First Nations Attawapiskat Chief Teresa Spence has been on a hunger strike for an entire month. Apparently, this is what it takes in Canada these days to get attention from the country’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who continues to treat the chief’s desperate measure with chilly indifference. Chief Spence refuses to eat until she meets with Harper to discuss the cataclysmic Bill-C45 legislation his government just enacted this past December, which weakens environmental laws and violates First Nations treaty agreements. The hunger strike is part of the broader Idle No More movement, which opposes the recent legislation that was drafted, debated, and introduced entirely without First Nations participation. The message of the movement, which was conceived in early October by four indigenous and non-indigenous women from Saskatchewan, is clear: honor indigenous rights and protect the environment. Although many Canadians have been oblivious to (or perhaps in denial of) the destitute conditions Aboriginal communities have been subjected to since the time of the country’s inception, as well as the systematic exploitation of native reserve land for resources, the sustained and co-ordinated efforts of Idle No More activists are bringing these issues to the nation’s attention.
Whether we like it or not, the legacy of colonization has shaped Canadian society and continues to permeate its political practices. Since 2008, the Harper government has made major cuts to aboriginal health and school funding, turned a blind eye to the over 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada,refused to share residential school documents with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, dropped land claim negotiations, stood by as Aboriginal youth suicide rates hit crisis levels, and attempted to erode environmental protection laws enshrined in First Nations treaties.
In addition, there were still some minor legislation in place that made it a pain in Harper’s side to completely decimate protected native reserve in the name of economic growth. One such law was the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which safeguarded thousands of Canadian lakes and rivers from industrial development. Knowing Harper’s charming attitude toward the environment (remember his genius pipleline plan?) it comes as no shock that his government recently passed legislation to drop the “waters” from the title of the act and rename it simply the “Navigation Protection Act”—reflecting its real priority to ensure the passage of ships and development of infrastructure along waterways. But that’s not all. Harper snuck this amendment into an omnibus bill, which appears to be the PM and his neo-con cronies’ favorite way of a passing a bunch of insidious laws all at once. Bill C-45 also modifies the Indian Act making it easier to surrender reserve land, as well as to the Canadian Environment Protection Act and the Fisheries Act. Although passing legislation that facilitates the extraction of resources from native lands is a victory for Harper, he made a grave mistake. He forgot to ask. And, as forgiving as Canadians are as a nation, manners are manners. Furthermore, not only is it impolite to unilaterally impose legislation on a sovereign nation, it’s illegal and in direct violation of Article 18 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which secures the right of Aboriginal people to participate in decisionmaking in matters that directly affect them.
To add insult to injury, a misogynist backlash is surfacing in major Canadian newspapers, such as The National Post, which depict Chief Spence as emotional, unreasonable, and whiny. Similar right-wing media organizations are also engaging in victim-blaming, correlating the impoverished conditions of aboriginal communities with internal mismanagement, rather than longstanding oppressive conditions. Downright racist commentary has also emerged, evidenced by The National Post’s Christie Blatchford’s account of Chief Spence’s strike as being surrounded by “the inevitable cycle of hideous puffery and horse manure that usually accompany native protest swirls.”
Some papers are even quibbling about the ethics of a hunger strike (I guess the ethics of systemic oppression is old news), and are focusing on the fact that the original founders of the Idle No More movement are distancing themselves from the Chief’s actions, claiming that the visions of the Aboriginal people’s movement does not coincide with the visions of the leadership. Although it’s important to recognize the grassroots, horizontal nature of the movement, Canadian media focus on the schism between First Nations leaders and the protest organizers draws attention away from real news: that people are rising in the thousands and will no longer tolerate colonial treatment by the Canadian government, that Aboriginal communities have been exploited for too long, and that they will idle no more.
To find out more and join the solidarity protests surging worldwide, follow the #IdleNoMore movement on Twitter and Facebook, check out the official blog’s event map to see what’s happening near you, and stay tuned for the #J11 Global Day of Action, Solidarity and Resurgence coming up on January 11th.