 7, arguing that the Omnibus legislation violates treaty obligations to protect traditional aboriginal territories.
“Idle no More” has already created links and alliances with indigenous communities around the world, from Palestine to Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as with other social justice and environmental justice groups in Canada, including migrant rights groups. The movement is also spreading South, where allies on the Yankton Sioux territory in South Dakota have been mobilizing against the Keystone XL pipeline. By addressing racial discrimination and class issues, Idle no More offers the potential to succeed where the Occupy movement fell short, by bringing the most marginalized and oppressed voices among the “99%” to the forefront and by revealing the structural and material basis behind the economic inequality that Occupy so succesfully highlighted. Recent Occupy campaigns focusing on a “debt-strike” to erase people´s debts, are imaginative and effective against “Debtocracy” but they seem to forget that the most marginalized people are not granted access to credit in the first place. While INM, like Occupy, is based on participatory, direct democracy, a press release published today also reminds us that the movement is guided by Spiritual Elders, dreams, visions, and from peoples’ core values and they ask that organizers “create space for Elders or Knowledge/Ceremonial Keepers to assist in guiding decisions as we move forward.”
Native Canadians make up a seemingly insignificant percentage of the Canadian population – under 4%, or just over one million people divided into some 600 bands scattered across a vast landscape. But corporations and governments dismiss the power of these indigenous groups at their own peril – they are in fact the guardians of much of the remaining resource wealth on their territories and their opposition to projects such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline means they are the last front in the battle to avoid getting the tar sands oil, the second largest pool of carbon on earth, to the market and into the atmosphere.
As INM spokesperson Pamela Palmater pointed out in a recent interview on Al Jazeera,“First Nations, aboriginal and treaty rights, which are constitutionally protected, is the last best defense that all Canadians have to protect these lands and resources”. In Canada and across the world, this resurgence of indigenous resistance remains one of the most powerful forces to prevent wholesale destruction of the few remaining pristine eco-systems left and to fight climate change. Their legal rights to consent and consultation protected in International Law offer a strong non-violent weapon in defence of their own livelihoods and the environment, while indigenous cosmo-visions offer an alternative world-views and value system that capable of inspiring an end to idleness across the globe. The First Peoples of Canada have sounded the war-cry but it is now up to all Canadians to support their call to #stopharper.