Movement spurs protests, criticism on the government’s treatment of Aboriginals and environment.
“We are here to protect Mother Earth,” Yvonne Maracle, a Mohawk aboriginal told the crowd through her megaphone. Hundreds of Canadians gathered together one Saturday afternoon in early January in Hamilton, Ontario to protest and spread awareness for the Idle No More movement.
“We’re not just here for the Aboriginal people, but for all people,” Maracle said before the start of the march.
The crowd spread into the streets and blocked traffic on Highway 403, carrying First Nations flags and signs rejecting the recent omnibus bills passed in the Canadian Parliament.
It’s a grassroots movement that started off at a teach-in in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in November 2012, which has since spread rapidly across Canada and most recently, the United States.
With blockades on train lines, massive flashmob round dances in shopping malls, protests on the streets and a hunger strike by an Aboriginal chief, former prime minister Paul Martin has called it “one of the most significant post-war movements in Canada.”
Environment at stake
Canadian protesters are concerned with the sweeping legislative changes relating to First Nations’ rights and the environment, which passed through Senate in mid-December.
This includes omnibus Bill C-45, which removes environmental protection to Canada’s waterways, changing the 130-year-old Navigable Waters Protection Act.
Canada used to have 32,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers protected. Its protected waterways have now been reduced to 97 lakes and 62 rivers.
Many protesters worry this bill paves the way for industrial companies to freely develop projects such as oil and gas pipelines, putting waterways at risk.
“I think the ultimate goal is basically selling off Canada,” Maracle said of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party who proposed the bills.
“He [Harper] has been doing what’s best for his government, his people and the top one per cent,” Kathleen Quinn (24), a Hamilton resident, said at the protest.
“I think it’s time that we recognize that we need to stand in solidarity with people because this is about protecting our environment,” Quinn said.
Canada contains more than half of the world’s natural lakes.
Consultation with Aboriginals
Bill C-45 also changes how land is managed on Aboriginal reserves.
First Nations communities can now lease reserve lands based on a majority of voters who show up at the referendum. Prior to the bill, a majority of all eligible voters were required to make a decision.
First Nations leaders say the legislations ignore former treaties with the aim of controlling reserve lands without their consultation.
Tom Flanagan, Conservative political activist and former advisor to Harper stated in a commentary for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper that by getting rid of the rigidity of the Indian Act leasing rules, “Bill C-45 simply makes it easier for First Nations to lease land”- which can result in economic success for many of their communities.
“Consultation has become a shibboleth of our time,” Flanagan stated.
“It is, indeed, an essential part of democracy, but it can also become a constraint on freedom. Prolonged consultation may give some people a veto to prevent other people from exercising their own rights.”
Pam Palmater, Idle No More’s advocate and a Mi’kmaq lawyer explained to Canadian media, the government has a constitutional duty to consult with Aboriginal groups about decisions that impact lands, waters and resources that are under Aboriginal treaty claims, which hasn’t been done.
Native bands in Alberta are taking bills C-45 and C-38 to the Federal Court, asking for a judicial review of its environmental provisions.
John Duncan, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development at the time, and Keith Ashfield, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, both Conservative members, were contacted for an interview by the Global Development Observer but did not respond before deadline.
Duncan’s spokesperson, Jan O’Driscoll, replied in an email, stating the government has been consulting with First Nations.
“Every year our government conducts over 5,000 consultations with First Nations and since 2010 the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has personally visited 50 First Nations communities…” O’Driscoll stated.
Adding fuel to fire
Protesters also voiced concerns that the general public did not know about these controversial changes included in the bills until after they were passed in Parliament.
Omnibus bills C-45 and C-38 each number over 400 pages and include a plethora of issues from employment insurance to pension plans to environment assessment.
“The whole strategy of the omnibus bill is basically just to push an agenda through without anyone really being able to comment, critique or modify it,” Kevin MacKay, a sociology and environmental sustainability professor at Hamilton’s Mohawk College said at the protest in Hamilton.
“I think it is completely anti-democratic… this isn’t just about First Nations people or environmentalists. This is about democracy itself and whether citizens of Canada are going to have an input in decisions that affect them,” MacKay said.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was flooded with complaints regarding Bill C-38 last June. Through an access-to-information request, The Toronto Star newspaper discovered more than 3,200 pages of correspondence from the public sent to Flaherty’s office, all disapproving the legislation.
“This omnibus bill is made simply to confuse the average Canadian. They have no idea what you are up to. This is not democracy,” one person wrote on June 13.
Flaherty was also contacted for comment by Global Development Observer but did not respond by deadline.
Garnering attention from local to global
Locally, activists protested in early February against a nuclear plant in the Lansdowne neighbourhood of Toronto. The plant had been in the area for over five decades, yet few residents in the area were aware of its existence until now, as reported by local media.
Most recently, Idle No More has been merging with various advocacy groups, many of them environmental. On Feb. 17 thousands gathered in Washington D.C., demanding US President Barack Obama to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada. The pipeline would transport oil from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta to various refineries in the US with the southern tip ending in Houston, Texas.
The conflicts among Canadian Aboriginals caught the attention of Iran, who has persistently criticized Canada for its “unfortunate violation of basic human rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.”
Three United Nations reviews conducted in 2012 all found “very serious human rights challenges facing Indigenous peoples” in Canada, according to an Amnesty International report released in December.
“By every measure, be it respect for treaty and land rights, levels of poverty, average life spans, violence against women and girls, dramatically disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration or access to government services such as housing, health care, education, water and child protection, indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis,” the report said.
A Day of Solidarity for the movement was announced for Jan. 11, where 130 events worldwide were held, including in Finland, Egypt, Columbia and New Zealand.
Idle No More’s Facebook group now counts more than 97,000 members.