Pandas and cheerleaders: Sun Media’s deliberate underrerporting of First Nations

24 Hours, March 25, 2013

24 Hours, March 25, 2013

On March 25, 2013, the front page of the Toronto edition of 24 Hours, a free daily newspaper, featured a photo of a cheerleader performing during a tryout. That photo was about nine times the size of a little box to the top-right entitled, ‘Pushing the feds for funding’. The article, printed on page 9, indicated that critics of Thursday’s federal budget expressed disappointment that no new funding was provided for First Nations education. The government has instead formulated a workfare program which will trade social assistance for compulsory work. Unlike the extra education funding, this new initiative won’t be delayed.

Photo by Rachel KawapitJanuary 16, 2013

Photo by Rachel Kawapit
January 16, 2013

On March 25th, all major Canadian news organizations were discussing the anticipated arrival of about 300 Nishiyuu walkers, the original 7 Cree youth having trekked 1,600 km (1,000 miles) from Northern Quebec to the nation’s capital to offer support for the Idle No More movement and to highlight the issues facing First Nations communities. Surely Canada’s most disadvantaged peoples, who are facing an unprecedented and unrelenting attack on their sovereignty and rights, deserve more attention than a cheerleader tryout. Covering the Journey of the Nishiyuu would have been a relatively neutral task, politically speaking; how can anyone struggle to justify commending a band of young people who’ve completed such a harrowing journey, and whose positive message inspires admiration, pride and hope for many Canadians, including non-aboriginals?

Photo by Andrew Foote / CBC

Photo by Andrew Foote / CBC

Perhaps 24 Hours intended to cover the story the following day. After all, the Nishiyuu walkers were expected to arrive in Ottawa sometime in the afternoon, greeted by 2,000 excited fans (according to the RCMP’s count). Although the mainstream media has been accused of underreporting on Idle No More by failing to assign major coverage or providing insufficient context, or by misrepresenting the movement and its prominent figures, this was most certainly not the case yesterday as evident by the considerable buzz the Nishiyuu generated.

24 Hours, March 26, 2013

24 Hours, March 26, 2013

But not only did the March 26 edition of 24 Hours plaster its front page with a photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper looking down at a caged panda, one of two loaned from China, there was no mention of First Nations or the Nishiyuu on the front page. The cover also features Beyonce, Dido and a financial advice piece. An article about the walkers was relegated to page 5, following segments about said pandas, Toronto transit planning and a smartphone game that attracted the negative attention of Ontario’s Premier because its aim was to have the user build a natural gas pipeline without making people sick or blowing up. As for the pandas, it bears mentioning (no pun intended) that they were offered to Canada while Harper was on a trade mission to China in February 2012, presumably as a preemptive ‘Thank You’ for signing the controversial Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA). Not unrelated to this issue in its own right, the free trade agreement has serious implications for First Nations, who have launched numerous Supreme Court cases in order to assert their constitutional rights.

So why would 24 Hours bury what other media outlets deemed to be a major story? It turns out that the newspaper is owned by Sun Media Corporation, which is infamous for its sensationalist headlines and for unleashing “straight talk” in an insensitive (at times downright ignorant) manner when discussing essentially any group of people who are not assimilated into mainstream society or value some measure of political correctness. A special brand of vitriol is reserved for their representations of aboriginal people, which has resulted in predictable clashes. It doesn’t help that Sun Media refuses to discourage or manage racist comments on their websites whereas other media sites moderate and filter them.

What about our Prime Minister, then? He was out of town, but he does use Twitter – so did he offer his congratulations to these brave young people? Nope. This is what he thought the world should know:

pmharper_tweets

For Harper, pandas were a convenient distraction. Whatever methods First Nations people and their supporters leverage in the future in order to have their voices heard, remember that the person in charge of the country purposefully ignored the heroic Nishiyuu walkers and their relevance to Canadian culture and democracy. Harper’s silence does more than demonstrate his character as an individual; it confirms what most of us already know about his agenda regarding First Nations people: he doesn’t care about them. Not at all.

What he has underestimated is that the Journey of the Nishiyuu and the broader Idle No More movement are an unstoppable force. We can expect to see many more expressions of resistance and support for indigenous self-determination and unity over the coming months, as organizers ready themselves for a summer of action. The real story here isn’t about how our indigenous peoples have been abused and disregarded. It’s about how they are triumphing – and will triumph. It is because of this, and only because of this, that Canada may yet have a bright future.

Nishiyuu walker David Kawapit and Chief Theresa Spence

Nishiyuu walker David Kawapit and Chief Theresa Spence

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First Nations and resource development: friends or enemies?

While indigenous groups are usually characterized as being anti-development, many First Nations in Canada are directly involved in resource development and see it as a way to improve their living conditions and become independent. Just because First Nations are critical of the federal government and corporations operating in remote areas, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily against resource exploitation in and of itself. Accordingly, the Financial Post recently ran a story entitled, First-ever aboriginal oil sands deal built on common interests.

Even First Nations that are suing the federal government over claims that they violated treaty rights through the implementation of controversial omnibus budget bills C-38 and C-45 – Frog Lake First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation, both located in northern Alberta – are themselves involved in extractive activities. Mikisew Energy Services describes itself as “a major participant in the resource development sector for the oil and gas, mining, and forestry industries.” On its website, Frog Lake First Nations states that it has its own oil and gas drilling facilities.

Also in northern Alberta, the Horse Lake First Nation and Western Lakota Energy Services Inc. were given $1.35 million from the federal government to form an oil and gas partnership in 2005. Rather than increase funding for basic services and infrastructure, this is how the government hopes to prove that it is “committed to closing the unacceptable gap between First Nations people and other Canadians.” Former Horse Lake First Nation Chief Dion Horseman (who passed away last month – RIP) applauded the deal, saying, “Horse Lake continues to strive to diversify our economic base and we view the Western Lakota partnership as a key component to our future development. Further opportunities with Western Lakota and other entities should help secure the future for our band members.” The benefit to the community? A projected 15 direct and up to 77 indirect jobs for Horse Lake First Nation members. The band’s population totaled 938 in 2009, with 436 of those people living on reserve or Crown land.

Back in October 2012, Duncan’s First Nation Chief Don Testawich strongly criticized the Alberta government and Keyera over an oil spill and specifically, for failing to adequately inform the local communities of the impacts and failing to mitigate those impacts on the environment, on which those communities’ livelihoods depend. Testawich identified the problem as a “disregard that Alberta and the oil industry have for the environment and the rights of our community and other communities.” In particular, he cites a lack of adequate environmental legislation, which adopts a results-based approach. This is an important distinction. Greenpeace recently unearthed a letter from the Energy Framework Initiative (which represents the oil and gas industry) that asked the federal government to adjust its legislation to shift its focus from “preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.” In other words, let’s not take a preventative approach – let’s just wait until things happen and then respond to them “responsibly”.

Testawich is the owner and Corporate Director of Rig’s Oilfield Services Ltd., which is listed as a partner on the Duncan’s First Nation website.

In 2010, Duncan’s First Nation and Horse Lake First Nation won intervenor status from the Supreme Court of Canada. At issue was whether the corporations behind major oil and gas projects adequately consulted and accommodated their concerns before being granted approvals for resource development. Testawich explains, “Our traditional territory is being overrun and cut to pieces by oil sands, major pipelines, gas fields and major power projects. Companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Trans Canada Pipelines and Bruce Power are proposing massive projects that will fuel unsustainable oil sands growth. Development on this scale is making our treaty rights meaningless and threatens our traditional way of life.”

Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan is the largest oil producing First Nation in Canada. Their chief, Wallace Fox, has criticized Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, for backing the Conservative government’s assimilationist aspirations. Instead, he throws his support behind Roseau River chief Terrance Nelson. In 2007, Nelson said, “It is time to quit being loyal Canadians, we don’t need the white man’s money. We need a share of our own wealth. There’s only two ways to deal with the white man. Either you pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money.”

bchydro

Ruskin Dam, BC

In December 2012, a coalition of aboriginals, farmers and environmentalists joined forces to fight BC Hydro’s planned Site C dam on the Peace River, which would flood 3,000 hectares of prime farmland. The behemoth project would count as yet another in the northern BC region, which has already seen intense resource development. Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations responded, “Enough is enough. We need to slow down. It’s more important to maintain the integrity of what’s there than put it under water… all to expand the industrial footprint.”

Meanwhile, the Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in BC evicted surveyors working on a natural gas pipeline project from their territory and have set up a roadblock. In a statement, spokesperson Freda Huson said, “The Unis’tot’en clan has been dead-set against all pipelines slated to cross through their territories, which include PTP (Pacific Trails Pipeline), Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and many others.”

Returning to the above mentioned Financial Post article, there are some fundamental questions to consider. The article states that the oil and gas partnership “fuels optimism that the seemingly incompatible values between aboriginals and the oil sands industry can be bridged when there is mutual benefit.”

INMconsentValues. I keep coming back to this word. It would be paternalistic to dictate to First Nations what their values are, either on a single community or collective basis. First Nations of today aren’t all going to look at these issues in the same way, and within communities we would naturally expect to see a diversity of opinion. Some First Nations don’t want extractive activities on their lands, period. Others are okay with it as long as there’s resource sharing, some control and/or fair compensation. Others still may see it as their only alternative to poverty within the current framework, or they may figure that since projects will be pushed through anyway, they might as well get their rightful slice of the pie. All of these approaches have been represented within the Idle No More movement, which broadly seeks both sovereignty and environmental integrity. You can’t take for granted that everyone at a rally will be against pipelines, mining or oil and gas exploration, even on aboriginal lands.

The largely ignored question is: How can we talk about protecting the environment while forging ahead in extracting, refining, transporting and finally burning fossil fuels? This contradiction is reflected in the letter authored by the Energy Framework Initiative, which prescribes “economic growth and job creation while continuing to ensure responsible environmental and social outcomes.”

One key observation… Non-aboriginal fossil fuel corporations aren’t advocating maintenance of the status quo. That’s not how they’ll thrive. They want economic growth. Economic growth that will spur a greater need for energy, and thus ensure a future market for their product. It’s a cyclical, self-perpetuating system that depends on a reliable source of capital. When they talk about growth, they’re not talking about workers, communities or public infrastructure. They’re talking about themselves.

Is there room for the much-touted aboriginal creed that we make every decision with the next seven generations in mind? Is resource extraction, and oil and gas development specifically, consistent with a worldview that holds that all life is sacred, that we are stewards of the land, only borrowing it and then passing it on? Is it in keeping with a philosophy according to which the very idea of owning land and exploiting resources for profit is tantamount to blasphemy and self-denial? Far from simply being a spiritual belief set, this worldview is one that sustained indigenous peoples prosperously and happily for thousands of years without causing significant damage to the environment. Is going the same route as the white man, albeit independently, nevertheless not an acceptance of the white man’s ideology, and therefore an internalized form of colonization?

Photograph by Peter Essick

Alberta Tar Sands (photograph by Peter Essick)

When it comes to fossil fuels, the issue goes beyond First Nations. We’re talking about basically every community in the world and future generations being affected by climate change in ways that could threaten their survival. No one group has a monopoly on environmental wisdom and activism. Many non-indigenous individuals and groups around the world actively oppose environmental destruction and pollution. We have a unique opportunity now in Canada to bring people of all backgrounds together. What seems clear is that human beings generally only turn to environmentally destructive practices when they are destitute or have become so separated from their natural environment or roots that they don’t understand their relationship with the environment and their impacts on it.

It’s important to note that most of the petroleum produced by the industry is exported to foreign markets. Viewed from that lens, how does fossil fuel production truly make any community – First Nations included – self-sufficient, economically stable and prosperous? These are after all non-renewable resources. Once that revenue source is tapped, where then will communities turn to generate income to sustain themselves, especially once they begin to improve their standard of living and their energy needs inevitably rise? When you are producing goods or services that other people consume, extracting only money from the process, there is no benefit in it other than to be able to buy the things you need… from corporations. True self-reliance would seem to entail producing what you need to survive yourself.

It’s difficult to understand how a community can maintain that it is following a traditional way of life while participating in extractive activities. There are, however, obvious reasons to believe that those income-generating activities are preferable to relying on inadequate government funding that is held over communities’ heads at any rate. Are some First Nations or chiefs being bought off? Are they selling out? Or are they just doing the best for their people given the circumstances?

Resource development on First Nations lands is not simply a question of whether natural resources are exploited in the first place, but who does it, how large the projects are and how they’re carried out. Generally, First Nations seek greater control over these resources and the opportunity to participate in decision-making so that impacts can be mitigated and the communities affected can be fairly compensated – at the very least. It’s one thing for First Nations to derive their revenue from controversial sources; it’s quite another that corporations are given a free pass by the government to exploit resources on First Nations lands, in clear violation of the Constitution.

Pipelines and tankers frequently leak and spill, affecting vulnerable traditional communities the most, so it’s incumbent upon people to speak out about them as Don Testawich has. But ecosystems aren’t contained within political, tribal or geographic borders, and the interrelated and cumulative impacts of projects, both big and small, native and non-native, are not very well understood, nor is there any mechanism in place for putting all of this into perspective. Our world is becoming increasingly globalized and ‘developed’; every community at some point is or will be faced with the decision to continue in this direction or to pursue alternatives, such as decolonization and degrowth. It’s clear that it’s in our best interests to make proactive decisions rather than to wait until there’s a proverbial knife to our throats, but is sustainable development possible with improvements to the economic and political systems, or is it just a pipe dream? Or is radical, fundamental change the only way to achieve prosperity and justice?

Anishnabe Prophecy of the 8th Fire

“At the time of the Seventh Fire, a new people will emerge. They will retrace the footsteps of their ancestors and will try to find those things which have been lost along the way. They will approach the elders in search of guidance. It will not be an easy task but if they are of good heart and pure intentioned they can prevail. Some elders will be sleeping and have nothing to say, others will say nothing out of fear.

The New generation must be fearless in their quest.

The Light Skinned race will be at a crossroads. If they continue down the road of Materialism, it will be their destruction and for all humanity as well. But if the Light Skinned Race chooses to join with the Natural People of this land on the Spiritual path then they will again have the chance to create a nation, the greatest spiritual nation ever to have existed.

Two other races will join these two races. Together, they will together light the 8th and final Fire an eternal fire of Peace, Harmony, Brotherhood and Sisterhood.”

I leave you with a trailer for Fractured Land, a documentary that tells the story of a young Dene law student from northeastern BC who takes on Big Oil and Gas to protect his land and people:

Idle No More: An anti-colonial perspective on justice, peace and wisdom

“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.

Kapuskasing

Kapuskasing

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.

Canadian_Aboriginal_FestivalThis 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.

John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press

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.

REUTERS/Geoff Robins

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

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.

7734659.binCanadians 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.

slavery02The 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

Aamjiwnaang First Nation - Chemical Valley

Aamjiwnaang First Nation – Chemical Valley

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?

HarperI 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

Aboriginal Protests 20121223All 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”.

idm1We 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.

spenceWas 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.

Attawapiskat vs G8 gazebos

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.

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Idle No More solidarity protests

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