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What's behind Canada's indigenous movement 'Idle No More'?

Bilbo PoynterThe Christian Science Monitor

Canada’s First Nations peoples and their supporters have been loudly protesting federal legislation that, they say, strips protections from dozens of Canada’s lakes and waterways and ignores the government’s treaty obligations to its indigenous inhabitants. Since November, dozens of demonstrations, blockades, and flash mob-style circle dances have sprung up across the country. Youth- and women-led, the social-media savvy Idle No More movement is being compared to last year’s Occupy protests and is gaining international attention and momentum.

Q: Who are Canada’s First Nations?

The First Nations are a collection of Canada's indigenous peoples, sometimes referred to as “Natives,” “Indians,” or “Aboriginals,” made up of 50 to 60 distinct nations and representing more than 600 communities, or "bands." All told, First Nations make up less than 3 percent of the population, though First Nations people under age 18 are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population, according to the latest census data. They are similarly situated to but considered distinct from two other native Canadian populations, the Métis – descendants of mixed French and First Nations heritage – and in the far North, the Innu and Inuit.

First Nations people increasingly live in Canada’s urban centers, particularly in the western provinces, but many continue to live on remote reserve communities. Many of these reserves suffer from inadequate housing and utilities, access to schools, sky-high food prices, tragic epidemics of suicide, and other serious social problems. For example, according to Health Canada data, there were at least 117 First Nations communities under boil water advisories as of last November due to lack of adequate water-treatment facilities.

The main officially recognized representative body for First Nations people nationally is the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), made up of elected band chiefs from across Canada. There are also traditional governing bodies with hereditary chiefs in First Nations communities, not acknowledged by Canada, who have been at the heart of various First Nations struggles and claims in recent years. Further, Canada can and does enter into self-government agreements with individual First Nations bands, who often sit on resource rich lands.

Q: What is the relationship between Canada and First Nations?

The First Nations consider themselves to be sovereign people who have historically entered into agreements or treaties with Canada and, importantly, the British Crown. (The Queen is still the titular head of the Canadian government, represented by the governor general – who, somewhat paradoxically, is appointed by the elected prime minister.)

Though the treaty relationship dates back to “contact” with European settlers, it was the Royal Proclamation of King George III of 1763 that recognized that Indian land could not be taken without Indian consent, thereby setting out the future terms for Canada’s relationship and responsibilities to the First Nations.

That relationship between the First Nations and Canada is now governed under the Indian Act, with the federal government controlling as much as 75 percent of the fiduciary relationship between First Nations and the Crown, while individual provinces bear responsibility for vital issues such as health and education. This has led to an incredibly complicated patchwork of governance and responsibilities that many First Nations view as one gigantic case of pass-the-buck historically when it comes to their communities.

Q: What is Idle No More?

Idle No More, known to many by its Twitter hashtag #idlenomore, is an informal First Nations-led movement that sprang from online conversations between four women in Saskatchewan who were concerned about the implications of Bill C-45. The bill is a sweeping piece of budget legislation, introduced by the government in October, that critics feel imperils the protection of thousands of Canadian streams and lakes (including on First Nations territory) and amends Canada's Indian Act without consulting First Nations, further eroding their sovereignty. The bill passed into law in December.

Idle No More quickly caught the imagination of Canada’s First Nations population online, and has resulted in dozens of actions across Canada since November. Idle No More protests include the blockade of the Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal track of CN Rail, occupation of major highways, and traditional circle dances by thousands of First Nations members and their supporters that have clogged major tourist and shopping districts from Toronto to Calgary. It’s estimated that the highway, shopping, and railway blockades have already cost the Canadian economy tens of millions of dollars.

Though a grassroots movement independent of the AFN, Idle No More enjoys support from First Nations representatives like elected AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo, who has stated his support for the group's aims. It has also received Instagram and tweeted pictures of support from as far away as Australia, Minneapolis (where there was a large Idle protest in the Mall of America), and Finland.

The Idle No More protests are part of a broader First Nations opposition to policies of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. Unconnected to Idle No More, a group of elected chiefs in early December led a spontaneous march on Parliament Hill in protest of the government's lack of action on commitments made to the First Nations a year before.

It was also in early December that Theresa Spence, the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, began a hunger strike to seek a meeting with and demand action from Mr. Harper on the ongoing crisis in her remote northern Ontario community regarding lack of adequate housing and water. Her action, now in its 31st day, has been a rallying point for Idle No More.

Chief Spence now spends her days in a teepee on a Victoria Island in the shadow of the Canadian Parliament, surrounded by supporters and taking only broth and water. She is reportedly frail from the month-long effects of her strike.

Q: What are Idle No More and other First Nations members protesting?

The movement, like the broader First Nations community, has been extremely critical of the policies that the Harper government has adopted in regards to First Nations issues. Though First Nations leaders have accused successive governments of not recognizing treaty rights and of undermining land claim negotiations, there is growing concern among the First Nations community that the Harper government intends to extinguish the First Nations' collective rights.

Prominent native activist and scholar Pam Palmeter says that "It’s an assimilatory agenda. That’s the whole basis for assimilation and colonial policies, and none of that has changed over time.”

“They have a whole suite of legislation ever since they’ve been in [power] that has been very nearly unanimously opposed – certainly by First Nations groups anyway," she says. "And they all have a very, very similar theme, focusing on individual rights, disbanding communal rights, and focusing what will benefit Canadians, as opposed to what will benefit First Nations.”

The First Nations groups are not without leverage. Grand Chief Atleo, growing increasingly frustrated with the recent relationship between First Nations and Canada, has reminded his federal counterparts that First Nations currently sit on an estimated $600 billion worth of natural resources, including projected bitumen oil pipeline routes, considered by the Harper government as vital to Canada’s economic future.

And First Nations have in the past used media coverage to bring about a government response. Chief Spence made international headlines in 2011 after she declared a state of emergency to draw attention to the overcrowded and dilapidated housing in her Attawapiskat community, then gripped by frigid winter conditions. Due to the international scrutiny from the crisis, the Harper government made commitments to improve conditions in the community, while putting the affairs of Attawapiskat under federal receivership. But Spence says the government has yet to follow through on its promises, prompting her hunger strike.

Q: How has the government responded?

Until recently, Harper had not responded to either the Idle No More protests or Spence's hunger strike except to say that people have a right to peaceful protest. Sen. Patrick Brazeau, an Algonquin and member of Harper's Conservative party who is a polarizing figure in the First Nations, has been openly critical, saying he "wasn’t quite sure what it [Idle No More] was about,” while suggesting that Spence was setting a bad example for First Nations youth.

Harper has now agreed to meet this Friday with a small group of national chiefs – including Spence – to revisit stated commitments flowing from the Crown-First Nations summit last year. Friday's meeting was pushed up in recognition of Spence’s declining health.

But it is unclear whether or not Spence will attend, due to disagreements with the government over what officials would be present.

The chiefs had demanded that Governor-General David Johnston be at the meeting as representative of the queen, with whom the First Nations' treaties are technically binding. The government initially said he would not attend – prompting conflicting reports that Spence had dropped out as well – but later relented and promised to make Mr. Johnston available to the chiefs after the meeting with Harper. Spence has yet to respond to the government's change.

Meeting with the prime minister was Spence’s main demand, but it’s not clear if she will end her hunger strike even if she does meet with him tomorrow.

Idle No More has called for tomorrow to be a national day of action with protests and gatherings planned for across Canada.