Some thoughts on Idle No More

I spent quite a bit of time over the Christmas holidays reading postings on the âpihtawikosisân blog, getting myself up to speed on the grievances of First Nations and other Aboriginal groups, in light of the Idle No More movement.

On one of âpihtawikosisân’s more recent posts, she wrote something that made everything click for me. It was very simple: “Canada has forgotten it is a Treaty nation too.”

It’s true: We “settlers” are taught that First Nations signed treaties with us, but we have forgotten that we signed those very same treaties as well. Yes, we signed treaties with them, and the reason our relationship is so strained—the reason First Nations across the country are in a state of crisis—is that we haven’t been living up to our end of the bargain.

And then I saw the term “First Nations” in a new light: First Nations. “Nation” is not a word we toss around lightly (just look at the kerfuffle that ensues every time it comes up in the context of Quebec). If these truly are nations—and not just nations, but nations with whom we’ve signed treaties—then where do we get off treating them in such a colonial, paternalistic manner?

Bills without consultation

The media likes to report that Idle No More is a reaction against Bill C-45, the omnibus budget bill. But there are, in fact, eight bills currently in the house (and at least two more forthcoming) that came about without consultation and that violate treaty rights. They are as follows:

  • Bill C-45: Jobs and Growth Act, 2012 (the omnibus budget bill)
  • Bill C-428 Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act
  • Bill C-27: First Nations Financial Transparency Act
  • Bill S-2: Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
  • Bill S-6: First Nations Elections Act
  • Bill S-8: Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act
  • Bill S-207: An Act to Amend the Interpretation Act
  • Bill S-212: First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill
  • First Nation Property Ownership Act (proposed)
  • First Nation Education Act (proposed)

Pamela Palmater (lawyer and Ryerson professor), who I heard about on the âpihtawikosisân blog, does a good job of walking through each of these bills and outlining the ways in which they are detrimental to First Nations (in this Indigenous Waves radio interview and this video presentation).

Going through all the issues crammed into ten bills (one of them an omnibus bill) takes time, and the information is dense. But the more the grievances pile up one after the other, the more the Idle No More movement makes sense, the more you realize how necessary it is.

For the sake of example, here are two things that struck me as particularly egregious:

Under Bill S-8 (Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act), the federal government, which has long underfunded reserve water sanitation systems, can set new rules and regulations for these systems. That’s the good news. The bad news is that all responsibility for these systems will be transferred to the First Nations themselves, with no extra funding. Even though First Nations are already chronically underfunded, all necessary money will be taken out of the same funds that pay for things like housing and social assistance. Fantastic. On top of this, the government is off the hook if government contractors mess up—First Nations will not be allowed to sue, and doing so could result in jail time. Yes, jail time.

It gets scarier:

Under Bill S-6 (First Nations Elections Act), anyone challenging the legitimacy of a First Nations election can be fined $5,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 5 years. I kid you not. Ironically, this clause does not apply to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs: Under this bill the Minister can unilaterally dissolve any legally elected First Nations government that the Minister deems, with his or her own discretion, to be illegitimate.* Somebody please tell me what happened to democracy.

[* This ministerial power has been “disputed,” and used by the Harper government in the past. In 2010 the government replaced Barriere Lake’s Chief and Council with a government-approved leadership. The new leadership, it should be noted, was much more in favour of industrial activity on First Nations land, the issue at hand.]

Fighting against full assimilation?

Not only has the Harper government tabled bills that directly affect First Nations without first providing consultation—a direct violation of Aboriginal rights under the Canadian Constitution (section 35.1)—the bills are completely destructive to First Nations, chiseling away at their power, authority, and rights; and abdicating the federal government of their responsibilities.

People like to complain that the demands of Idle No More are vague, which is the same malarkey they tried to pull with Occupy. Just because something is complex doesn’t mean it has no direction. Idle No More’s demands are far-reaching, but clear as day: repeal the bills violating Aboriginal rights, and begin talks, in good faith, to “reset” the relationship between Canada and First Nations.

The fear of Aboriginal peoples is legitimate: that all of these bills are a part of a greater objective—to re-introduce the policies of the much-loathed 1969 White Paper, which proposed full assimilation of First Nations people.

Full assimilation. What treaty-signing nation would possibly stand for that?

To cease to be the distinct nation that you know you are: that is the fate of First Nations people across this country if they do not rise up.

And rise up they have

The radio interview I mentioned earlier with Pamela Palmater took place on December 4, 2012, back when Idle No More was just in its infancy—#IdleNoMore had only become a hashtag four days earlier, and Chief Spence wouldn’t begin her (now 25-day) hunger strike for another week.

In light of the vast and effective force the movement has become, the end of the interview is quite exciting. A call for action went out, and the people responded. I’ll leave you with part of what they said:

Russell Diabo (also interviewed): “First Nations need to get out and hit the streets, and say, We want you to suspend the bills currently before the house, and not impose any other legislation until there’s an agreed upon process for addressing these things. And that’s going to take a coordinated response from all the regions. And I don’t know if that’s likely to happen. Because the reason you don’t see much about this, in terms of the silence from the leadership is because they’re dependent on the federal funding and they’re afraid to be cut off. So if it doesn’t come from the grassroots it’s not likely to happen.”

Palmater: “… If we’re going to make a difference we have to make a difference now. We’re being judged by what we do now. You just take the people who are willing to go, hit the streets, and people will join.”

Diabo: “It’s got to be more than rallying [against] the omnibus bill, C-45. It’s got to be the whole suite.”

Palmater: “The whole suite. All of it. Harper’s whole aggressive assimilatory agenda, the way he treats First Nations, the way he disrespects leaders, the way the people have no voice—all of it. It’s got to be part of a whole movement. It’s starting across the country, and we just have to kind of go with it and push it. And what do we have to lose? There’s going to be more funding cuts, more legislation. This is the do-or-die time. We don’t wait until all of the legislation is passed and all of our funding is cut, because then we have even less capacity. For me it’s do-or-die, and I think we should start today.”

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