Ever since Confederation, an aggressive national policy of assimilation has been pursued by the Canadian government to delegitimize aboriginal culture and rights. For 146 years, politicians have instituted laws, amendments and statutes designed to weaken the aboriginal population. Aboriginal rights to land were clearly defined by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and reaffirmed in the Constitution Act of 1982. The only legal way Canada was able to access land was through the negotiation of treaties with Aboriginal Peoples. Throughout the treaty process, promises were made and contracts signed. Sadly, for aboriginal people, too many promises have been broken and treaty rights continue to be ignored.
Aboriginal people have suffered tremendous abuses at the hands of the Canadian government. Inadequate housing, decreased life expectancy, astronomical levels of incarceration and suicide are the tragic results of oppressive governance. The cacophony of industry, racism and dictatorial politics has all too often muted the voice of the aboriginal community. Yet, with the emergence of the Idle No More movement that is currently sweeping across the nation, aboriginal people are finding a powerful voice.
The movement was initiated by four women in Saskatchewan who were displeased with the recent passing of the federal government’s Bill C-45. Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams and Nina Wilson had no idea their “Idle No More” Facebook page, created in early November, would ignite a social media frenzy and spark a movement that has thousands of people across Canada protesting in the streets, flash mobbing malls, blockading transportation thoroughfares and going on hunger strikes.
The use of social media and the overwhelming presence of young people have been fundamental to the unstoppable energy of the movement. Indigenous people from around the world have latched on to the guiding principles of Idle No More which are, at their roots, a defence against environmental degradation and human rights abuses. Though most people participating in the Idle No More actions are of aboriginal descent, it is in the best interests of all Canadians to support the movement and align themselves with the principles they represent.
Bill C-45, introduced in the House of Commons last May, faced thousands of amendments by opposition leaders. Every single proposed change to the bill was surreptitiously shot down by the Conservative majority in a highly undemocratic fashion. It was eventually passed into law on Dec. 14, 2012, to the dismay of Canadians who have grown suspicious of the recent trend in Conservative governance to compile massive omnibus bills that bury significant alterations to Canadian statutes in endless minutia.
The 400-page Bill introduces countless changes to federal legislation, like the Indian Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, all deemed to be for the good of the economy. The Navigable Waters Protection Act, which previously provided federal regulations for protecting Canada’s water, has been modified by Bill C-45 to effectively remove federal protection from thousands of bodies of water and streams, save a few lakes which are ironically found in Tory constituencies. The new act gives industry carte blanche to pollute and dump tailings into Canada’s most abundant and precious nonrenewable resource. Though regulations may impede the ability of industries to grow economically, clean water is essential to a sustainable ecology as well as our health.
The people of Grassy Narrows, a First Nation community in Manitoba, know first hand the effects of unbridled industry. In 1970, when it was discovered that the fish they were consuming were contaminated with mercury from a chemical and pulp mill, the plant was ordered to stop releasing mercury into the waterways. Forty-two years later, an independent Japanese research team discovered above normal levels of mercury poisoning still present in the fish at Grassy Narrows along with unprecedented numbers of individuals with Minamata disease, a disorder linked to mercury poisoning that causes brain damage. This is only one of many stories that involve aboriginal groups and others in Canada being negatively affected by unprotected waters.
The loudest battle cry of the Idle No More protests is the lack of consultation made by the government with aboriginal people concerning their lands. Bill C-45 makes unilateral changes to the Indian Act, allowing reserve land to be sold to non-aboriginals and commercial enterprises without the full support and agreement of the majority of the community. Historically, legally-binding treaties were established for Aboriginal Peoples to ensure their territory, autonomy and sovereignty. Contrastingly, the Canadian government’s intent was to dismantle aboriginal unity and gain access to lands for economic and political purposes.
Today, it might seem like Aboriginal Peoples stand to profit from being able to sell their land, but the end game is the same as it was historically: to co-opt aboriginal leaders into serving the economic and political interests of a few powerful players in the Canadian corporate state. By allowing for the division of land on reserves, Bill C-45 threatens to disrupt the sovereignty of First Nations people and their ability to sustain themselves autonomously.
The mainstream press would have most people believe that the Idle No More protests are nothing more than irrational hype. Considering that the media is owned and sponsored by corporations intent on sequestering capital, people should view it critically. It should also be acknowledged that racism continues to afflict the minds of some Canadians towards aboriginal people. On Dec. 11, 2012, the Health Council of Canada released a report confirming widespread cases of stereotyping and racializing of aboriginal people trying to access health services. Unfortunately, this racism stands to colour the perception many Canadians have towards Idle No More.
Despite all this, there is increasing support for the Idle No More movement and people are speaking out against the opportunistic and exploitative methods being employed by our current government. Aboriginal people are fighting to protect the very life blood of our nation. The Canadian government is treading on dangerous territory when it assumes it can get away with commodifying our natural resources and making arbitrary changes to constitutionally entrenched rights.
We should honour the land and water that provide us with sustenance and encourage those who are fighting to protect our natural resources. We should also pay very close attention to our political representatives and hold them accountable when they attempt to undermine our human rights. Let’s hope the beating of the Idle No More drum continues to pulse loud and clear, until the voices of all Canadians are heard and respected.