Zimmerman: A Settler’s Guide to IDLE NO MORE
I used to be such a proud Canadian. So much so that I now have a red maple leaf tattooed forever on my left arm. I had just traveled from Toronto to Vancouver; I felt particularly patriotic and zealous at the time. That’s what happens when you decide things on a whim, but sometimes people have to make such decisions and live with the consequences. It stands as a reminder to me of a time when national boundaries and ideas of intrinsic national character mattered to me. All it would take is some decent education and experiences and the worldly upheavals of 2011 and 2012 to shake me out of this mentality. Most importantly though, looking to the situations involving Canada’s First Nations would make me realize that there was little to really be proud of.
We see now happening in this country a major unprecedented movement, that is the Idle No More movement. Many of us have seen them on the news or in person, large marches or flash mobs taking place in cities across this nation. The movement has even gone beyond borders, starting up demonstrations in the United States, but also in Europe and even in Cairo, Egypt recently. Many of us descended from settlers may scratch our heads. Years ago, if the movement had been raging on then, I too would be doing the same. We have seen aboriginal movement before; Oka, Burnt Church, Ipperwash, and more recently Caledonia. Never have we seen something so large-scale and concerted as Idle No More. I think it more likely than not that we are going to be seeing much, much more of it in the year(s) ahead. It is planned to be enormous and completely unprecedented. So, what is Idle No More about? What are the issues involving the first peoples of this country that makes them take part in such a huge movement that is so critical of the Canadian government? Let’s look into it.
I remember it was precisely in grade four, perhaps unlike previous generations, when I learned about the plight of the indigenous peoples. The story was that hundreds of years ago settlers came from Europe and took over the land from the native peoples. It was taught as tragic but I saw it as something from the past. The native Indian itself was something that belonged to a bygone age before the modern era, before even my great-grandparents time (incidentally most of my family came from Europe in the early 20th century). The context of the First Nations in this day and age was never taught, or even of the plights they faced in the first part of the 20th century. Learning more as I aged I was proud of the fact that the treatment of natives in Canada was not like the treatment in the United States where scenes like this happened as late as the 1890’s. Yes, natives in Canada were not “conquered” the way they were in the United States. The system of reservations were done with little bloodshed in comparison. Instead of violent conquest the modern nation-state of Canada entered into a series of treaties with First Nations peoples. I will return to this issue shortly below. At the time I thought this was at least something to be proud of.
And then I learned more. The most shocking thing (to me at first anyway) I find is the wide-spread casual racism towards aboriginal peoples in Canada. An overriding sentiment seems to be one of: “What’s wrong with the natives? Why are so many of them homeless and addicted to drugs or alcoholics?” Whenever I would bring up the context of the past the response was almost always: “It doesn’t matter. Now is now.” The past, in so many peoples eyes, doesn’t seem to add up to the present. Even in my mind, until the past few years, the reality of native peoples losing lands to settlers was a matter of the past.
One thing to understand about the past is that the colonial disruption to native peoples, that is, the tragedy of the colonial era when Europeans first started colonizing this northern land, the large-scale die-off caused by disease and settler violence, is not where the native tragedy ends. As recently as the past century First Nations children were literally forced into the federal and ecumenical residential school system. These schools were compulsory due to the pre-confederation Gradual Civilization Act (1857) and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act (1869). The schools in Canada were generally under provincial jurisdiction (as the public system is to this day) but aboriginal children fell under federal jurisdiction and Churches in Canada (Roman Catholic and Anglican mainly) provided the teachers to shoulder the cost. The goal of the system was to, as Canada’s government has now admitted in retrospect, cause the “killing of the Indian in the child.” The Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869, in particular, was designed to assimilate aboriginal people and make them citizens of Canada so that the treaty rights once negotiated between the Canadian state and First Nations no longer applied to them. In short, it was a long-term solution to de-Indian generations of native people in order to renege on Canada’s treaty obligations.
Of course we know this as Canada’s government has officially apologized for the abuse suffered by native children in the near full century (1884 – 1948) in which mortality rates were suggested to have been 30% to 60% at the beginning of the 20th century. The abuse is now well-documented and the long-lasting effects have been terrifyingly potent for generations of first peoples in Canada, giving scores of people post traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse and alcoholism, and leading to incarceration that is far more prevalent for indigenous peoples than any other culture within Canada. When I first read about the residential school system and it’s long-term effects I was ashamed. Eventually I managed to rationalize this sad legacy as also being “a part of the past”.
It gets worse though. The mistreatment of First Nations peoples goes beyond the residential schools system. To this day native children are still being taken from their parents. Add to that the dismal living standards they face compared to the rest of the country. The idea of the treaty system was that Canada and the various First Nations would be able to live peacefully with one another and that both Canadians (settlers and their descendents) and the first peoples would be able to share the land, it’s resources and wealth equally. The federal government has been criticized for underfunding native services, in particular child welfare services. An estimated 20,000 First Nations living on reserves have no access to running water or sewage. According to Canadian government statistics aboriginal women are five to seven times more likely to die as a result of violence than other women in the country, due to the long-term legacy of governmental policies that have broken families and communities, making their women more vulnerable as a result. Indigenous peoples, on top of numerous other terrifying realities, are more likely to have lifespans twenty years shorter than other Canadians.
Some might argue that Canada has no obligation to First Nations peoples, particularly since they do not consider themselves Canadians in all cases. This is a flat-out wrong way of thinking though for a number of reasons, the most obvious one being that Canada uses native-recognized lands and waterways to this day in order to subsidize the nation’s wealth. In short, Canada benefits from its use of native land and resources, yet the natives get no benefit in return from the Canadian government. Here is where Idle No More comes in. Just last month the federal government, as part of the omnibus bill entitled Bill C-45, overhauled the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) of 1882 and renamed it the Navigation Protection Act (NPA). The original NWPA was made to ensure that any projects, particularly industrial projects such as oil pipelines, were given environmental legislation, that is, any projects would be open for democratic discussion with all stakeholders on the potential environmental and ecological impacts. Nothing could be approved without consultation with all stakeholders, many of whom were first nations communities that were due to the treaties between Canada and their respective nations. If an aboriginal community did not want a pipeline, for instance, going over a river that belonged to their people, the pipeline would likely not be built at that location. The Harper Conservatives have been itching to expand the reach of the Alberta Tar Sands, proposing pipelines over to the Pacific Ocean as well as expanding pipelines Eastward to the maritime provinces. These pipelines would allow the rapid expansion of the Tar Sands (or Oil Sands if you are a government or petro-company spokesperson). The new Navigation Protection Act (NPA) that was passed with Bill C-45 made it so the approval process would only be required if the waterway in question was on a list set by the Minister of Transportation, thus giving the government more space to propose these projects.
Bill C-45 was passed toward the end of 2012. The New Democratic Party invited various First Nations leaders to the debate in Parliament, but they were barred from entry. This act of disallowing native leaders to discuss openly the use of their lands and waterways is rife symbolism of the current Canadian government’s true feelings towards the first peoples. Three women (Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon) started the Idle No More movement in November 2012, starting with a teach-in in Saskatoon in response to the first introduction of Bill C-45 in Canada’s parliament. These teach-ins spread to Regina, and then spread quickly to the provinces of Alberta and Manitoba. Since then there have been flash mobs in Toronto’s Eaton Centre and Yorkdale malls, the Cornwall Centre in Regina, the West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, as well as one at a mall in Minnesota, U.S. A few days passed before 400 people participated in a flash mob dance in Midtown Plaza in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. On the 17th of December First Nations issued a press release stating that they did not recognize the legality of any laws passed by the Government of Canada “including but not limited to Bill C-45, which do not fulfill their constitutionally recognized and affirmed Treaty and Aboriginal rights; as well as the Crown’s legal obligations to meaningfully consult and accommodate First Nations.” One of the more high-profile actions was taken by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence when she launched a hunger strike on December 16th, demanding that Prime Minister Stephen Harper meet with her to discuss the plight faced by First Nations in Canada. As of this writing PM Harper has refused to meet with her.
So how do we make sense of this, those of us who are not of the First Nations? Some may cringe from the criticism and scoff at the designation as being part of a settler society. Our generation did not commit the initial colonial crimes of the past, and this is true. There is no need in feeling personal guilt at causing the crimes, but there is a reality that we have benefited from the dispossession of indigenous peoples and continue to benefit to this day. Personal guilt over colonialism is irrelevant as it is, since this is not about any individuals but about societies as a whole and how we relate to one another. To feel personal guilt is to internalize the situation and make it about oneself rather than everyone else. Personally I knew the colonialism of the past was an injustice, yet I cannot dis-acknowledge that the present continues to be one of dispossession and land and resource grabbing on part of the modern nation-state to which I belong and the country that acts in my name. No one can alter the past, but one can do something about the present and in turn, the future.
There is no need also on part of those of us descended from settlers to feel threatened or blamed by the Idle No More movement. The movement is completely peaceful and inclusive. No one is talking about sending any of us “back” to Europe or any such thing. This is made clear by the official website on the Mission page: All people will be affected by the continued damage to the land and water and we welcome Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies to join in creating healthy sustainable communities. We encourage youth to become engaged in this movement as you are the leaders of our future.
The movement is grassroots and decentralized, having no clear leaders per say and thus being a form of grassroots democracy, not unlike the Occupy movement of 2011 and 2012. Although the aboriginal issues are at the start of the movement, the overall goal is to create a better future for all peoples in the land that is labelled Canada on the modern globe. The exploitation of the Tar Sands, for instance, threatens First Nations, Canadians and the world as a whole. NASA scientist James Hansen said recently:
“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.” (May 9, 2012)
Dr. Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto and activist with Idle No More said even more recently that “First Nations, with our constitutionally protected aboriginal and treaty rights, are Canadians’ last best hope to protect the lands, waters, plants and animals from complete destruction — which doesn’t just benefit our children, but the children of all Canadians.” (December 28, 2012) Indeed the children of the world may depend on the success of this movement.
As I stated once before in another article, a little humility can go a long way. Taking part in this movement can teach everyone, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, a thing or two about different worldviews and different ways of doing things, leading us all to a sustainable and equally prosperous future. The past three years have seen incredible changes in the world, uprisings and global awakenings. Let’s see things finally made right here and everywhere else.