Lessons of a 'Canadian Intifada'

A law on budget provisions has sparked a protest movement among the country's indigenous people - and it's rapidly spreading.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Now is the time to be in Canada – not because of the snow but because of the intifada that members of First Nations have been waging. Four women from Saskatchewan – Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam and Nina Wilson – ignited this exciting popular uprising called Idle No More, and it's spreading.

At the end of October, the four read the thick volume of the omnibus bill C-45 submitted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government. They were appalled.

They concluded that the bill (which by now has been approved) violates commitments by previous governments to First Nations, seeks to expropriate more rights to land and natural resources, undermines agreements on self-government, aims to integrate indigenous people as individuals into Canadian society while expunging their national uniqueness, and portends even greater environmental damage than that already caused by greedy mining companies.

The four women launched one rally, and then another. Since mid-November Idle No More has been gathering steam with hundreds of learning, protest, music, singing and dancing events, as well as demonstrations, rallies, road blockings, railway blockings, media articles, op-eds, videos, a Facebook page, blogs and debates on facts that not too long ago most Canadians preferred to suppress. Not only in Canada but also in the United States and Latin America, more people are joining and more activities are being planned.

The voice of the many peoples that inhabited Turtle Island – a native name for North America – long before Columbus and colonialism is being heard stronger than ever, regardless of their size, poverty or disputes among the various leaders or various first nations.

Like Egypt's Tahrir revolution and Occupy Wall Street, the movement has grown from below and it isn't hierarchical. But unlike these other movements, Idle No More is far more focused, uniting a distinct group of people.

It began with the economic omnibus bill but is now confronting society with the cruelty of colonialism in Canada and its successors: racism, discrimination, cultural repression, the robbing of resources, impoverishment and hypocrisy.

Also taking part in the protest are lots of “settlers,” as Judy Rebick calls herself and others like her on her blog at Rabble.ca.

“Idle No More is much more generous to us settlers than we in the women’s movement were to men," she writes. "As a result, the support from progressive Canadians has been extraordinary and hopefully will grow.”

On December 4 the authorities didn't let the chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations enter the House of Commons in Ottawa to express their views on the economic arrangements bill. The news spread instantly and the rallies multiplied.

The next day, Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat reservation in northern Ontario started a hunger strike, demanding that Harper meet with the chiefs and the governor general, the representative of the British Crown. The logic behind this demand is that the original treaties recognizing the indigenous people as sovereign nations were signed with the British Empire in the 18th century.

Spence's hunger strike has given impetus to the movement, especially the young people. Unsurprisingly, there were allegations of financial irregularities at her reservation, supposedly explaining the severe housing crisis there. Also unsurprisingly, one can hear voices casting doubt on the seriousness of her hunger strike (fluids only); they even comment on her weight.

Also typical are claims that the protesters don't understand the law. The protesters reject all the allegations, attributing them to settlers' intentions to protect their vested interests and privileges and their desire to make their access to land and natural resources even easier.

Last Friday, under pressure from the movement, Harper met with the chiefs. But Spence and a number of her colleagues boycotted the meeting because the governor general wasn't there, and because Harper said he would only be there half an hour. Thousands demonstrated outside and in other cities.

Predictably, there are also differences of opinion among the chiefs. Chief Shawn Atleo, head of the Assembly of First Nations, voiced cautious optimism after taking part in the meeting, according to the Toronto Star. Those who didn't take part were very skeptical of the government's intentions.

Harper did promise to put a new emphasis on the First Nations' complaints as presented by his interlocutors. But John Duncan, the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development (sort of an equivalent to Israel's coordinator of activities in the territories plus adviser on Arab affairs at the Prime Minister’s Office), said the government doesn't intend to reconsider the economic arrangements law as the chiefs and Idle No More are demanding.

In the meantime, the movement is calling on its masses of supporters to hold a day of actions throughout Canada on January 28, when Parliament reconvenes.

The call for this day of activity states: “The vision of Idle No More revolves around indigenous ways of knowing rooted in indigenous sovereignty to protect water, air, land and all creation for the future generations.”

A protester demonstrating for indigenous peoples in Samia, Ontario, earlier this month. Credit: AP

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