Canada & Quebec: Idle No More movement -- the high stakes of Indigenous resistance

By Geneviève Beaudet and Pierre Beaudet, translated from the French original at Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme by John Bradley

January 25, 20133 -- Life on the Left, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The blossoming of the Idle No More movement signals the return of native [Indigenous] resistance to the political and social landscape of Canada and Quebec.

With its origins in Saskatchewan in October 2012, this mass movement has taken on the federal government and more specifically the adoption of Bill C-45.[1] Its origins lay not in the work of established organisations such as the Assembly of First Nations (although the AFN supports the initiative), but in a grassroots mobilisation that has arisen in several parts of the country. This process echoes other recent citizen mobilisations such as the student carrés rouges in Quebec and the worldwide Occupy movement.

Bill C-45 is perceived by native people as an attempt to further weaken their already limited powers to resist the invasion of their lands and the continuing exploitation of their natural resources. In the eyes of these communities, this adds to a long list of initiatives and legislation put forward to undermine their autonomy.

In neo-conservative circles, the existence of First Nations peoples is seen as an anachronism, best relegated to the past. Their future, if indeed they have one, lies in “assimilation” into Canadian society.

Even though this attempt at social erasure began prior to the election of the present government, the process of destruction of native culture and identity has intensified under the present Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

However, it would be an error to believe that this attack is driven solely by neo-conservative ideology. The present strategy of the Conservative government, one also shared by the economic elite, sees the occupation of the northern and western stretches of Canada as a key piece of a thoroughgoing re-tooling and refashioning of the Canadian economy, in which Canada, in the words of Harper, must become an “energy superpower”.

From this perspective one thing is clear — the native populations are in the way. Given this, it also means that it makes little sense to work towards resolving the horrendous health, housing, employment and education problems of Attawapiskat and elsewhere.

A conflict with deep roots

A brief look at the past is necessary to better understand the present crisis. At the beginning of the 16th century, the French colonists came into contact and conflict with native communities. These encounters provoked a long history of resistance by native peoples on both shores of the St. Lawrence. More through necessity than through choice, France was forced to come to an agreement, the Great Montreal Peace of 1701, to share the territory. This, in turn, led to the somewhat surprising Franco-Native alliance which then jointly resisted the British imperial forces.

But during the 18th century, the British forces prevailed and the process of colonisation continued apace.

This economy was built upon the pillage of natural resources and the subjugation of the native and French-Canadian populations. Then, in 1837, came the revolt of the Patriotes in Quebec. This uprising, with republican impulses, demanded democratic reform and insisted that the native population have the same rights as all. But the British forces were too powerful and these promising efforts were defeated. The colonial power then proceeded to attempt to extend and consolidate its control over the western frontier, an area occupied by several important native communities, including the Métis of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. This resistance also suffered a bloody defeat.

In 1867, Canada emerged as a semi-independent state. The Anglo-Canadian elite, learning their lessons well from the British Empire, adopted the imperial tactic of divide and rule. The subjugated peoples were in disarray and their elites co-opted into the colonial apparatus. The native populations were herded onto reserves after signing treaties under unfavourable conditions which provide few benefits.

Following the Second World War, the Canadian variant of capitalism aligned itself with a new empire — the US one this time, a growing colossus desperate for resources. This led to a series of megaprojects in the hydroelectric and oil sectors in the 1950s and '60s. At the same time, the Canadian state, under the rubric of “modernisation”, moved to further reduce the autonomy of native communities, all the while refusing to address the colonial relationship imposed upon native peoples.

New clashes

In the 1970s, the federal Canadian state was challenged by the national and political movement in Quebec. The Parti Québécois wanted to build a Quebec nation, within the context of North American capitalism, but with local control of natural resources.

From the Quebec side, the relations with natives remained ambiguous. Both had aspirations to nationhood but the lines were never clearly drawn as to the question of the division of territory.

However, concessions were forced on all sides as the federalist forces in Ottawa had to be faced.

The native populations saw an opening and attempted to mobilise. And it was the Cree in Quebec who succeeded in opening a serious breach. They managed, in negotiating the James Bay Agreement, to obtain certain new powers, as well as financial resources, in exchange for allowing Quebec to develop important hydro-electric projects on their territory. This in turn sparked resistance by native peoples in the rest of Canada who looked to follow the Cree example and gain similar victories. But it was a no go in the west and in Ontario. Negotiations dragged on interminably and gains were minimal.

Following the defeat of the indépendantiste project in Quebec in the 1990s, new conflicts surfaced. The Oka Crisis was the start of a cycle of resistance in several native communities close to urban areas. Mass actions, such as the blockading of highways, spread throughout Ontario, northern Quebec and elsewhere. At the same time, the development of natural resources became an imperative for Canadian capital, more and more in synch with its US counterparts. Native groups and the Assembly of First Nations had been pushed into a corner, leading to their opposition to the constitutional reform of Meech Lake from which they were excluded.

Finally in 2006, Stephen Harper undertook to recast the Canadian state and put in place a no-holds-barred capitalism wrapped in religious rhetoric and social conservatism.

The First Nations have no place in this neo-conservative world. Territorial claims are off the table and the administrative framework for dealing with these communities had to be dismantled. To justify this abrupt and drastic change of course, the government, with the help of a compliant media, mounted a major campaign of denigration and defamation. However, the native people did not back down. A striking example of this resistance was the setting up of roadblocks by the Atikamekw Nation to deny access to companies seeking to exploit forest resources on their land.

From the native perspective

Today, native people occupy a special, but not wholly unique, position within the strategic framework imposed by the Canadian state. At least in theory, this reality leads one to think that a convergence between the native movement and popular movements, both in Canada and Quebec, becomes not only possible, but necessary. But there are serious obstacles to such a uniting of forces.

First, social movements are forced to work within the colonial reality established and maintained by the state and imposed upon native peoples. Native demands are not limited to improving material conditions and obtaining certain rights. They also focus on the dismantling of the structures of oppressive relations. For their part, non-native populations, including the Québécois people, must come to accept that they are not the “owners” of the land. A lasting solution requires that these realities be the starting point for a genuine dialogue between equally sovereign peoples.

It is clear that establishing such a dialogue between equals is not an easy task. Elites and state policies work to divide through demagogic attacks, outright lies and not so subtle co-optation. Nonetheless the recent history of struggles and solidarity work gives reason for some hope. We can point to the group Solidarity with Native People that has its origins in the Oka crisis or to the continuing efforts of the Ligue des droits et libertés.

We should also be encouraged by, and learn from, the collaborative efforts of intellectuals, artists, native and non-native teachers who work to enlighten and teach, efforts that find concrete expression in publications such as Recherches amérindiennes, the annual Montreal First Peoples Festival, as well as in the numerous student initiatives at the Université du Québec campuses in Montreal and Val d’Or, and at Concordia University.

All these efforts are important in changing the public perception of native people, this “invisible people” to use songwriter and filmmaker Richard Desjardins’ depressing but apt description.

But today we have to go further. Is this possible? The experience of the citizens of Villeray, a Montreal neighbourhood, is instructive. In the summer of 2010, a grassroots citizens’ group supported, in the face of opposition, the establishment of an Inuit residence in the neighborhood, an action that provoked a lively debate.

In similar fashion, but at a political level, Françoise David, a Québec Solidaire member of the National Assembly, came out in December 2012 in public support of the Idle No More movement and denounced the Harper government policies as leading “to the erosion of environmental standards, to a frenetic speed-up of resource extraction, and to the non-respect of the sovereignty of First Nations”.

Listening to the native population is critical to making any progress. In the forthcoming issue of the Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, Dalie Giroux makes several key points: that natives have another conception of the world, one in which the presence of humans cannot be separated out from the land (and the world) itself and that humans are part of a larger reality and co-exist in a relationship of mutual and ongoing dependence with other life (and non-life) forms. This “solidarity of necessity” echoes the Quechuas and the Aymaras peoples’ idea of Pachamama, which can be loosely, but not fully, translated as “Mother Earth”.

Diverse realities, including the human, non-human and the natural environment cannot flourish within a framework of conflict. This idea, which seemed very esoteric until just recently, is being re-discovered in a world where the voice of native people is resonating louder and louder across the land.

[Pierre Beaudet is a member of the Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme collective and Geneviève Beaudet is an activist working on native rights issues.


[1] Bill C-45, a.k.a. the second omnibus budget bill, is a massive government bill amending 64 acts or regulations. Among other things, it amends the Indian Act to remove the requirement of majority community support for leasing of designated reserve lands; amends the Navigable Waters Protection Act (now Navigation Protection Act) so that major pipeline and power-line project proponents are no longer required to prove their project will not damage or destroy a navigable waterway it crosses; and amends an already weakened Environmental Assessment Act to reduce further the number of projects requiring assessment. -- Richard Fidler, editor Life on the Left.

Canada: Indigenous peoples idle no more

By Winona LaDuke

January 17, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly -- As Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence entered her fourth week on a hunger strike outside the Canadian parliament in late December, thousands of protesters in Los Angeles, London, Minneapolis and New York City voiced their support.

Spence and the protesters of the Idle No More Movement are drawing attention to deplorable conditions in Native communities and recently passed legislation C-45, which sidesteps most Canadian environmental laws.

“Flash mob” protests with traditional dancing and drumming have erupted in dozens of shopping malls across North America, marches and highway blockades by aboriginal groups from across Canada and their supporters have emerged from as far away as New Zealand and the Middle East.

In late December, hundreds of Native people and their supporters held a flash mob round dance with hand drum singing at the Mall of America near Minneapolis, again as a part of the Idle No More protest movement. This quickly emerging wave of Native activism on environmental and human rights issues has spread like a wildfire across the continent.

“Idle No More” is Canadian for “That’s Enough BS, We’re Coming Out to Stop You” — or something like that. Spence is the leader of Attawapiskat First Nation — a remote Cree community from James Bay, Ontario.

The community’s on-reserve 1549 residents (a third of whom are under 19) have weathered quite a bit: the fur trade, residential schools, a status as non-treaty Indians, and limited access to modern conveniences — like toilets, or maybe electricity.

Conditions like these are all too commonplace in the north, but they have become exacerbated in the past five years with the advent of a huge diamond mine.

DeBeers, the largest diamond mining company in the world, moved into Cree territory in 2006. The company states it “is committed to sustainable development in local communities”. This is good to know.

This is also where the First World meets the Third World in the north, as Canadian MP Bob Rae discovered last year on his tour of the rather destitute village. There is no road into the village eight months of the year, and four months a year, during freeze up, there’s only an ice road.

A diamond mine needs a lot of infrastructure. And that has to be shipped in, so the trucks launch out of Moosonee, Ontario. So the mining company built a better road.

The problem is that the road won’t work when the climate changes, and already stretched infrastructure gets tapped out. Last year, Attawapiskat drew international attention when many families in the Cree community were living in tents at minus 40 degrees.

There is some money flowing in. A 2010 report from DeBeers states that payments to eight communities associated with its two mines in Canada totaled C$5,231,000.

Forbes Magazine reports record diamond sales by the world’s largest diamond company ”… increased 33 percent, year-over-year, to $3.5 billion… The mining giant, which produces more than a third of the world’s rough diamonds, also reported record EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization] of almost $1.2 billion, a 55 percent increase over the first the first half of 2010.”

As the Canadian Mining Watch group notes: “Whatever Attawapiskat’s share of that $5 million is, given the chronic underfunding of the community, the need for expensive responses to deal with recurring crises, including one that DeBeers themselves may have precipitated by overloading the community’s sewage system, it’s not surprising that the community hasn’t been able to translate its … income into improvements in physical infrastructure.

“Neighboring Kashechewan is in similar disarray. They have been boiling water, and importing water. The village almost had a complete evacuation due to health conditions, and … fuel shortages are becoming more common among remote northern Ontario communities right now.”

As Alvin Fiddler, Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, explained to a reporter, that’s because the ice road used to truck in a year’s supply of diesel last winter did not last as long as usual.

Fiddler said, “We’re looking at a two-month gap” until this winter’s ice road is solid enough to truck in fresh supplies.

Kashechewan’s chief and council are poised to shut down the band office, two schools, the power generation centre, the health clinic and the fire hall because the buildings are not heated and could no longer operate safely.

“In addition, some 21 homes had become uninhabitable,” according to Chief Derek Stephen. Those basements had been flooded last spring, as the weather patterns changed.

As a side note, in 2007, some 21 Cree youth from Kashechewan attempted to commit suicide, and the Canadian aboriginal youth suicide rate is five times the national average. Both communities are beneficiaries of an agreement with DeBeers.

The reality is that these communities would never see the light of media attention, if it weren’t for Theresa Spence — and probably Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Spence is still hoping to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging him to “open his heart” and meet with native leaders angered by his policies.

“He’s a person with a heart but he needs to open his heart,” Spence sad. “I’m sure he has faith in the Creator himself and for him to delay this, it’s very disrespectful, I feel, to not even meet with us.”

Native communities receive little or no attention, until a human rights crisis of great proportion causes national shame. Facebook and social media may change and equalise access for those who never see the spotlight. (Just think of Arab Spring).

With the help of social media, the Idle No More movement has taken on a life of its own in much the same way the first “Occupy Wall Street” camp gave birth to a multitude of “occupy” protests with no clear leadership.

“This has spread in ways that we wouldn’t even have imagined,” said Sheelah McLean, an instructor at the University of Saskatchewan and one of the four women who originally coined the “Idle No More” slogan.”

What this movement is supposed to do is build consciousness about the inequalities so that everyone is outraged about what is happening here in Canada. Every Canadian should be outraged.”

Actually, we all should be outraged, and Idle Mo More.

[Winona LaDuke is an author and activist. She is an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg who lives and works on the White Earth Reservations.]