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2012: A Year of Activism from Maple Spring to Idle No More

I think we will look back at 2012 as the year that everything changed. The year began with what became a powerful strike of Quebec students against an intransigent government and ended with an historic movement of Indigenous peoples across the country declaring they will be Idle No More.

It was a year of activism. The Quebec student strike, and related Casseroles demonstrations in neighborhoods and towns across Quebec, brought down the tone-deaf government of Jean Charest. I called this movement Occupy 2.0 because like Occupy democratic assemblies were at the centre of their success and mobilization but they also used more traditional community organizing techniques to build support among students and had a visible, sophisticated and accountable leadership.

Thanks to rabble.ca and Translating the Maple Spring, a volunteer social media effort, activists in English Canada were able to receive information from the inspiring struggle over the gap of language, mainstream politics and corporate media that have kept us ignorant of each other across the Quebec/Canada divide for so long. For the first time in my lifetime, people in the rest of Canada mobilized support for a struggle in Quebec. And the student movement in Quebec noticed. They are now in the lead of building a pan-Canadian, cross-sectoral movement to oppose Harper and his neo-liberal agenda.

In B.C., a coalition of First Nations and environmental justice groups joined by activists from Occupy Vancouver built a broad movement called Defend Our Coasts. In response the Harper government backed away from supporting the Enbridge pipeline and while Enbridge continues to fight for the pipeline, a clear majority of British Columbians now oppose the mega-project. There were other victories in B.C. along the same lines. In Ontario local property owners joined with environmentalists and city foodies to stop a Mega Quarry on their lands just north of Toronto.

In Ontario, teachers stood up against the betrayal of the Liberal government and the passage of Bill 115. They helped to ensure the Liberals lost several by-elections leading to the resignation of Premier Dalton McGuinty and then took militant action against the government through one-day strikes and work to rule.

Most importantly, the year ended with the brave and inspiring hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, the spark that lit the prairie fire of the Idle No More movement.

It’s not just the rise of activism that leads me to the conclusion that 2012 will change everything. After all it was Occupy that made protest cool again and broke through the neo-liberal hegemony of mainstream discourse by exposing the gap between the rich and the rest of us in 2011. It is the lead of First Nations and Quebec that will change everything.

The central weakness of the Left in Canada in my view has been its failure to understand in practice the fact that Canada is a nation of nations. While there have been moments where that understanding was expressed, it was never central to our politics. During the early 70’s the Waffle, a left inside the NDP, declared the right of Quebec to self-determination and supported Indigenous self-determination. Again in the early 1990’s the National Action Committee on the Status of Women argued that the way to amend the constitution was to recognize that Canada is composed of three nations each of which is multi-national and multi-cultural and has the right to self-determination and that we should negotiate our relationship nation to nation. It was complicated because First Nations are many nations but a committee of First Nations, Quebec and Canadian women developed the framework after two years of discussions.

There were demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Kahnestake during the Oka crisis in the summer of 1990 and sporadic solidarity with other struggles since then. But this is the first time I can remember such a united effort on the part of Indigenous peoples with strong, broad solidarity from a wide range of social movements, unions and political parties.

Perhaps it’s because the issues raised are not only Indigenous rights, although that should always have been enough but also the key issues of democracy and survival of the planet. As Pam Palmater, one of the spokespeople for Idle No More has pointed out,“First Nations are the last best hope that Canadians have of protecting lands for food and clean water for the future-not just for our people but for Canadians as well.”

What has changed in 2012 is that it is the youth of Quebec and the Indigenous peoples who are leading the battle against neo-liberalism and against Harper. Both groups welcome with open hearts support from others as long as it is offered with respect for our differences as well as for our common issues.

Chief Theresa Spence has shown the courage, integrity and eloquence of a great leader. When the CBC asked her if she had ever been so angry, she responded,“Anger, no. It’s pain not anger. I can’t take the pain anymore.”

On Christmas Eve she sent a message of love to all the people who had supported her but also to Stephen Harper. A lot of us have been wondering what would finally expose Harper’s heartless, Machiavellian style of authoritarianism. I think Chief Theresa has shown us the way. She is Harper’s kryptonite. A humble leader acting from love of her people. She has inspired people all over the country and all over the globe. As Naomi Klein points out she has shown us that it is time for action. Too many people are getting hurt. It cannot continue.

It is the rise of an Indigenous movement led by women and framed both around re-establishing nation to nations relationship with the state and the Crown and around a more generalized struggle for environmental protection and democracy that is having the most profound impact.

Harper is between a rock and a hard place. He doesn’t want to meet the demands of Chief Spence because then he would have to recognize a nation to nation relationship with First Nations which neither he nor any Prime Minister has been willing to do in my lifetime. On the other hand, he and his corporate backers are smart enough to know that if Chief Theresa dies, there will a battle over every inch of pipeline, mine, oil or any other resource extraction all of which must go through native land. I am hoping that the breadth and strength of struggle will prevent him from breaking off a part of the leadership to find a compromise that falls short of movement’s demands.

So far it seems that the Left has responded appropriately to the need for solidarity. Unions, the NDP, churches, environmental groups, artists, academics and others have come out in full solidarity with Chief Theresa and the movement. As events develop and there is inevitably more conflict, that solidarity must hold. Nothing is more important, whatever your issue, than providing every support possible to this struggle.

That is why we are in a historic moment. The Indigenous Peoples of this country have both the moral and economic power that can not only bring down this government but perhaps set a different path to change for all of us. And more than that, no group in society is more worthy of our solidarity and support

Native activist Robert Lovelace wrote: “My hope for Idle No More is that the casualties will be the old guard, those leaders who have thrived within the asymmetry of colonialism. Perhaps this is their one and only chance for redemption. It is time for new leaders who will not accept ‘no’ as a promise or ‘maybe’ once you have surrendered. The earth and our humanity are too precious to be put on the market. New leadership is what Idle-no-more is seeking, and I hope we find it.”

I think the same challenge is there for the non-native Left. We are seeing a new kind of leadership in Quebec and in the environmental justice movement. It’s been developing for a while but now is the moment for a new democratic, accountable and anti-colonial leadership to stand strong and make the alliances based on equality that we need. Those that can’t let go of the patriarchal, top down leadership of the past should step aside or be pushed.

As Pam Palmater pointed out in an article in the Ottawa Citizen, not since 1969 when Jean Chretien as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs brought out the assimilationist White Paper has the native community in Canada been this mobilized and united. The impact of this struggle on the battle for social and environmental justice cannot be overstated.

For this old activist, it’s been an inspiring year. In face of the most terrible right-wing government in our history, new movements are emerging and calling upon us to put aside differences of ego and ideology to unite not only against the injustices of the past but for the possibilities of a better future. I am looking forward to 2013. Happy New Year.

Background on Indigenous solidarity

A beautiful article by Dru Oja Jay: http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/2185

Conversation with Algonquin land defender Norman Matchewan: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/ourschools-ourselves/our-schoolsour-selves-spring-2012WT

Harsha Walia on decolonizing together: http://rabble.ca/news/2012/12/debunking-blatchford-and-other-anti-native-ideologues-idle-no-more

An excellent interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: http://www.zcommunications.org/the-opposite-of-truth-is-forgetting-by-roxanne-dunbar-ortiz

Another with Andrea Smith: http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/10-building-unlikely-alliances-an-interview-with-andrea-smith/

And a good response from Corvin Russell: http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/11-tactical-alliances/”

“A roundtable on relationship-building in indigenous solidarity work By Zainab Amadahy”: http://indyclass.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/e2809clisten-take-direction-and-stick-around1.pdf

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