Canada

Idle No More: a Canadian civil rights movement goes global

- By Nora Loreto

The Idle No More banner at Oxford University

On one of Oxford’s busiest streets, Oxford University students dropped a banner on January the 28th. Written in red, blue, black and green, “Uphold Crown Treaties. Idle No More” was printed across the white sheet.

Idle No More, the movement that started as a series of small educational sessions in Saskatchewan, Canada, has gone global.

Idle No More first got Canadians’ attention after a dozen Indigenous chiefs were denied entry into the House of Commons. They were trying to access a debate on a federal omnibus budget bill, Bill C-45. Among the bill’s 600 pages were regulations that would delist nearly 99 per cent of Canada’s lakes and rivers from environmental protections. Bill C-45 has passed.

In absence of consent of Indigenous people, this change is likely a violation of the Canadian constitution.

Dec. 10 was the first national day of action. A hunger strike started by Theresa Spence, an Indigenous chief from a community in Northeastern Ontario called Attawapiskat, became the focal point. Then came others: December 21st, Dececember. 30th, January 11th and now, January 28th.

Early on in the movement, many national union presidents issued statements of support and solidarity. On January the 28th, a network of unions and social movement organizations was launched to support Idle No More and defeat the current federal government. Called Common Causes, it is coordinated by the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Communications, Energy, Paperworkers Union, the Council of Canadians and other groups.

While resistance has always been at the heart of Indigenous communities in Canada, Idle No More has become a new civil rights movement. Flashmobs, rallies and hunger strikes held in towns and cities across the country represent a breaking point among Indigenous people.

Centuries of genocidal policies have left Indigenous communities in disarray. But with a younger-than-average population that is increasingly healing from some of the events of the past, Idle No More has provided a space for these folks to express their voice and take action against the federal government.

At the time of European settlement, Indigenous people posed a problem for the British colonialists. During the 1800s, many policies and laws were passed that sought to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people and break apart their communities. Eventually they were legally considered wards of the state and still are today.

The most important law, the Indian Act, identifies who is an “Indian” and who is not. Indians are subject to different laws than are Canadians. For example, when an Indian dies, she or he cannot will their house or estate to anyone. The estate is dealt with by an agent of the Minister of Indian Affairs.

The Indian Act also established reserves, many of which are located in remote regions of the country. While these regions were seen as undesirable a century ago, mining exploration has exposed diamond, uranium and natural gas deposits. The desire of corporations to buy up reserve land has created new pressures on Indigenous communities.

So far, the response from Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been disappointing, though not surprising. His government has been hinting at making large-scale changes to the Indian Act for many years. The most contentious proposal, to allow the sale of reserve land, will likely become the rallying point when, or if, the legislation is introduced.

Stephen Harper needs to be forced to uphold the Treaty obligations of the Crown. With a majority government though, Harper has been extremely difficult to influence. The Jan. 28 day of action coincided with the first day of work for the House of Commons in 2013 and Members of Parliament were greeted by protesters. But international pressure is also needed.

Letters of support can be posted online, carbon copied to Idle No More’s founders in Saskatchewan and, of course, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Once the next day of action is called, Idle No More protests outside of Canadian consular offices are necessary to demonstrate the global pressure that is rising against the actions of the Canadian government.

South African politicians studied Canada’s reserve system when they were designing their apartheid state. While Apartheid has fallen, somehow Canada has been allowed to continue its shameful and racist control over Indigenous people. Idle No More might be what it takes to change this reality, but Canadians cannot do it alone.

The campaign needs international support.

 

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