“There is no going back to the way it was before. This country will be forever changed because of what is happening. And there are decisions that have to be made at this crucial juncture by the Prime Minister and by extension all Parliamentarians, but make no mistake, every single Canadian now,” says AFN Chief Shawn Atleo.
Last October, Bill C-45 was put trough Parliament without any First Nations input. Better known as the second omnibus budget bill, it was four hundred pages long and changed 64 acts or regulations. It changed the Indian Act: First Nations communities can now lease designated reserve lands if a majority attending a meeting called for that purpose vote to do so, regardless of how many people show up. Previously, approval required the support of a majority of eligible voters. The Aboriginal Affairs minister can chose to ignore a resolution from the band council that’s in opposition to a decision at the meeting. It changed the Navigation Protection Act: major pipeline and power line project advocates aren’t required to prove their project won’t damage or destroy a navigable waterway it crosses, unless the waterway is on a list prepared by the transportation minister. It changed the Environmental Assessment Act: The first omnibus budget bill had already overhauled the assessment process, and the second one reduces the number of projects that would require assessment under the old provisions.
This act could have a tragic effect on Native lands. UNBC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip was appalled at the government’s action and told the Vancouver Sun, “Bill C-38 completely gutted the Canadian Environmental Assessment process and removed habitat protection from the Fisheries Act. Bill C-45 went on to remove federal responsibility for some 33,000 rivers, lakes, and streams, and reduced that to less than 100. Other features in the omnibus bills passed without any consultation whatsoever with us. The Harper government violated the commitment to work with us in an open and transparent fashion.”
Four women from Saskatchewan (Jessica Gordon, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdams, and Nina Wilsonfield) decided to protest the bill by staging an event in Saskatoon and using the slogan Idle No More. Tanya Kappo helped organize the event and stated, “The campaign was, in part, a reaction to the conservative government’s omnibus budget bill, which strips environmental regulations from thousands of lakes and rivers throughout Canada.” Within a week, several similar events were held in Regina, Prince Albert, North Battleford, and Winnipeg. The reaction to the events was so positive, they decided to use Facebook to reach more people who might feel the same way and hope they would join together.
Their mission statement was simple and direct: “Idle No More calls on all people to join in a revolution which honours and fulfils Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water.” Within two months, the Idle No More Facebook group had 45,000 members spread across the country with a definite agenda: “To support and encourage grassroots to create their own forums to learn more about Indigenous rights and our responsibilities to our Nationhood via teach-in, rallies, and social media.”
It was only a matter of time before protests and rallies were spreading across the country. The message now went deeper than Bill C-45, education cuts, and broken promises that date back to the Royal Commission that was released in 1996. Russell Diablo in a recent article in the Globe and Mail noted that “governments, whether Liberal or Conservative, have continued doing precisely what the Royal Commission warned against: tinkering with a colonial system rather than fixing its rotten foundation. The issues identified by the Commission have never gone away. “
Idle No More called for a Day Of Action on December 10th, and 1500 marched in Edmonton and thousands more from Toronto, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, North Battleford, Vancouver, and Thunder Bay. If the Conservative government wasn’t aware of the seriousness of the movement, surely now their eyes were forced open by the massive support Idle No More was receiving across the country. It was this day that Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence joined the movement and started her fasting and promised to continue until she met with the Prime Minister and the Governor General. Spence became a media darling, front page in every newspaper and on the CBC and CTV news on a daily basis. She was supported by not only the grass roots members but many of the Native leaders who, in a joint feeling of solidarity, headed for Ottawa hoping her demands would be met and they would attend the meeting. Spence became the face of Idle No More, and her meeting with Stephen Harper was now to be attended by all chiefs. The PM agreed to a meeting, but on his turf and only with representatives of the AFN and a few chiefs along with Theresa Spence. And, he would not be there for the entire meeting.
Harper’s response was not acceptable to many of the Native leaders. Grand Chief of the Manitoba Assembly of First Nations Derek Nepinak refused to attend, nor did any of the Manitoba chiefs. Chief Theresa Spence and many Ontario Chiefs attended, led by Grand Chief Gordon Peters who told reporters that his people were prepared to block roads and rail lines on January 16. Shawn Atleo and Matthew Coon Come attended along with several other delegates, but little was resolved at the meeting except an agreement to meet on the 28th of January. A few days later, Chief Theresa Spence and several other chiefs met with the Governor General in what could be best described as a ceremonial meeting. Matthew Coon Come reported that Bill C-45 and 38 were on the table as was the Missing Women problem, but nothing was discussed that resulted in anything of value.
The delegates’ meeting with Harper solved nothing; it only added fuel to to fires of dissension among the chiefs. Rumours of a vote of non-confidence that would force AFN Chief Shawn Atleo to resign were rampant among the chiefs who refused to attend the meeting. There were blockades as predicted the day after, but nothing had changed, and now another meeting is scheduled for January 28th. AFN Chief Shawn Atleo is on sick leave, and Chief Theresa Spence is still on her fast.
The question that begs to be asked is why Stephen Harper put through bills C-45 and C-38 in the first place? He surely must have known there would be a reaction, though it is doubtful he was ready for Idle No More turning into a movement. Considering the media attention the movement has received and the sense of solidarity it has inspired, why has he not promised to undo some of the changes these acts have implemented or at least made them a priority of the discussion? Harper is a savvy politician; he knows that once a bill has been made law it is almost impossible to change it. He may discuss a number of issues at their next meeting, but will it change anything? Will he meet all the chiefs as Chief Derek Nepinak requested in his letter of January 14th?
The answer is no. Harper will be at the meeting, but expect no more from him than listening to only the Chiefs present at the meeting. He will stand tough on Bill C-45 and C-38, and perhaps be more lenient on other issues such as education or suggest another inquiry on missing women. The real issues that started Idle No More will not be resolved, but there is an opportunity to deal with several other issues. The main concern of the movement is that their grievances be heard by the Prime Minister and not lost in some governmental bureaucratic catacomb where promises are regarded as solutions.