There is a growing movement in Canadian Aboriginal circles called Idle No More. Its mission statement is to call “on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water. Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth”.
The driving force behind Idle No More is opposition to a piece of legislation before Canada’s Parliament, an omnibus bill with everything from changes to Senatorial pensions to the construction of a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit. The two sections causing the issues in Aboriginal circles are changes to the Indian Act and further changes to the Environmental Assessment Act.
Changes to the Indian Act include changing the rules about what kind of meetings are required to lease or grant interest in designated lands, as well as giving the Aboriginal Affairs minister the authority to call a band meeting or referendum for the purpose of considering the absolute surrender of the band’s territory to the federal government.
The Environmental Assessment Act changes include making major pipeline and inter-provincial power line projects exempt from requirements that they prove they wouldn’t damage or destroy navigable waterways in Canada. A list of lakes and rivers was attached to this section of the bill and anything mentioned on it is no longer under federal protection.
The effects the omnibus bill can have are potentially devastating to Aboriginal land claims. The changes to the Indian Act make it far easier for the Federal government to make expropriation claims on Aboriginal lands. Expropriation might be better known as “eminent domain”, meaning authorities have the right to buy private property for public use as long as there is fair compensation. This by itself isn’t detrimental to Aboriginal land claims, but there are other factors which make the timing of this legislation very suspect. We’ll get to those in a moment. The Environmental Assessment Act changes have taken protection off many Aboriginal-controlled lakes and rivers, making them open for development and resource harvesting. Again, it’s not the changes themselves that are the problem, but discussing what has come before the omnibus bill will make things clearer.
Let’s turn back the clock a bit:
On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and gave a solemn apology for Residential Schools, where thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and subjected to mistreatment, including physical and sexual abuse. This apology was seen as a strong step towards reconciliation for Aboriginal peoples across Canada and a government with which they have for decades viewed with mistrust.
On October 28, 2011, the Aboriginal community of Atiwapiskat declared a state of emergency for the third time in three years, resulting from multiple issues including housing, utilities, inadequate water and sanitation systems. The media attention the story quickly gathered brought the poverty of many Aboriginal communities to the screens of millions. The Harper government’s response was seen as slow, inadequate and willfully ignorant of the facts of the situation. Many Aboriginals I talked to saw this as a turning point in fighting the sense of increasing marginalization of Aboriginal communities.
On January 24, 2012, Harper met with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo and while calling for an overhaul and updating of the Indian Act, promised that “Our government has no grand scheme to repeal or unilaterally rewrite the Indian Act”.
On June 4, 2012, Bill C-428, the Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act, was introduced by Saskatchewan Conservative MP Rob Clarke. The bill had mixed reactions in the Aboriginal communities. While the bill called for greater authority for Aboriginal chiefs and councils and less authority for the Native Affairs minister and federal government, it was also seen as a step against Prime Minister Harper’s promise to not repeal or unilaterally rewrite the Indian Act. The bill passed its first reading on December 5, 2012, by a vote of 156-129, with Prime Minister Harper voting in favor of it.
This brings us back to the omnibus bill that set Idle No More in motion. The bill, also known as Bill C-45, was passed on December 5 as well, by a vote of 156-128, again with Prime Minister Harper voting in favor of it.
So now what? From the joy of reconciliation to anger over changes in the Indian Act, it’s been a turbulent few years for Canadian Aboriginals. The timing of the bills, and their affect on Aboriginals is suspect because of the Harper government’s push to build a new oil pipeline, one that would most likely have run through Aboriginal land. The changes in how expropriation claims are made, to me, feels like the government is gearing up to start making claims on Aboriginal lands that run along the proposed pipeline routes by simply saying “the government has need of this land”. The taking away of protection status on some 16,000 lakes and rivers, again to me, seems like a move to make expropriation claims that much easier. What bothers me most is the giving the Aboriginal Affairs minister the authority to call a band meeting for the purpose of considering the absolute surrender of the band’s territory to the federal government. This feels to me like nothing more than a end-game solution for getting land that has politically valuable purpose.
The use of the omnibus bill, in which literally hundreds of amendments to law are pushed together, seems like a tactic designed simply to make it impossible to adequately argue against the proposed amendments in the House of Commons. With so many things pushed together, it becomes overwhelming to try to fully anticipate all intended affects of each section of the bill. The irony in this is that when Stephen Harper was first elected to Parliament, he was an outspoken critic of omnibus bill usage by the Liberal government, calling it an injustice to democracy.
I have no desire to turn this into an anti-Harper tirade. That’s not going to help anyone, especially in a situation as politically fragile as what we find ourselves in now. What I will say is this: when I see ads on TV promoting the proposed pipeline I smirk to myself because I can only imagine the amount of money and political wrangling behind that advertisement. Let me put it this way: if the pipeline was not such a political minefield, you wouldn’t need commercials to sway interest because there would be little opposition to it to begin with.
As for Idle No More, here’s my take on it: I myself am an Aboriginal of Ojibway descent and part of the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations. I was not raised in an Aboriginal home but was adopted by a Caucasian family. In this way I am, in many ways, an outsider looking in at my own culture. At the risk of opening up a firestorm, I am glad that I was adopted because it has given me opportunities that wouldn’t have been there if I had been raised by my birth family. Unfortunately my birth family falls in the category so many other Aboriginals have found themselves in, one where the cycle of addiction and brokenness only repeats itself with each passing generation.
A friend of mine teaches in a school in Fort Albany, Ontario, on James Bay. It is a mostly Aboriginal community and the stories of broken families she’s relayed to me are heartbreaking. Many of her students often miss class because they have to take care of their parents, who often spend their days and nights getting drunk. A number of those parents went to residential schools, and the abuse they suffered there has left them hardened and bitter towards any non-Aboriginal person. My friend, who is Caucasian, has said to me several times that “if you’re not Aboriginal, the chances of you being accepted in the community drop greatly”.
I say all this because I want to try to convey to you what’s at risk for the Aboriginal community. This isn’t just about land claims or bitterness over past treatment. There is a very real sense among Aboriginals that this a move to slowly do away with Aboriginals as a distinct society within Canada. If you slowly take away land claims, legally and politically assigned rights and privileges, eventually there will no distinction between Aboriginals and any other Canadian citizen. Perhaps the best way I can phrase this is that it’s “assimilation via the installment plan”.
I spoke at an Idle No More gathering and said that the time has come for Aboriginals to stop letting ourselves be marginalized and that it’s time to break free from that cycle of brokenness that has affected so many families. Most importantly, the time has come to forgive those who wronged us, whether it be by sending our children to residential schools, or putting us on reservations that limited our livelihood, or by any other way that we’ve been wronged.
Shawn Atleo, Aboriginal First Nations Chief, said ” We can’t work in isolation. The status quo has to be significantly changed, and these young people in the communities where I go need to see, taste and feel results sooner than later. I hope we’re in the kind of tipping point movement that other movements have experienced, whether it’s civil rights, women’s rights, the environmental issues”.
I do find myself torn when it comes to the Idle No More movement. On the one side, I can see where the merits are, where the possibility of change lies, but on the other, I really do wonder what lasting affect this activism will have, especially in seeing self-implosion of the Occupy movement. That said I do dream of a day when Natives are able to live up to their full potential in Canadian society. I dream of a day when the vicious cycles of addiction are finally broken. I dream of a day when I no longer have to worry about slurs and vitriol being flung at me simply because of my ethnic heritage.
Aboriginals have a voice and they have a vote that counts as equally as any other Canadian’s but up to now we’ve squandered that voice. For too long we’ve heard cries of “I’ve been wronged” instead of “I have something to contribute”. We are guilty for our predicament in that we stopped believing we could be more than what we were constantly told we were.
The first step is forgiveness. If we can forgive, we can move forward. I’m excited to see so many of my Aboriginal brothers and sisters coming together in a way never before seen. I just wish it didn’t take the threat of the end of our status as Aboriginals to ignite the fire.