What began as a series of grassroots protest actions across Canada against the Conservative government’s omnibus Bill C-45 in late 2012 has swept through every corner of the country, as well as with support from actions around the world, in a widespread protest to fight for Indigenous people’s rights. Along with this, the often ignored subject of Canada and Canadian society’s relationship to Native people is polarizing living rooms and inserting itself in to coffee breaks across the country as this grassroots movement gains steam. With this Indigenous awakening growing day by day, the future of Canada’s political and social landscape will not be the same.
From remote reservations, to small towns and to the bigger cities, Native people and their allies have come out in the tens, the hundreds, and the thousands to the hundreds of different actions across Canada to oppose the anti-Native policies of the government of Canada. Under the banner of #IdleNoMore, these grassroots actions have created a different dynamic of demonstrating; from the Flashmob Rounddance, an expression of Native culture and community in shopping and urban centres, to marches and rallies across the country. Many communities have brought forward their own direct actions, including temporarily blocking railways and highways to major industrial centres like the Alberta Tar Sands, and border crossings with the United States. This has included the hunger strike by Theresa Spence, former Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, along with Raymond Robinson, not far from Parliament Hill demanding a meeting between Canada, a representative of the Queen and Indigenous leaders. It has also included the highly publicised meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of his government with a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), a boycott and protest by other members of that organization and a ceremonial meeting with the Governor General of Canada. Solidarity actions have taken place all over the United States, in parts of Latin America, across Europe and as far away as Cairo, Egypt and Colombo, Sri Lanka, to draw attention to the critical situation for Native people in Canada. The popular nature of the protests have brought the support of Canadian celebrities, influenced recent winners of the Royal Diamond Jubilee Awards to reject the recognition award from the Queen, and even brought an on-line soundtrack from musicians across Canada.
In the Vancouver area alone, the #IdleNoMore Flashmob Rounddances have popped up in dozens of shopping centres around the lower mainland, parks, including the Vancouver International Airport, in a strong demonstration of Native culture, pride and resistance. There have also been marches and rallies at the West Coast Canada/US border crossing, throughout Vancouver’s streets, on the lawn of Vancouver City Hall and in front of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada office. With each new day comes an announcement for another action taking place.
The level of anger among Indigenous people and organized response to Bill C-45 and the government of Canada’s policies haven’t been seen in this country since the Pierre Trudeau era when, in 1969 through then Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chretien, the government of the time introduced the White Paper on Indian Policy. This proposed the complete abolition of the Indian Act, removing any federal responsibility to Native people, the rejection of land claims, and the loss of Native people’s status.
Opposition to the White Paper was so widespread that the government had to rescind it, and the actions brought forward a new level of organizing among Native people across the country.
This Bill has its own ancestors
Bill C-45 was written in the same spirit as the White Paper. This time, Instead of being a policy paper that was rejected, Bill C-45 was rammed through the different layers of government and passed in to law without any room for discussion among the major political parties, let alone the people in Canada the bill affects.
The anger and opposition to Bill C-45 from Native people across Canada comes from the sweeping changes this bill makes to current laws and acts that directly affect them. These include amendments to the Navigable Waters Protection Act which reduces the federal government’s protection and oversight to merely one percent of waterways in Canada and makes the other 99 percent to be ‘open for business’ for environmental exploitation through quick development access by resource extraction industries. We are talking about 97 out of the 32,000 major lakes and waterways in Canada. Along with the changes to the Fisheries Act, where industry will no longer be responsible for fixing the environmental and fish habitat they damage, this has an incredible impact on many of the traditional territories and livelihood of Indigenous people across the country.
Even more angering were the changes the government made to the Indian Act which governs Canada’s relationship with (see ‘control of’) First Nations. At the Crown – First Nations Gathering in January 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that his government had no intention of repealing the 137 year old Indian Act, that its ‘roots run too deep,’ but that minor changes would be made. These changes, some of them made law with Bill C-45, are not meant to improve the relationship with or the conditions of Indigenous people in Canada, but serve the corporate and industrial interests of the Canadian ruling class. The federal government increases its role in the decision-making over land and property issues on reservations, while reducing the role of the actual members of those First Nation communities. Now, decisions over forfeitures and sale of property on reserves can be made by less than a handful of band members, and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs also now has the power to call for meetings and referendums over these dealings. By doing this, the Canadian government will carve out parcels of reservation land.
Bill C-45 is part of a continuing campaign to terminate the ‘Indian Question’ in Canada. Last spring, there was outrage across Canada to Bill C-38, which was based on the same Conservative government budget plan and also had a disastrous effect on environmental protection, among other things. But, there is a lot more legislation that the government has passed or is trying to pass through with the same goal as these budget bills — to reduce federal government’s responsibility to Indigenous people, strip Native people of their rights and remove the question, once and for all, of self-determination of Indigenous nations. Some of these include Bill C27: First Nations Financial Transparency Act, Bill S-2: Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, Bill S-6: First Nations Elections Act, Bill S-8: Safe Drinking Water for First Nations, and Bill C-428: Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act, and follow the same direction as Bill C-45. An important factor in all of these bills is the growing widespread protests for Native rights.
The reasons for the mass protests are undeniable. Aside from the new bills, conditions for Native people in Canada have deteriorated under the Conservative government from an already unacceptable level. Looking at the high level of poverty on reserves, the housing crisis which has hit epic proportions, and the fact that on average there are more than 120 Native communities under boil-water advisory at a time, it is no wonder that Native people get frustrated when the government of Canada stalls bringing such basic necessities as a school for their children to attend. Add to that the high suicide and incarceration rates among Native youth, it is quite clear that the situation of Native people in Canada was a powder keg waiting to be lit. As well, Native people face the racist stereotypes from Canadian society and perpetuated by the ruling class and its media that Native people have actually got it good, but just can’t manage their own affairs, along with a deceitful government who extends one hand of friendship by apologizing for the Native residential school system and the other behind its back with its fingers crossed. While these manipulations were taking place, the ruling class was trying to exploit the land and resources of Indigenous people with the growing push for construction natural gas and oil pipelines against the wishes of the majority of the Indigenous nations who it will affect.
It is no wonder then the Bill C-45 became a tipping point. Begun as a grassroots protest, #IdleNoMore has encompassed many young Indigenous people who are new to activism and who are fed up with the conditions that government after government has forced them to live under. Whether living in the city or on the reserve, the sentiments of these protests have activated all layers of the Native community. Young Native women, many of them young mothers, have taken leadership in many communities across the country. They represent an important segment of the Native population, given how much Native women have been historically dispossessed under colonialism in Canada. From the Indian Act, which stripped Native women and their children of their recognized Indian status for simply marrying a non-Native until the 1980s, to the Highway of Tears and the more than 600 missing Native women across Canada, Canada’s policies and Canadian racism have had their highest toll on Native women.
Once Native people respond to the government of Canada’s attacks is where the situation for many people starts getting hazy. Whenever it is put on the defense, the ruling class’ main tools are to discredit those involved in making change and employ the classic ‘Divide and Conquer’ strategy to obstruct the real issue. Throughout Canadian history, the same trend develops. They vilified Louis Riel and the Red River struggle in 1869, they labelled the Mohawks at Kanesatake ‘terrorists’ in what was known as the ‘Oka Crisis’ in 1990. Recently, federal Minister of Natural Resources , Joe Oliver, even called opponents to the Northern Gateway and Enbridge pipelines ‘environmental and other radical groups’ who ‘use funding from foreign special interests groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest’. It is no coincidence that the audit on the Attawapiskat First Nation’s finances was released just one day before the meeting between Harper and the Assembly of First Nations. Of course, the media doesn’t talk about the mismanagement of federal government agencies who are supposed to deal with Native people’s issues, the recent funding cuts to First Nations organizations, or the international outcry over Canada’s treatment of Native people. The media has focussed so much and amplified the divisions among Native leadership right now that it becomes the newsmaker, not the implications of Bill C-45.
Whether or not Chief Theresa Spence decided to attend the Chiefs meeting , or whether or not different factions within the Assembly of First Nations are at work, with some boycotting and protesting while others meet with government, doesn’t change the fact that Native people and their supporters across the country are standing up for Indigenous rights and raising the issue of the deplorable situation the government has created for them in Canada.
Not just an Indigenous issue
While the greatest opposition to Bill C-45 has come from Indigenous people, there is good reason for all people across Canada to join Native people in protest. Aside from the devastating changes to the Indian Act, the omnibus bill erodes many aspects of quality of life in Canada. With the changes to the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, it is pretty clear that the consequences of these changes go far beyond just affecting the traditional territories of Indigenous people, but pose a severe danger to the quality of life and environment throughout the country. Through changes to the Canada Grain Act, Bill C-45 threatens the livelihood of independent grain producers while further protecting the rights of multinational corporations, and remove regulations that ensure the quality of Canada’s internal and external grain supply.
Workers in Canada will also feel the effects of Bill C-45 in a number of different ways. The Canada Revenue Agency, formerly an independent employer, is also now placed back under the authority of the Treasury Board, affecting the members of the Union of Taxation Employees who work there and who have attained two consecutive collective agreements. The changes made to public sector pension plans include increasing the normal retirement age from 60 to 65 for new hires beginning in 2013. This is an attack on younger generations who make up the majority of new hires, generating a two-tier system and forcing the new generation of public sector workers to retire at an older age. As well, Bill C-45 eliminates the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, which helped protect workers from hazardous materials in the workplace, by transferring its responsibilities to the Minister of Health. The sweeping cuts that come with Bill C-45 should bring people from all over Canada out to protest.
Self-determination for Indigenous nations!
While the government of Canada and its media have tried to play down the protests and divert the issue, Native people across the country have shown that they have no intention of giving up their rights. On January 11th, more than 263 actions took place around the world leading up to the meeting between the government and the chiefs in Ottawa. Actions continued around Canada throughout the following weeks and continued with dozens of coordinated actions with solidarity actions around the world on January 28th. Now is an important time for non-Indigenous people to support Native people standing up their human rights and dignity.
Within the protests, flashmobs, and blockades is a genuine desire for self-determination for Indigenous nations in Canada. It is a historical crime that this continues to be denied by the government of Canada, while continuing to make conditions for Native people more and more unbearable. We have seen the priorities of the government of Canada. While it allocates billions of dollars on weapons of destruction that were used on the people of Afghanistan and Libya, and with the current aspirations to be used against the people of Syria and Iran, it has had no problem closing its wallet when it comes to improving the situation on reservations in Canada, or improving the well-being, education and health of its new generations.
A change is coming in Canada and that is going to require breaking down boundaries and destroying stereotypes. While Indigenous people have historically defended their rights, it is a fact that the lack of support from the majority of the Canadian population helped in their defeats. The inherent rights of the 1.3 million Indigenous people in Canada cannot be won without the 33.5 million non-Indigenous people backing them up for their common interests. Let’s learn from mistakes of the past and unite to oppose the government of Canada’s attacks on Native people and demand self-determination for Indigenous Nations!
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