Canadians are hardly living up to their reputation for complacency. Coming hard on the heels of the ‘maple spring’ in Québec and the earlier Occupy movements across the country, and building on a longstanding grass roots opposition to the Enbridge Pipeline proposal, Idle No More has captured our attention and support as a promising moment of opposition to the Harper regime. For the moment to become a sustained movement it will have to develop a stronger analysis and better organizational capacity, but the breadth and depth of the social support it has already generated show an enormous hunger for social change pointed towards social justice.
The Harperites seem determined to stall, delay and do as little of substance as possible. A small but important historical fact may provide some context here: in the mid 1980s, a recommendation in a report commissioned by the Mulroney government to propose significant government cutbacks actually developed a ‘minimum standards’ approach to funding the reserves.
The Nielsen Report was prepared to recommend a kind of ‘starve First Nations people to the point of forcing them to abandon their reserves’ approach to policy making. Although the Report was not implemented, its hard to look at the last three decades and not see ‘minimum standards’ as the actual state of affairs in Indian country, a state of affairs for which Liberal as well as Conservative regimes bear responsibility, and which the current pack of oil company lackeys, led by Mr. Harper, have escalated in a morally reprehensible manner. It is worth noting that the Kelowna Accord brokered by Paul Martin would have done nothing to change policy or the structure of colonially inspired poverty, though it would have offered significant resources on the liberal benevolence, band-aid solution model.
Chief Theresa Spence of Attiwapiskat First Nation began a heroic hunger strike that continues as of this writing, initially demanding a meeting with the Prime Minister and Governor General. Her community on James Bay in northern Ontario is typical of the mid-northern, isolated indigenous hunting communities that have been forgotten by the establishment in Canada. The movement that has sprung up around her represents the latest wave of discontent with the Canadian status quo. People representing a wide variety of interests have found the Idle No More banner an umbrella under which they can express their concerns.
A striking and energetic international movement has been mobilized, deploying social media and, in the heart of Canadian winter, not being afraid to use shopping malls and other nominally private spaces as venues for lively and inspired dissent. Non-violent, civil disobedience actions – blockades, occupations – directed at specific corporate or government targets have a long history of achieving limited victories for a variety of First Nations, from Haida Gwai or Temagami to Lubicon or Grassy Narrows’ territories.
These grass roots movements have in recent years become drivers of policy, as governments beholden to capital interests are forced to tack against social winds of change, finding they cannot so easily do as they please. The fact that Harper, however begrudgingly and however fruitlessly, was forced to a table he didn’t want to sit at is evidence of where power really lies in this country. The elite strut and swagger but in the end rely entirely on the assent, active or tacit, of the rest of us.
The meeting with the Prime Minister ended with no real accomplishment. Harper appears not even ready to concede enough to National Chief Atleo to prop him up for much longer as leader of the Assembly of First Nations. It appears that Idle No More will continue and will even escalate. As we noted at the outset, though, to turn itself into a self-sustaining movement it will need to move past this exciting moment of social media inspired activity and build two things: a platform of demands and an organizational capacity.
In terms of demands, it is clear that a federal policy framework based on respect for indigenous rights and treaty rights is called for. Within such a framework, First Nations would have the right to refuse resource development projects on their traditional territories, and the right to gain direct resource royalty revenues where such projects take place. Very simply put, capital would finally have to ‘pay to play’ in northern Canada.
Autonomous, self developed, indigenous self governments would be formally recognized by the federal government under a ‘First Nations Recognition and Validation Act’ that would replace the Indian Act. With this as a basic structure, many other things would finally begin to change and there would be hope that instead of an international embarrassment for Canada, its treatment of First Nations could rightly become a source of pride. Similar policy proposals have long been circulated; the Defenders of the Land represent one online source that offers more detail.
As to organization, the Left has much to offer here. The union movement in Canada could provide initial financial resource assistance to Idle No More activists, helping them create a durable infrastructure of dissent. The Left more broadly could stop seeing indigenous rights as the issue of the week, and instead focus its energies here, on the understanding that in Canada this is the defining issue of our generation. With its networking experience, organizational acumen, and concern for social justice, the Left has much to offer a nascent indigenous resistance movement. But it has to be prepared to do some following.
Finally, a warning regarding historical patterns is in order. Since the late sixties a disturbing pattern has emerged around indigenous activism. Activists, tired of the same old misery, take to the blockades and streets. The ruling elite is forced to make some form of accommodation to their processes. The accommodation fizzles after a few years. The activist groundswell develops again. Only this is a cycle, not a circle. The level of activism each time appears to increase, as does the level of violence of the State’s response.
From the Native Trek caravan of 1974, where the new riot squad of the RCMP was deployed to ruthless effect, to Oka, to Stoney Point and Gustavson Lake, we have an escalating series of crises. The withdrawal of the White Paper, the adding of Aboriginal Rights to the constitution, the establishment of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, are all accommodations that grew out of this dynamic.
We enthusiastically applaud and support the many thousands who have joined Idle No More. The national leaders of this country have to realize that they are playing, now, with lives when they refuse to offer a substantive response to the growing chorus of demands for sanity in indigenous policy-making. We urge them to move soon, knowing that for so many people in so many communities ‘soon’ is already too late.