“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”
- Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
I grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada in a town which now has a population of about 8,000 people and whose name, Kapuskasing, means “bend in the river” in Cree. It’s located 850 km northeast of Toronto (about a nine hour drive), and if you think it’s anywhere close to the northernmost limits of the province, think again. It’s located 388 km south of Attawapiskat, a town situated on the shore of James Bay that has gotten a lot of press for the horrific living conditions of its aboriginal residents. The community stands as a prime example of the long-simmering tensions between First Nations and the Canadian government.
The only thing Kapuskasing is ‘known’ for is being the hometown of director James Cameron and a former prisoner-of-war camp, in addition to lots of great outdoorsy stuff like hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobiling. My family dragged me along on hundreds of these expeditions over the years. Kapuskasing is a predominantly French-Canadian town, with a meager 1.7% of its population consisting of visible minorities. This does not include aboriginals, who comprise 4.3% according to a 2006 census. I once had a friend who seemed ‘different’ because she had darker skin and covered her hair with a scarf, but when she explained that she was Muslim I had no clue what she meant. We had a handful of students at school who were Asian, black and Indian (East Indian), and considerably more native kids (as we referred to them) than all of them combined. In comparison to us white kids, natives didn’t stand out the most in terms of their appearance or behaviour. But Kapuskasing is where I learned just how normalized and rationalized aboriginal-focused racism in this country is.
In my Grade 9 math class, there was this quiet native boy named Emerson. The kids would ask him mockingly if he was going hunting for moose, taunting him with the word he used in his own language to describe these animals: “tatanka”. I don’t know why I remember that word of all things, but I recall feeling angry and ashamed at the way he was treated. Still, I doubt I said anything to defend him.
My mother was born in Canada to an Italian immigrant father and a French Canadian mother. Many of my family members on her side have aboriginal ancestry, though I myself do not as far as I know. I was told as a child that I was the last in our line to qualify for an Indian status card; my mom’s adoptive father was part Ojibway or Mohawk. I remember hearing stories that some of my aunts could read tea leaves or stop a nosebleed instantly. I wondered if it was some sort of indigenous folk medicine or superstitious witchery.
My father is Ukrainian. He came to Canada when he was 16 and had to learn English from scratch. He told me that he was called derogatory names at school until he stood up for himself. At that time, Eastern Europeans were being shipped up north by the government to work in forestry. Apparently the French Canadians did not take very kindly to them. There’s a tendency to think all white people of European origin are similar. Not so. Cabbage rolls, perogies and beet soup must have seemed very strange to the locals, along with the different clothing, music, religious traditions and of course, language. Even within the Eastern European communities I noticed alliances of certain nationalities, which to me all seemed to be the same. And in Kapuskasing, by these groups, I was introduced to the concept of anti-semitism. It wasn’t until years later when I moved to Toronto to attend university that I saw and met Jewish people.
I couldn’t figure out how persecuted newcomers, who told traumatizing stories of famine and genocide, could look at First Nations and not see the terrible irony inherent in their own racism towards these people. But the fact is that the prejudice wasn’t limited to them; everyone participated.
This is the real Canada – not the peacekeeping, welcoming melting pot image we’ve been projecting to the world. That image is crumbling amid criticism of our treatment of our aboriginal peoples, which is really nothing new but has gotten obvious enough that the United Nations is questioning why First Nations are still so much worse off than the rest of the country. Our reputation isn’t only garnering negative attention for our domestic policy; the Minister of Foreign Affairs (a former police chief) characterized foreign aid as a crutch and is repackaging these initiatives as public-private partnerships. In other words, a strategy whose basic intent is to open up markets in poor countries to privatization. We now have decades’ worth of evidence to show how these neoliberal policies, fronted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, inevitably play out. We never quite see the wealth and prosperity promised (at least not equitably distributed, and with little lasting benefit to the people most affected by these projects). If this is the sort of strategy we’re exporting as a country, we shouldn’t expect to see things being done differently here at home. In fact, it’s getting worse.
Near the end of 2012, four women in Saskatchewan, three of them aboriginal, sparked a grassroots movement called Idle No More, which was primarily designed to challenge the second omnibus budget bill passed by the Harper Conservative-dominated government of Canada. Bill C-45 included changes to the Indian Act that would make it suspiciously easier to lease or sell First Nations land, and the number of lakes and rivers protected by the formerly named Navigable Waters Protection Act was decimated to a fraction, most of those waterways still protected being in affluent Conservative ridings, interestingly enough.* Since there has been a lot of confusion about this topic, I’ve provided a detailed explanation and further suggested reading at the bottom of this post. All of this was happening amid fierce opposition to the proposed Enbridge pipeline and reports that our Prime Minister had already secretly assured the energy company that the project would go ahead while publicly asserting that it would only be approved if it was sanctioned by scientists – despite severe staff cuts. Then the government signed a ‘free’ trade Foreign Investment Protection Agreement which allowed a Chinese-state owned energy giant to take over a Canadian company and control a huge section of the tar sands (yes, tar – not oil). Harper conceded that this was indeed an exceptional deal. They dumped the news on a Friday night when no one was looking, probably because in addition to fearing ecological disaster, Canadians would not be happy that China National Offshore Oil Company will be able to secretly sue our government if we initiate any measure, be it environmental or human rights-related, that would negatively affect its bottom line.
So on the day that Bill C-45 was being voted on, a coalition of First Nations marched to Parliament Hill to realize their right to grant or withhold their full and informed consent, a right guaranteed them by the Constitution. They were shut out. Now two Alberta First Nations are suing the federal government to contest the legality of this most recent budget bill as well as the one passed before it, Bill C-38. Many similar lawsuits based on alleged violations of constitutional and treaty rights have since sprung up. Ottawa officially states that First Nations will be consulted with respect to matters that affect them, but the reality is that their voices are silenced or ignored. Furthermore, as long as First Nations aren’t part of the actual decision-making process as true partners, that relationship remains paternalistic at best.
Canadians know shamefully little about our history particularly as it concerns First Nations. What is taught in schools is simplified, sanitized and preserved as an ancient artifact. It’s something we study, not something we live. We’re given the impression that all of the injustices have occurred in the past. History, to those who believe this lie, is no longer relevant. Canadians pacify themselves with the delusion that if First Nations are suffering from lack of basic infrastructure and societal problems, it must be their own fault. There are many ways in which this narrative is defended, as online forums and comment sections demonstrated through a torrent of shameful slurs.
The truth is that few people outside of social justice activism circles understand the nature and process of colonialism. Consider a cross-cultural study of this phenomenon: What happened after the Dutch and English enacted apartheid in South Africa? What happened after the Spanish colonized South America? The Portuguese colonized Brazil? The English colonized Jamaica and Australia? The French colonized Haiti and Senegal? In a conquest for land and resources, which was justified by an unapologetic civilizing mission ideology, again and again Europeans invaded lands already inhabited by prosperous peoples who lived in harmony with the earth, sometimes uprooting millions of people and transporting them to new lands. In these ‘New Worlds’, they murdered, enslaved and tortured indigenous peoples, stole their land and their resources, jailed them, stripped them of their languages, families and cultures and told them that they weren’t human. In Canada, this was epitomized by a campaign to “kill the Indian in the child” which forced aboriginal children into residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their mother tongues, practice their traditions or communicate with their families. The Canadian government placed these schools under the jurisdiction of several Christian denominations, whose representatives abused children en masse. Many of these people are still alive today. Anishinaabe activist Wab Kinew has bravely spoken out about how his father was raped by a nun in one of these schools.
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” – Ezekiel 25:17
What happens to people when they’re singled out, dehumanized and exploited, not just as individuals but as a culture, as a race? Let’s reflect on this for a long moment – what that process does to a people who, generation after generation, see their communities grasping for meaning, identity and healing with nothing more than bandaid solutions and blame thrust in their face. Every single indigenous group is either at risk of becoming or already is, a victim of a festering cycle of discrimination, poverty, domestic and substance abuse and crime. They struggle to overcome poor education and representation, rampant unemployment, high rates of incarceration, lack of basic infrastructure and access to essential resources like clean water, the loss of land to governments and corporations, lack of adequate mental and physical health treatment and exposure to contamination from extractive industries and hazardous waste sites. Sure, there are lots of people in these countries who are doing very well. That was the whole point. But why is it that the people who were colonized are not those people? Ever? Is it because there’s something wrong with them? Or do all of these people have one thing in common: the incredible injustice of being born or forced into a system that is designed to either kill them bodily or spiritually – whatever is necessary – to keep the powerful people powerful?
I was born into this system. I was educated in it, worshiped in it and pressured to conform by people who used their authority to try to shape me into someone I wasn’t. It never felt right, and I got into trouble many times for challenging my family and anyone else who tried to insist that things were the way they should be, because they know that once you accept that mold, it’s very difficult to penetrate or outgrow that basic intellectual framework. It’s a subconscious process. You become entrenched in the story of your country, your ethnicity, your religion, your family and your personal identity. You work hard to forge a path in a sea of people, each struggling to get ahead. You see people who can’t seem to rise above their circumstances, whose situation doesn’t seem to improve no matter what. They want to move ahead too. But this threatens you. You don’t want to give anything up – at least you fear that this is what will happen if the people who didn’t have power before suddenly find themselves in possession of it. You don’t want things to change unless it means that things get better for you.
This system has a name. It’s called colonialism and it’s the product of a worldview that human beings like you and I thought up. We may recognize its ideological characteristics as follows:
- Patriarchal, hierarchical, top-down social organization
- Focus on individuality over community, competition over co-operation
- Shunning of indigenous and ‘informal’ systems of organization, thought and belief
- Focus on quantification, control and manipulation
- Value system based on monetary and economic measures
- Belief that natural resources are sources of capital like any other and therefore subject to private ownership and exploitation for financial gain
- Tendency to differentiate humans from nature (claiming dominion) and to compartmentalize ecosystems, disciplines and geographic/political boundaries
- Surrendering trust to the knowledge and interests of the business and academic elite
- An understanding of time and systems that is linear, not cyclical or symbiotic
- Tendency to interpret human behaviour and experience only as consequences of individual human choices, rather than the predictable products of systems and established patterns
All of these factors combine to create a society that has a very specific and deliberate power structure. Why is Idle No More happening? Why are so many First Nations demanding change and why are there so many Canadians joining them? Because now, the consciousness of many people is breaking out of the colonial mold. We know there is corruption, oppression and racism. We know it won’t end unless we shake up the system. Many people have been hoping for a long time that this movement would take shape. I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.
What a lot of Canadians don’t realize is that Canada is a multinational country. Treaties were originally signed not with the Canadian government, but with the Crown, and this country remains a constitutional monarchy. Yet the most important decisions affecting First Nations continue to be made unilaterally by the Canadian government at federal and provincial levels. Many First Nations did not surrender their land, nor did they agree to be governed by laws enacted by people they did not elect to represent them. Like it or not, our country is founded on the fact that when the Europeans came to this land, there were sovereign Nations already here. Tribes were plentiful and had no problem living in prosperity and harmony with the earth before their world was changed forever by the settlers. While inherent treaty rights were recognized on paper, they have scarce been respected in deed. Acknowledging this is not an exercise in blame or guilt; it is recognizing that a system that could not be stopped and which has evolved into what it is today was imposed on these peoples. There was no magical moment when that system disappeared or changed. As Anishinaabe lawyer Aaron James Mills writes, “Colonization is not a completed historical fact from which all must simply move on; it is a deliberate, daily violence continuing this moment and anyone promoting that Indigenous peoples are ignorant not to accept this violence as legitimate is at worst, racist; at best, living in a dream palace”.
As aboriginals are largely hidden away on reserves in remote reaches of the country, Canadians are seldom presented with the challenges and cultures of First Nations peoples. The fact that they experience so many problems both on and off the reserve is no justification for assimilation. No people should be asked to forfeit their culture. Ignorance and racism – expressions of colonialism – prevent Canadians from seeing past the stereotypes and myths. Canadians don’t remember their government’s treaty obligations because they were never taught about them in the first place. Chief Terry Bellegarde has explained, “Our treaties were not meant to make us poor in our own homelands. But that’s what we see”.
We often hear that we support these communities with perpetual payments – unfair burdens on the taxpayer. But we don’t understand their financial burdens, or the land that is still being slowly siphoned away for resource extraction by corporations that threaten ecological integrity, human health and traditional ways of life. How many Canadians have considered that placing people in unlivable conditions out of which there is no escape was not simply an act of cruelty but a strategy to dispossess aboriginals of their land and resources, thus finally forcing them to join ‘the rest of us’? Who is supporting whom?
There is no doubt that there is corruption within some band councils and that band members are demanding more accountability. This is precisely why popular voices from the Idle No More movement have stated that it is a revolution of the people – not necessarily those who claim to represent them. As Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo has pointed out, councils for the most part are doing their best within a system not of their own design, and one that is fundamentally flawed.
Some words on Chief Theresa Spence and Attawapiskat are in order. The reservation is in dire need. I know how cold it gets in northern Ontario. Here in Toronto, people really have no idea how terrifying the idea is of living in a tent or without heat during a winter up there, on top of inadequate sewage and water delivery systems. Before anyone gets into whose fault it is, it bears stating upfront that it’s unacceptable for government officials to shrug their shoulders at alleged aboriginal financial mismanagement and walk away. And before discussing the effectiveness of management, the Canadian public needs to understand the exceptional challenges that First Nations band councils deal with. The quality of construction and infrastructure in most cases was substandard from the very beginning and communities struggle just to keep things from falling apart. The cost of construction, maintenance and social services in remote and sub-arctic environments is prohibitive. Transportation of materials to these locations is extremely expensive, as are the hiring of contractors and lawyers to put things in motion. And while Attawapiskat has signed a contract with the nearby De Beers diamond mine, that agreement is in dispute and it is alleged that not all terms are being met. That aside, the fact is that aboriginal communities receive less funding per capita than do non-aboriginal communities, and yet their operation costs are much higher.
Was there fraud on the part of the First Nations managers when it comes to managing public funds in Attawapiskat? This hasn’t been demonstrated. All we know is that there was a systemic lack of documentation to support transactions – a problem which shrunk significantly once Spence became chief in 2010. The federal government also reviews financials every year, so the Harper administration’s claim that funds have been squandered and wasted since at least 2006 begs the question of why, if that’s the case, they continued to throw money in that direction. It wasn’t until media reports of the plight of the community shocked the world that the government pointed to the band council and sought to impose third party management. This should all be considered alongside the fact that the government leaked a “damning” audit report by accounting firm Deloitte & Touche (whose credibility has been seriously questioned), conveniently while Spence was in the midst of a much-publicized hunger strike. Furthermore, a lack of public discussion about the Canadian government’s own scandals and rampant financial mismanagement sparked a wave of indignation and jokes that hatched the Twitter hashtag, #Ottawapiskat.
Now, apparently Chief Spence owns a spiffy SUV, or gets chauffeured around in one, while her people starve and freeze. I don’t know what the deal is with her transportation situation or anything else she might indulge in. It’s quite possible that transparency and accountability issues persist. But the degree to which critics were skewering Spence because she didn’t starve enough (i.e. apparently she hadn’t lost enough weight and subsisting on herbal tea and fish broth isn’t a hunger strike) lends support to the claim that she was the subject of a smear campaign which sought to deflect attention from the original root causes of the problem.
If the campaign was somewhat successful, it was partly because Spence was made into a poster child for the movement, when in reality Attawapiskat is one First Nation out of over 600 and Spence is one chief. If you can tear Spence down and make the community out to be a casualty of aboriginal corruption, you make Idle No More look like a bunch entitled hotheads. At least that seemed to be the plan.
Canadians at some point will have no choice but to realize that Idle No More is fighting to protect future generations from certain catastrophe. Our government insists that the only way of ensuring economic survival is to squeeze out the last of the most elusive, dirtiest and corrosive fossil fuel on the planet, funnel it through poorly constructed pipelines with the ultimate goal of exporting a huge majority of it. Job creation forecasts are grossly inflated. And yet the federal government is so intent on allowing corporations to shape our economic ‘growth’ that they’re labeling people who are trying to protect the planet as terrorists. Why would the government choose to pursue what is essentially a dead end? Inconveniently enough for them, it has come to light that the government has slashed environmental protections specifically because the oil and gas industry asked them to.
We share this planet with other species who together form complex, life-supporting systems. Who says we have the right to disregard their existence, or that we actually own resources, or nature for that matter, particularly considering that we are part of it? Isn’t that a ridiculous conflict of interest? And who said it makes sense to exploit natural resources for private profit? Not Idle No More. We don’t have to go along with a system that is making a small number of people very, very rich while creating chaos, sickness and scarcity. Yes, we need livelihoods. We need goods and we will inevitably consume resources. But we will not be able to continue doing so at the rate at which we believe we’ve become entitled. It’s not simply a question of whether we use resources or how much, but of who has control over those resources. How are they managed? Who benefits? Who shoulders the costs and the impacts? What may shock Canadians is that we do not have the legal right to a healthy environment. The only group of people who have any legal grounds for halting resource exploitation is First Nations, through land treaties that are protected by the Canadian Constitution. They are our last defense. Imagine the idea that the people we have most oppressed are fighting to liberate us all.
Are First Nations justified in staging blockades? Do they have other alternatives or is the threat of economic impact the only kind of language that Stephen Harper will understand? Let’s not lose sight of the kind of person our Prime Minister is. He is
unsympathetic hostile to aboriginal rights, his politics formulated within the ideological mold of his mentor Tom Flanagan, who through a plethora of racist justifications has stated that the only sensible approach to aboriginal policy is assimilation. Sylvia McAdam, one of the founders of Idle No More, along with many other prominent supporters, cautions that this tactic may cost the cause considerable public support. To a large extent, I think that the people who are opposed to Idle No More to the point of denouncing blockades are probably not the sort of people who were going to be onside anyway. Sometimes, civil disobedience is the only way. Debates have sprung up about whether blockades are a form of aggression and are therefore inconsistent with the larger vision of peace and nonviolence. Although the overwhelming majority of chiefs, spokespeople and supporters do not advocate this method, unfortunately these are the sorts of actions that will get the most media attention. So it’s very important for the movement to continue to focus on the fact that it serves the interests of all Canadians, despite the fact that some groups will create controversy. The overall goal is to strike a balance between fighting for human and environmental rights without placating the whims of the privileged, while welcoming the broader public into the movement.
Some have charged that the message of Idle No More is unproductive and vague. I don’t claim to be a spokesperson, but I think it’s pretty clear why people feel disenfranchised, even if they represent diverse opinions and there is some in-fighting and struggle for power. Did we expect anything different? Also predictably, the media has distorted these aspects by oversimplifying and failing to provide sufficient context on the issues, sometimes intentionally or negligently misrepresenting statements of key organizers. As long as we remember that what we’re really challenging is an idea, and not an invincible force, we can continue to galvanize the people whose hearts and minds are open.
“When you and I are inside of America and look at America, she looks big and bad and invincible. Oh, yes, and when we approach her in that context, we approach her as beggars, with our hat in our hands.” – Malcolm X
Idle No More is about love because it is a movement to end a destructive approach to all life. I may not be of First Nations ancestry, but the joy and pride I feel at seeing indigenous peoples rise up, celebrating their cultures and joining hands with all of humanity is something that I would have never dreamed to experience in my lifetime. The settlers, immigrants and First Nations of Canada, despite our disappointment in the illusion of our democracy and our contagious apathy, are awakening to co-create a new society. When there is so much at stake that unifies so many courageous people, a sacred fire is lit that cannot be snuffed out.
I leave you with the wisdom and power of Winona LaDuke:
* Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) and other laws
Some have objected that the NWPA was never designed to be an environmental instrument and only involves navigation. Let’s set the record straight once and for all. Under the NWPA, there were four provisions which triggered automatic environmental assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Now that those provisions have been stricken and the act renamed ‘Navigation Protection Act’, the removal of the word ‘water’ isn’t simply a symbolic action. The CEAA is one of several laws which both directly and indirectly impact the environment and which were severely weakened by amendments tabled in both budget bills (whose content are largely unrelated to the actual budget). Not only are these changes unprecedented, having been squished into massive omnibus bills – which by their nature don’t allow the requisite time and clarity and for this reason were once slammed by Harper as undemocratic – the original authors of these changes appear to be the fossil fuel industry. A letter sent to the Ministers of Natural Resources and the Environment on behalf of the Energy Framework Initiative (which represents oil and gas corporations) made specific suggestions about which environmental laws to amend and how. Most of these changes were realized months later through the passing of Bills C-38 and C-45.
Charges have been made that human rights activists, environmentalists and First Nations are being reactionary and/or partisan. However, many interpretations of the bills by numerous lawyers, law firms and legal organizations have characterized them as detrimental. In short, it’s incorrect to state that people who are opposed to Bills C-38 and C-45 are misinformed and unjustified simply by virtue of their opposition.
Further suggested reading:
What Bill C-38 means for the environment by Ecojustice and West Coast Environmental Law
Collection of materials about CEAA and CEAA reform by Canadian Environmental Law Association
New Canadian environmental assessments exclude stakeholders and issues by Dianne Saxe (Saxe Law Office)
Gutting the Fisheries Act and Other Federal Environmental Legislation by Juli Abouchar and Joanna Vince, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP
How navigable waters and environmental protection flow together published by Macleans Magazine
Energy industry letter suggested environmental law changes published by CBC News