Tag Archives: Indigenous

Why should the labour movement support Idle No More?

1 Feb
As seen on the side of a building in Québec City

As seen on the side of a building in Québec City

Idle No More has emerged to be the most important movement in Canada right now. For people who are new to Indigenous organizing or movements, it can sometimes feel like the issue is to too complex, too overwhelming and too large to understand. In partnership with the Canvass Campus Assembly Initiative, I’ve written this Q&A on Idle No More with an eye to a labour audience. This work should be seen as dynamic and suggested changes and additions are welcomed.

Please share this with your colleagues, engage in the work and find out how you can support Idle No More organizing in your community.

What is Idle No More?

Idle No More has emerged as a civil rights movement where Indigenous people, regardless of region or nationhood, have united to tell Stephen Harper “Enough is Enough.” It was sparked by opposition to the Federal budget bill, C-45. After video footage of dozens of chiefs surfaced being denied access to the House of Commons, people took to social media and called for protests across Canada under the banner of Idle No More. Since then, hundreds of protests, blockades, traditional round-dances, drumming, and other events have taken place in towns and cities across Canada.

Who is behind “Idle No More”?

Idle No More does not have official “leadership.” Instead, it was founded by four women from Saskatoon and has spread into a national movement. Canada is a large country and there exist hundreds of First Nations communities. Combined with Indigenous activists and allies within towns and cities, the movement has grown to be too large for a single leader. Spokespeople have emerged who articulate the demands that are being expressed by the grassroots.

But what about the chiefs? Aren’t they the leaders?

In some communities, the leadership has been quick to join the chorus of voices demanding change. Chief Theresa Spence, for example, helped to raise awareness of the conditions of many First Nations communities through her high-profile hunger strike. But in other communities, the leadership is slower to join the campaign.

In some ways, this is just like in the labour movement where it can sometimes be hard to gain the consensus among different unions, sectors and even within a local workplace. Imagine adding the presidents of the Canadian Labour Congress and the provincial labour federations into the mix; arriving at a consensus can be extremely difficult. And, just like in the labour movement, the side with power always tries to divide people to weaken the bargaining position of a movement. With Idle No More, there exists a broad consensus that something has to be done, but there are still large debates over how to fix what. It makes arriving at a consensus difficult, though certainly not impossible.

What’s contained within Bill C-45?

C-45, the federal omnibus budget bill, changes 44 federal laws. One of those laws, the Navigable Waters Act, has been changed to remove 99% of Canada’s lakes and rivers from previously existing environmental protections. Indigenous communities weren’t consulted on this change and expressed outrage as many bodies of water run through traditional territories. These changes will enable corporations to boost their profits by not having to abide by environmental protections.

Why should workers support Idle No More?

Many Indigenous people are union members. Supporting our brothers and sisters in the workplace is as important as supporting the struggles in which their communities are engaged.

The labour movement has proudly played supportive roles in civil rights movements and Idle No More should be no exception. Fighting racism within the workplace and in our communities must be at the core of our collective work.  Because of the relationship that Indigenous people have with “the Crown” (a.k.a. the federal government), all Canadian citizens have the responsibility to ensure that this relationship is functioning. When Stephen Harper breaks his promises or breaches his responsibility towards Indigenous people, Canadians must unite and demand that he honour the Treaties, or the agreements that formed the basis on which Canada was established.

The Treaties? What are they?

When Canada was being carved into provinces, many formal agreements were made between Indigenous communities and the Crown. Those agreements allowed for Canada to exist the way it does today. The Treaties outline what lands can be used for what purpose, the processes that exist to negotiate changes to these agreements and other policies. Many of these policies influenced the Indian Act, Canada’s only piece of race-based legislation.

What do you mean?

Part of the problems identified by activists in the Idle No More movement is that “Indians” as defined by the Indian Act are treated very differently from Canadians. They are subject to different rules for buying land or owning property, for example. The Act defines their nationality and excludes some Indigenous people because their parents and grandparents married non-Indigenous people. The Indian Act prevented First Nations people from voting until the 1960s, and also established the Residential School System.

There have been numerous abuses allowed by the Act, which was originally intended to eliminate Indian identity entirely. The federal government has used it and other policies to try to subjugate Indigenous people; this has led to familial breakdown, poverty, unemployment and other problems. Idle No More is the result of activism that has been building across Canada for decades and is helping to awaken a new generation of activists to the possibilities of resisting these negative realities and to continue building a united movement.

This seems overwhelming. Are there even any solutions?

Idle No More activists have been offering ideas and solutions throughout the campaign, but the issues are complex. The most pronounced one is that the relationship between the federal government and First Nations communities has to be rebuilt. Stephen Harper cannot simply ignore the Treaties and pass laws that will impact First Nations people.

For Canadians, Idle No More creates a space where everyone can demand that democracy start to work again. Canadians have benefitted greatly from the Treaties: industries, homes and communities would not exist had they not been signed. Through Idle No More, it’s time for Canadians to uphold their side of the bargain, support Indigenous brothers and sisters, and force our government to do the right thing.

Why can’t they just become like the rest of us Canadians?

Assimilation is a difficult subject. Because so many of us have been assimilated into Canada, the idea of protecting our own cultures or traditions can be hard to grasp. But while many immigrants made the choice to move to Canada (where their descendents still live), Indigenous communities had their ways of life forcibly taken from them. Many of Canada’s policies towards Indigenous people doesn’t resemble assimilation; they actually resemble genocide.

After centuries of these policies, Indigenous people are standing up to say that they reject the attempts to take away their languages, cultures and identities. They are fighting for the protection of their people and future generations. Assimilation is not an option because it would erase the rich histories, cultures, languages and traditions that have existed here for time immemorial.  

What’s the real story here?

Most of the policy decisions being made by the Harper government try to move, remove, or justify the transfer of people from their traditional territories. When Indigenous peoples were first forced onto reserves, it was often in remote, difficult places to farm, or far from urban centres. Many of these lands happen to be on top of diamond, gold, uranium or other precious metals and are now highly profitable and coveted by corporations. Many of these lands are in the way of oil and gas companies’ access to oil and gas. Many of these First Nations communities are living with the environmental disasters that have been left behind by profit-hungry companies.

The most recent attack on First Nations communities is the same attack that workers face when company management wants to cut health and safety regulations, or cut wages to boost profits. The only difference is that First Nations communities have to contend with health problems from environmental disasters caused by corporations all the time.

Standing in solidarity with Indigenous communities is important because these struggles are connected. A victory in a single plant or a single community is not enough. We need to stand up against corporate powers and their control over government decisions and bring democratic power back into communities.

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Honouring anti-Native protester Gary McHale

31 Jan

Screen shot 2013-01-30 at 11.27.13 PMApparently, stirring up racial tensions in the name of “saving taxpayers’ money” is a noble cause these days. A cause worthy of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal.

Gary McHale, loud, obnoxious, anti-Native Gary McHale has just been told he’ll be awarded the honour in the coming weeks.

To win one of these awards, the Governor General’s website says that one has to “[h]ave made a significant contribution to a particular province, territory, region or community within Canada…”

In fairness, a “significant contribution” doesn’t necessarily mean a positive one.

Yes, McHale has made a significant contribution to racial relations in Caledonia. He’s made being racist nearly okay. He’s battled “political correctness” (as he says) and tried to restore the White man’s proper place in Canada: wherever he wants it to be.

He’s also targeted the OPP’s policing tactics during the process, the reason why his nominators named him.

He was nominated by the prestigious Canadian Taxpayers’ “Federation,” a right-wing organization that claims to speak on behalf of, well, me, despite not clearly advertising the mechanisms for me to vote out the current lot of republicans, libertarians and racist sympathizers.

Their claim is that he exposed that the OPP was spending more than a hundred million dollars policing the events that surrounded reclamation of the Douglas Creek Estates at Caledonia. No word if money was actually saved, of course. No mention of how much the OPP had to pay every time McHale himself organized a rally of obnoxious, anti-Native protesters.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less from this so-called Federation. I would choke on my communist gruel if I heard they nominated someone who actually exposed wasted tax dollars, like whoever it was who exposed the ORNGE scandal (the Toronto Star?), E-Health (I can’t remember), the Mississauga gas plant scandal (both opposition parties?) or the F-35 fighter jet embarrassment (Kevin Page).

The nomination is as fitting as the “Federation” is a front group for anything but a voice for Canadian “taxpayers” (which, by the way, is everyone who’s ever bought something, anywhere in Canada).

Yes, it’s fitting that the day after the Idle No More global day of action, a man who is only famous for his anti-Native protests, is awarded an honour of the Queen. Indeed, she holds a position that is the most anti-Native of all.

The centuries of genocide that have happened in Canada were enabled by the colonial project of England (and France, Spain, Holland, Portugal…) and the Queen wears the blood of the murder carried out as a result of her Empire. Of course McHale’s award makes sense.

But aside from the historical appropriateness, there’s another angle. More than 60,000 Diamond Jubilee awards have been given out this year. If you throw 60,000 Diamond Jubilee Awards into a crowd of 60,000 people, you’re bound to hit an asshole or two (or more). And just as likely is that others who deserve the award have been honoured, too (like my aunt who has volunteered for the Timmins General Hospital for 60 years, who, though, has never organized a race-based protest that I’m aware of).

There’s also been some people who have rejected the award. Before this, many activists turned in their awards to stand in solidarity with Idle No More. After news that McHale was award circulated, Bill Montour, Chief at Six Nations (the community that has been most targeted by McHale in the past few years) turned in his medal. “I don’t want to have a medal, carrying the same medal (as McHale)” he told the Hamilton Spectator.

The confluence of the emergence of Idle No More and McHale’s medal honour is really interesting. It’s a reminder of how far Canada still has to go to undo the normalcy of white supremacy.

Although, I’ll give McHale some credit. His brand of racism is a lot easier for average (read: White) people to spot. Maybe if racism in Canada was more of his overt brand, there would be a critical mass of those of us who benefit from this system to say: enough.

…and actually mean it enough to help change our society.

Idle No More Québec and national myths

17 Jan

Screen shot 2013-01-17 at 11.08.52 AMLast week, I attended a presentation on Idle No More in Québec City. It was the first time I heard about Indigenous solidarity in a Québec context.

For the most part, it was very similar to other events I’ve attended. The crowd had a lot of questions and the two presenters did their best to explain the complex and difficult relationship between First Nations people and the Crown.

There was one intervention made, though, that I would have never expected to hear in Toronto, not because I don’t think this opinion exists, but because I don’t think anyone that has this opinion would be interested in attending an event about Idle No More. His words reminded me that with Québec comes a different kind of relationship and sometimes, a particular mentality toward Indigenous people.

The older man insisted that the history of colonialism in Québec is not the same as the rest of Canada. Where genocidal policies may have decimated language and culture, in Québec the relationship between Indigenous people and the Québécois was congenial, even mutually beneficial. As such, Idle No More’s demands are more of a “Canada” thing, rather than a “Québec” thing.

The intervention caused people to express their disagreement. I wondered though, how widespread is this belief?

On Wednesday, Lysiane Gagnon wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail about Idle No More that sounded like the intervention that I had witnessed a week earlier. Gagnon argued that Québec has had a “more serene relationships with its aboriginal population than many other provinces.” She says this despite referencing Oka in the same sentence as “one of the worst standoffs between aboriginal militants and the authorities in Canada’s recent history.”

This analysis directly clashed with everything I’ve seen posted by Idle No More Québec on Facebook. It contradicted everything I witnessed at the round-dance at Place Laurier in Ste-Foy and the January 11 rally where a few hundred people marched to Québec’s National Assembly.

Of course, Gagnon is not necessarily representative. One person on Facebook likened her to Margaret Wente. But, just like Wente, she needs to be challenged for the content of her columns.

It’s true that Québecers, through their descendants’ first points of contact, have had a longer relationship with First Nations people in this region of Turtle Island than, say, in British Columbia.

It’s also true that, like with Indigenous people, the British colonization of New France imposed assimilation policies on Québecers who resisted these colonial pressures so impressively that the province remains remarkably French today.

There are some similarities between the colonial experience of Québecers and Indigenous peoples. But to suggest that the relationship was harmonious, or as Gagnon argues, that Indigenous people in Québec were co-founders of the province, not victims (words that are all-around loaded) is misleading.

In fact, it hides the truth.

Québec was not immune to the genocidal policies inflicted against Indigenous peoples. Residential schools operated here. Pretending that First Nations in Québec are treated differently completely ignores the fact that the Indian Act is still present and still controls the lives of First Nations people in this province just like in the rest of Canada.

Yes, Québec and Indigenous people have a common enemy in the federal government. But Québecers, as citizens of Canada, also have a responsibility to demand that the federal government change its approach to First Nations relations. They should fight together as allies, and this means using the power mechanisms available to them. Québec commentators like Gagnon should not gloss over the history of this territory and argue that somehow the colonization of Indigenous people stopped at New Brunswick and restarted at Ontario.

Gagnon’s approach further colonizes Indigenous people, a dangerous approach for a province with a strong independence movement. While the colonized-turned-colonizer paradigm exists in nations around the world, Québecers must be careful to not take that path as the province evolves. Discussions about independence, for example, cannot be premised on the notion that the Jesuits brought education and order to a wild territory (one of the comments that I heard here, for example) because policies that flow from this belief will re-colonize Indigenous people.

Her column is also an attempt to silence the impressive work that activists have undertaken in this province. Blockades, round-dances and rallies have happened here just as they have happened in other provinces. She ignores this fact and instead highlights a few dissenting Indigenous voices, including a seemingly random letter to the editor.

The civil rights movement that has crystallized under the banner of Idle No More has created a space for White commentators from all regions of Canada to dredge up myths and lies about Canada’s history. Just like Tom Flanagan’s revisionist histories, Gagnon’s article (written for an anglo, Globe and Mail-reading crowd) tries to undermine the movement by claiming that the problems that have identified don’t really exist.

Luckily, their versions of the truth wont change the facts: Idle No More allows Québecers (and Canadians) to be better allies to Indigenous people; to build the bridges necessary between nations and to collectively fight for self-determination and independence.

That’s its strength, regardless of what the settler punditry says.

Idle No More: Resisting divide and conquer tactics

3 Jan

Screen shot 2013-01-03 at 12.09.36 PMNearly a month has passed since several Chiefs were physically denied access to the House of Commons to voice their concerns about changes that were about to be forced upon First Nations communities in the federal budget bill.

This, combined with the work done through teach-ins in cities in Saskatchewan throughout the Fall culminated in the first day of action called for Dec. 10 in the name of Idle No More.

With journalists slow on covering the Idle No More movement, the privacy offered by this group (sometimes mistaken for vultures) helped ensure that the grassroots could quietly develop the confidence needed to organize creative actions. No questions about leaders. No divisions magnified. No media tricks.

Amid stories about shopping and Christmas, the mainstream press awoke to find a groundswell of support and action in communities across Canada. It was national. It was leaderless. It was grassroots. It was everything that the mainstream media is not equipped to write about.

Then it started: The errors. The questions about leaders, chiefs and the cracks in the movement. The racist comments.

The current state of shorthand journalism dictates that every story should have two sides: one side is the little guy and the other is the powerful guy, as if the biblical tale of David and Goliath is an allegory for every single political conflict that may arise.

While there are parallels between this narrative and Indigenous struggle against colonialism, it isn’t the story of two people. It’s the story of hundreds of nations, millions of people dead, millions of survivors, hundreds of languages, one Crown with hundreds of agents, thirteen provinces and infinite excuses. This is too complex for a soundbite. This is too complex for a 30-second TV spot.

It is under these conditions that divisions start to surface, exploited both by accident by these constraints and on purpose by columnists who intend to dismiss or dehumanize Indigenous people and their movements.

On one hand, this story of genocide, colonization and neo-colonization is simple: settlers were brought by colonizing empires to settle “Canada” and push away the Indigenous populations. The result was centuries of government-sponsored murder or forced assimilation. As communities evolved to better resist this legacy, the Federal government looked at ways to take even more of their lands because of the mining, oil, gas or forestry opportunities that exist above or below. The result is a lopsided arrangement where few benefit and many suffer.

But this story is laden with complexities: complex identities and players, roles, legal statuses, histories, denial, exploitation, exploited divisions, bribery, theft, bureaucracy, legislated identities, apartheid.

Idle No More is compelling partly because it is so complex. It implicates everyone living in Canada. If we have ancestors who lived here, it implicates them too.

Idle No More risks being written off by the mainstream press much in the way that Occupy Wall Street was; sure, the campaign has noble goals but its leaderless, multi-issue approach will ensure that it fizzles out.

Activists need to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of other social movements and already, its clear that mistakes made by Occupy are not being reproduced. Spokespeople have emerged who are talented speakers and who are generous enough with their time to do the all-consuming TV circuit. Like during the Québec student strike, events are springing up across Canada daily, keeping the momentum of the movement alive.

Idle No More is strong because it is a grassroots movement. As long as people continue to demonstrate it will remain a grassroots movement. And, the longer these events go on, the more vicious the attacks against Indigenous people and the movement will become.

Unfortunately, federal politicians know this terrain; they have had centuries of learning how to most effectively divide Indigenous communities and people and foster in-fighting. Just look at Jason Kenney’s Twitter feed to see how this plays out. And when the mainstream press views the roles of chiefs as being to control their people, as stated in a Globe and Mail headline, the analysis of the complex issues is nearly always to be just as offensive and fall just as flat. Both forces will be working in different ways to ensure Idle No More goes away.

The resilience of the movement will lie in the resilience of people to continue to rally, to flashmob, to write letters, to interrupt economic activity and to ensure that “life as usual” ceases to exist for the folks in Ottawa. We need to expose attempts to divide or co-opt the movement in a way that is accessible and easy for people to understand.

Through our collective creativity, our thirst for justice and our desire to fight the powers who are imposing their agendas on us all, the attempts to break Idle No More that will inevitably come cannot be successful.

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Support Chief Theresa Spence

12 Dec

ChiefSpence

Have you written to Stephen Harper yet?