Idle No More is an ongoing protestmovement, founded in December 2012 by four women: three First Nations women and one non-Native ally. It is a grassroots movement among the Aboriginal peoples in Canada comprising the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and their non-Aboriginal supporters in Canada, and to a lesser extent, internationally. It has consisted of a number of political actions worldwide, inspired in part by the liquid diethunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and further coordinated via social media. A reaction to alleged legislative abuses of Indigenous treaty rights by the Stephen Harper and the Conservative federal government, the movement takes particular issue with the omnibus billBill C-45. The popular movement has included round dances in public places and blockades of rail lines.
After the May 2, 2011 Canadian Federal election, the Conservative federal government, led by Stephen Harper, proposed a number of omnibus bills introducing sweeping legislative changes. While omnibus bills had been presented to parliament by previous governments, the removal of protections for forests and waterways proposed in Bill C-45 led to concern among Indigenous communities and environmentalists. Of particular concern is the removal of the term "absolute surrender" in Section 208.
A number of these measures drew fire from environmental and First Nations groups. In particular, Bill C-45 overhauled the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) of 1882, renaming it the Navigation Protection Act (NPA). The NWPA had mandated an extensive approval and consultation process before construction of any kind could take place in or around any water which could in principle be navigated by any kind of floating craft. Under the new NPA, the approval process would only be required for development around one of a vastly circumscribed list of waterways set by the Minister of Transportation. Many of the newly deregulated waterways passed through traditional First Nations land.
While the NWPA had originally been intended to facilitate actual navigation, the ubiquity of waterways in the Canadian wilderness has given it the effect of strong environmental legislation by presenting a significant barrier to industrial development, especially to projects such as pipelines which crossed many rivers. The government had by this time been engaged for some years in a campaign for approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines project, a proposal to build a pipeline for bitumen condensate connecting the Athabasca tar sands with the Pacific Ocean, facilitating unprocessed bitumen exports to China.
Many bills affecting First Nations people have failed to be passed. Numerous attempts to introduce bills have failed due to their low priority for past federal governments, eventually dying on the order paper without being debated or passed. In 1996 Bill C-79, the Indian Act Optional Modification Act died on the order paper. In 2002, Bill C-7, the First Nations Governance Act, attempted to reform reserve administration. It died in 2003. In 2008, there was Bill C-47, the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, to redress inequity in the treatment of women. That one died on the order paper three times and is returned before Parliament, now called Bill S-2. The cancellation of the Kelowna Accords by the current federal government was seen as a betrayal by natives. Further background to this is the feeling that the federal government has repeatedly acted in bad faith with Aboriginal people's interests, and have violated treaties when it suited them. The feeling that the traditional tactics of negotiating with the federal government have become meaningless has caused support for new tactics.
Vision and goals
The founders of Idle No More outlined the vision and goals of the movement in a January 10, 2013 press release as follows:
The Vision [...] revolves around Indigenous Ways of Knowing rooted in Indigenous Sovereignty to protect water, air, land and all creation for future generations.
The Conservative government bills beginning with Bill C-45 threaten Treaties and this Indigenous Vision of Sovereignty. The movement promotes environmental protection and indigenous sovereignty. It plans to accomplish these goals by: (A) Implementing leadership structure and councils (Such as the Council of Women) (B) Taking training in coordinating rallies, media, messaging and safety issues as well as in identifying provocateurs, misinformation shills, and propaganda. (C) Placing key spokespeople and connecting with experienced experts in different areas; i.e. treaty research, indigenous rights and governance, environmental activism, writers, international spokesperson, national etc. (D) Creating chapters across Turtle Island under the umbrella of the main INM. (E) Requesting regular meetings with First Nations leadership to have ongoing discussions regarding third party agreements between the Government of Canada and industry corporations
To date the movement has been particularly focused on:
(A) The education and the revitalization of indigenous peoples through awareness and empowerment. (B) Encouraging knowledge sharing about indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections.
The press release also notes that "As a grassroots movement, clearly no political organization speaks for Idle No More". Furthermore, this is not just an Aboriginal Canadian movement. These pipeline projects will be stretching beyond borders carving through critical ecosystems and landscapes in the States. Canada’s large oil reserves have attracted industry to exploit, and profit, “The tar sands industry aims to create an extensive web of pipelines to deliver increasing amounts of this Canadian tar sands sludge to refineries in the United States” (Glick, page 2). Reports say that some 900,000 barrels of oil per day will be traveling from Canada tar sands through these pipelines. According to the National Wildlife Federation report, these pipelines will stretch thousands and thousands of miles through Canada and into the States and will leave devastation along its paths. “This pipeline system would virtually assure the destruction of swaths of one of the world’s most important forest ecosystems, produce lake-sized reservoirs of toxic waste, import a thick, tarlike fuel that will release vast quantities of toxic chemicals into our air when it is refined in the U.S., and emit significantly more global warming pollutants into the atmosphere than fuels made from conventional oil” (Glick, page 3). These impacts are already being seen in Canada’s peoples and wildlife. “Communities that live near the tar sands are already experiencing health problems linked to the pollution, and dozens of wildlife species are at risk, including millions of migrating cranes, swans, and songbirds” (Glick, page 3). With the magnitude and power of this project, these negative impacts will not end soon, and will not end in Canada. These pipelines will stretch across borders and come into our own backyards here in the states.
Idle No More's vision has been linked by some commentators in the press with longstanding leftist political theories of indigenism. During the protests of late 2012 and early 2013, the theoretical framework of Idle No More has been frequently articulated in the Canadian press by Pamela Palmater. Palmater has denounced what she perceives as the federal government's "assimilationist agenda". It has been suggested by others that the definition of "nation" is itself problematic.
Sylvia McAdam, a co-founder of the movement, has said that she does not condone the rail or road blockade tactics that some demonstrators have used, and has spoken in support of peaceful protest "within the legal boundaries".
The movement was initiated by activists Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon in November 2012, during a teach-in at Station 20 West in Saskatoon called "Idle No More", held in response to the Harper government's introduction of Bill C-45.
C-45 is a large omnibus bill implementing numerous measures, many of which activists claim weaken environmental protection laws. In particular, laws protecting all of the country's navigable waterways were limited in scope to protect only a few waterways of practical importance for navigation. Many of the affected waterways pass through land reserved to First Nations.
Law blog writer/observer Lorraine Land, and Idle No More itself, have identified the following current bills as affecting natives or native sovereignty:
- Bill C-38 (Budget Omnibus Bill #1)
- Bill C-45 (Budget Omnibus Bill #2)
- Bill C-27 First Nations Financial Transparency Act
- Bill S-2 Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Right Act
- Bill S-6 First Nations Elections Act
- Bill S-8 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations
- Bill C-428 Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act
- Bill S-207 An Act to amend the Interpretation Act
- Bill S-212 First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill
- “First Nations” Private Ownership Act
This led to a series of teach-ins, rallies and protests that were planned by the founders in a National Day Of Action on Dec 10 which coincided with Amnesty International's Human Rights Day. These coincided with similar protests already underway in British Columbia over the Northern Gateway and Pacific Trails pipelines as well as a march and protest organized by students at the Native Education College.
The protests were timed to coincide with the announcement that Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat was launching a liquid diet to demand a meeting with Prime Minister Harper and the Governor General of Canada to discuss Aboriginal rights. The Assembly of First Nations then issued an open letter December 16 to Governor General David Johnston, calling for a meeting to discuss Spence's demands.
Also on December 17 the Confederacy of Treaty No. 6 First Nations issued a press release saying that they did not recognize the legality of any laws passed by the federal parliament, "including but not limited to Bill C-45, which do not fulfill their constitutionally recognized and affirmed treaty and Aboriginal rights; as well as the Crown's legal obligations to meaningfully consult and accommodate First Nations."
As of January 4, 2013, the main goals have been narrowed down to (1) the establishment of a nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and the Government of Canada, rather than a relationship as defined in the Indian Act to address issues and (2) social and environmental sustainability.
The Idle No More movement generally opposes certain types of resource exploitation, particularly on First Nations territory. The movement takes this stance against resource exploitation, as attributed to First Nations sovereignty and environmental sustainability. The position is supported by many groups including non-governmental and grassroots organizations. In a human rights report on Canada, Amnesty International suggested that the government should have “respect for indigenous rights when issuing licences for mining, logging and petroleum and other resource extraction.”
The Idle No More movement outlines ways by which it opposes resource exploitation, although these views are contested within the First Nations population itself. It communicates the need for treaty modernization as well as increased land claims. It also advocates against resource exploitation on First Nations land without any benefit to the First Nations. Furthermore, the movement argues that First Nations communities do not get an equitable share of the profits from natural resource exploitation and encourages the government to address this issue.
One demonstration reflecting opposition to resource exploitation was held at Barriere Lake in Quebec by the Algonquin people. It closed Highway 117 and was reported “to draw attention to forestry operations that they oppose on their lands."
In British Columbia (B.C.), the specific focus within resource exploitation is opposition to oil pipeline construction. Frank Brown, organizer of a B.C. Idle No More protest and a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, said the B.C. group opposed proposed pipelines such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. Moreover, several First Nations communities, the BC Métis Federation, the Union of British Columbian Municipalities, and several local governments have passed resolutions banning pipelines in B.C. and opposing Enbridge specifically.
Protests in Canada
The use of flash mobs performing round dances in shopping malls became a recurring theme of the protest during the pre- and post-Christmas shopping season in 2012. On December 17 a flash mob performed a round dance at the Cornwall Centre shopping mall in Regina. The following day a similar flash mob round dance occurred at West Edmonton Mall. This tactic was also used at the Rideau Centre in Ottawa[when?] and St. Vital Centre in Winnipeg. It spread internationally with a similar protest at the Mall of America in Minnesota. Members of the Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba blocked the Trans-Canada Highway on December 15, 2012. Members of the Driftpile First Nation also blocked a road on December 18.
The group executed their second round danceflash mob in Saskatchewan on December 20, this time at Midtown Plaza in Saskatoon. Two thousand people filled the upper and lower levels of the mall for the 10-minute dance of the flash mob. Also on this day, organizers started gathering people around the Vimy war memorial on the Saskatoon riverbank. On December 27 an online source reported that there had been 100 protests in Canada to date
On December 30, as part of a day of nationwide actions, a group believed to be involved[who?] with Idle No More blocked the Canadian Nationalmain railway line between the country's two largest cities of Toronto and Montreal at a point near Belleville, Ontario for approximately three hours. On January 2, Waterfront Station in Vancouver was packed for a demonstration drawing hundreds of participants. Protestors danced and chanted. Protestors filled Toronto's Eaton Centre, while a simultaneous protest occurred in the West Edmonton Mall, 50 Protestors at Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, and other locations in Canada. On January 5, 2013, protests shut down multiple border crossings throughout Canada, including Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Ontario, International Bridge in Cornwall, Ontario, the Peace Arch crossing in Surrey, B.C., The Peace Bridge between Fort Erie and Buffalo in the Niagara region, and NWT's Deh Cho Bridge. The International Bridge in Cornwall had not been closed since a month-long dispute between Akwesasne Nation and CBSA.
On January 11, 2013, thousands of people participated in Idle No More demonstrations in all regions of Canada. In Vancouver, British Columbia, a mass march and rally was held at Vancouver City Hall. It was estimated over 1000 people attended the march which started at the Native Education College.
The protests have also spread outside of Canada. On December 27 an online source reported that there had been 30 Idle No More protests in the United States, and solidarity protests in Stockholm, Sweden, London, UK, Berlin, Germany, Auckland, New Zealand, and Cairo, Egypt. On December 30, approximately 100 people from Walpole Island marched to Algonac, Michigan. CBS reported that "hundreds" attended a flash mob at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twin Cities Daily Planet called it a crowd of "over a thousand" and stated that it followed a similar protest a week earlier where Clyde Bellecourt had been arrested, as well as another flash mob at the Paul Bunyan Mall in Bemidji. On January 5, the International Bridge was closed again due to Mohawk protests from New York.
Within the United States, protests have been reported in many states: Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, Vermont, South Carolina, Washington State, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Texas.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, who had supported the Kelowna Accords, said that Teresa Spence's efforts made her "an inspiration to all Canadians". Former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark also met Spence and made a speech afterward saying that Canada and First Nations were on a dangerous path.
In solidarity with the movement, Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow, author Naomi Klein, and singer Sarah Slean have returned their Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medals.
Criticism of the Idle No More movement has appeared in Canada's mainstream media, which has covered related high-profile protests such as road blockades and Spence's fast. Several newspapers, such as the Calgary Herald, and The Globe and Mail, have published editorials critical of the movement or of Spence's hunger strike. The Edmonton Journal questioned Idle No More organizer Tanya Kappo's opposition to individual property rights on reserves. An editorial in the Winnipeg Free Press called for a halt to Idle No More protests, and pointed to what it views as an incorrect interpretation of legislation by some protestors:
Changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, for example, are not a threat to aboriginal resources. The government is reducing its jurisdiction to 97 lakes, 62 rivers and three oceans, while leaving the environmental management of minor streams and water bodies to municipalities and provinces. It means more local control over projects without the excessive delays and red tape of the federal government.
An amendment to a law that allows First Nations to lease their land has been described falsely as an act to allow for the sale of aboriginal land, but all it does is speed up the process for possible lease deals that aboriginal leaders themselves have sought so they can compete for economic development.
The parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs stated to media that "With respect to Bill C-45, the changes to property leasing provisions, these changes respond directly to the request of a number of First Nations Chiefs to provide them with more flexibility".
Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, who is Aboriginal and a former chief, has told media that the demonstrations lacked focus in protesting "a whole gamut of issues". He also said that democratic processes were available for participating in decision-making affecting First Nations. He criticized Teresa Spence's tactics, saying she should have used the "proper parliamentary process."
The founders of the Idle No More movement have emphasized their intention for the movement to remain at its core a "grassroots" movement, led by Indigenous women; they have released a statement to say that they have a different vision than that of the "leadership" of First Nation Chiefs, saying "we have been given a clear mandate … to work outside of the systems of government." By early January 2013, Shawn Atleo, leader of the Assembly of First Nations, and other Chiefs, were beginning to "use the protests' momentum to press Ottawa on treaty rights and improved living standards." The protests have been noted for creating a stream of polarized debate online, bringing out both supporters and detractors.
January 11, 2013 meeting
On January 4, 2013, Prime Minister Harper announced a meeting with a delegation of First Nation leaders coordinated by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), to follow up on the issues discussed during the Crown-First Nations Gathering on January 24, 2012. His statement announcing the meeting made no mention of Idle No More. The meeting was held on January 11, 2013.
The preparations were the subject of intense negotiation and debate within the AFN membership, until late in the evening of the eve of the meeting. Some chiefs voted not to participate, choosing to boycott the meeting for various reasons, including demands that more chiefs be included in the AFN delegation, questions over what to include on the meeting's agenda, and the fact that the Governor General would not be present throughout the meeting, and would be limited to a shorter ceremonial meeting after the meeting with Prime Minister Harper.
The day of the meeting, members of the Idle No More movement organized protests on Parliament Hill (drawing an estimated 3000 demonstrators), and in cities across Canada. Idle No More spokesperson Pam Palmater, who ran against Atleo for the position of National Chief with the AFN, said in a CBC discussion that the diverse positions expressed among the AFN chiefs "doesn't mean good things for the AFN".
The January 11 meeting was attended by National Chief Shawn Atleo and a delegation of chiefs from several provinces and the Yukon, AFN representatives from its Youth Council, Women's Council and Elders Council (Ontario and Manitoba chiefs boycotted the meeting). While it had previously been announced that Harper would only attend portions of the meeting, he attended the entire meeting. The meeting was also attended by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, his Parliamentary Secretary Greg Rickford, Cabinet Ministers Tony Clement and Leona Aglukkaq, and senior officials from the Privy Council Office, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, and several other federal departments. The ceremonial meeting with Governor General Johnston was attended by around 100 chiefs, including Chief Theresa Spence.
After the meeting, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan stated that it would be followed by "high-level dialogue" between Harper and Atleo, including follow-up meetings and more frequent reporting on Aboriginal matters by the federal government. Matthew Coon Come, a former AFN National Chief who has been confronted by protestors, attended the meeting, stated after the meeting that the "prime minister had moved a couple of posts forward", furthering discussions on treaty process and specific land claims, and that the prime minister indicated a willingness to consult with First Nations on environmental issues and legislative matters that impact Aboriginal territories.
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We are not our statistics, we are not our violence, our poverty, we are not invisible […] Your silence…is your consent to the demise of a people […] We need you, you need you…Be idle no more.
Nina Wilson, Co-founder of the Idle No More protest movement
In November 2012 four women – Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon – organized a mass teach-in at Station 20 West in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to call attention to a piece of legislation called the omnibus Bill C-45. This legislation was eventually passed on December 14th, 2012 without any consultation of the Aboriginal peoples who would be affected, with the most controversial changes affecting the Indian Act, Navigation Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act.
Among many amendments, the bill calls for a reduction of federal environmental reviews on waterways (many of which pass through First Nations territories), changes the definition of Aboriginal fishery, reduces protection of fish habitats and implements changes to the Indian Act in relation to leasing reserve property. The original teach-in in Saskatoon quickly led to more teach-ins, rallies and protests across Saskatchewan and eventually spread to Winnipeg, Manitoba and Edmonton, Alberta, culminating in a national day of action on December 10th, 2012 which quickly became “one of the largest Indigenous mass movements in Canadian history” (Gordon et al., 2013).
Idle No More is now recognized as a grassroots Indigenous protest movement which is quickly gaining global support. Their mission is to call “on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water”, declaring that “the Treaties are nation to nation agreements between Canada and First Nations who are sovereign nations” (Idle No More, 2013). Treaty lies at the center of this debate, and Idle No More could be seen as a demonstration of the deep frustration felt by Aboriginal peoples who are tired of waiting for Treaty to be recognized and acknowledged by the Canadian state. Consequently, the following article will be discussing Treaty and how it has failed to be recognized by the Canadian state through a system of ongoing internal colonization, as well as its connection with discourses surrounding Indigenous nationhood.
On its official website, Idle No More “calls on all people to continue to oppose and reject all imposed legislation originating from the federal government”, declaring that “the unilateral imposition of these Bills is in direct violation of the Treaties and the Treaty relationship that the Original peoples of Turtle Island made with the British Crown” (Idle No More, 2013). Our first task will thus be to examine what is meant by Treaty and the “Treaty relationship”.
The official approach to understanding Treaty has generally been a superficial one, where only the written words have been taken into account. This has led to a common-sense attitude that First Nations surrendered their rights and titles, as is illustrated by Tom Flanagan’s approach to the Treaties. In his discussion of the numbered Treaties in Canada, he refers to them as “first and foremost land-surrender agreements” (Flanagan, 2000: 146) which typically contained “an explicit surrender of Indian title to land” (Flanagan, 2000: 145).
Both Sharon Venne and Michael Asch however point out the importance of not only taking into account the written treaties, but also their context and the oral understanding which is all too often ignored.
Asch, in his paper “On the Land Cessation Provision in Treaty 11” (2013), analyzes the great misrepresentation present in Treaty 11 and the disjunction between the written and the oral agreements. During the Treaty negotiations in 1921, the Crown was represented by Commissioner Henry Arthur Conroy, who had been instructed to “obtain cession and surrender” and not make any outside promises to the Dene (Asch, 2013: 472).
However it is quite clear from the records of the negotiations that he exceeded his authority. The Dene seemed particularly concerned about whether the Treaty contained provisions regarding the cessation of land and were suspicious when offered money or benefits in case this was intended as a payment for their land. In response to this, Asch writes that for every community for which there is evidence “they received the same assurance: it was intended to symbolize the establishment of a relationship of peace and friendship between them, not to transfer ownership and jurisdiction” (Asch, 2013: 468). As a result, Asch argues that “when contextual evidence is included in the interpretation of what occurred during negotiations; one is drawn to conclude that the Crown understood that Dene did not agree to cede or surrender their lands in Treaty 11, notwithstanding what was written down” (Asch, 2013: 458).
The government of Canada was very much aware of this misrepresentation of the Treaty negotiations, however interestingly failed to correct it or reject the promises made by Conroy. Consequently, Asch concludes that the government tacitly agreed to Conroy’s oral contract with the Dene, meaning that Treaty 11 “actually affirms a shared understanding of the Crown’s recognition of Dene ownership and jurisdiction over their lands as they have reported it” (Asch 2013: 473).
The Dene were thus not wrong to walk away from the negotiations confident that their lands were safe and under their continued care.
Map illustrating the Numbered Treaties
This understanding can also be found in other Treaty negotiations as described by Sharon Venne (2007). In her presentation about the oral understanding of Treaty Six and treaty-making in 1876 at Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt she discusses the meaning of Treaty to the Cree. Treaty according to the Cree understanding is based on peace and friendship (Venne, 2007: 4) with the aim of living side by side with the non-indigenous people and sharing their resources (Venne, 2007: 8), corroborating with Asch’s account. This can be illustrated by the fact that the oral history of the Elders reports that Commissioner Morris, who was sent to negotiate the treaty of 1876, promised the Cree that “we don’t want your animals because we are bringing our own […] Everything remains yours. We don’t want any of that. We don’t have enough money to buy your land” (Venne, 2007: 5).
Idle No More agrees with this understanding of Treaty, as their website declares that “the spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources” (Idle No More, 2013).
The Cree and Dene, like many other Indigenous Peoples in Canada, agreed to share their resources out of goodwill, but instead have faced a long history of Treaty violations at the hands of non-indigenous people, and the promises made to them have been repeatedly broken. In the end, due to the fact that the “Western mind privileges writing over orality” (Asch, 2013: 456), the verbal negotiations of Treaty have been ignored, and thus it is often wrongfully assumed that Indigenous lands were in fact ceded to the Crown.
It seems as if the Canadian government’s refusal to take into account the full context and verbal promises made during the Treaty negotiations is ultimately due to politics and their “anticipation of the outcome should such factors be included” (Asch, 2013: 457).
Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have faced five centuries of Treaty violations: they have had their lands stolen, their children have faced the trauma of residential schools where they were abused and forbidden to speak their own languages, and they have suffered disease and the undermining of their political and social systems through legislations such as the Indian Act. The continuing violation of Treaty rights and the imposition of unilateral legislation such as the omnibus Bill C-45 could be described as an ongoing form of internal colonization.
Internal colonization is defined by James Tully as “the appropriation of land, resources and jurisdiction of indigenous peoples, not only for the sake of resettlement and exploitation […] but for the territorial foundation of the dominant society itself” (Tully, 2000: 39). Clearly, the appropriation of natural resources lies at the heart of internal colonization. The Idle No More movement highlights this issue as one of their main focus points in their Manifesto: “We will be left with nothing but poisoned water, land and air. This is an attempt to take away sovereignty and the inherent right to land and resources from First Nations peoples” (Idle No More, 2013).
Tully continues by digging deeper into the strategies which the Canadian government has used in order to achieve its long-term goals of making the indigenous population disappear, which has been done in two ways: firstly, through the extinction of indigenous peoples either through dying out due to disease or warfare or by marrying into the dominant society, and secondly through the attempt to extinguish the rights of indigenous peoples to their territories and self-government (Tully, 2000: 40).
Extinguishment however carries with it a number of contradictions, namely the ongoing and possibly eternal debate about whether indigenous rights and title were actually surrendered at the time of treaty making (as we have seen, in the indigenous perspective they were not, but the official stance to this day from the government has been that they did surrender their territory despite the research and arguments which support the indigenous standpoint).
From this, two governmental strategies of incorporation have been employed in order to ‘solve’ this contradiction: “to incorporate indigenous people by means of assimilation or accommodation” (Tully, 2000: 45). You only need to look into the recent history of Canada to find numerous policies aimed at assimilating indigenous people to the dominant society (residential schools for example), as well as arguments put forwards by theorists such as Tom Flanagan (2000).
In regards to the strategy of accommodation, this can be illustrated in the way indigenous people are dealt with by the Supreme Court of Canada, for example by simply “recognizing their rights as rights within the Canadian constitution. In so doing, it reaffirms the system of internal colonization” (Tully, 2000: 45). Indigenous people are consequently recognized as having rights as members of Canadian society, and are thus subject to the sovereignty of the Canadian state instead of having rights as sovereign, self-governing nations.
An Idle No More protest in Victoria, British Columbia
One way of denying indigenous sovereignty has been through the denial of the nation-to-nation status of the treaties, as has been argued by political theorists such as Alan Cairns (2000) and Tom Flanagan (2000). Cairns argues that Native nationalism or the recognition of First Nations as sovereign nations is unrealistic, because contemporary treaties are completely different to the original treaties. According to him, contemporary treaties “are situated in a federal system in which Aboriginal peoples are also a part of the very communities with whom they are bargaining”, in contrast to the original treaties which were “between separate actors in a mini-international system” (Cairns, 2000: 193). He consequently refers to Canada as a “common country to which we all belong” (Cairns, 2000: 193), repeatedly referring to some kind of “shared civic identity” (Cairns, 2000: 195).
Moreover, Cairns advocates the creation of “citizens plus”, arguing that differences between Aboriginals and non-aboriginals should be acknowledged though not at the expense of common interests. I would question his assumption that the international nation-to-nation relations of the early contact period no longer exist, for this completely contradicts the Aboriginal understanding of Treaty. Cairns fails to acknowledge that First Nations existed prior to settlement from Europeans and that they have never surrendered their nationhood, resulting in a very Canadian-centric argument which fails to acknowledge the Indigenous perspective. Flanagan also disputes this nation-to-nation status:
The many agreements made over the centuries between Indians […] and Great Britain or Canada […] are not treaties in the international sense. They could not be, because […] Indians were not organized into states and did not possess sovereignty in the technical sense (Flanagan, 2000: 135)
Such attitudes are widespread and have only resulted in the maintenance of a system of internal colonization on which the Canadian state is based.
In referring to Treaties as “nation to nation” agreements (Idle No More, 2013), the First Nations are placed at a level alike to that of the British Crown. As has been noted, this has not been the official government attitude towards First Nations as Canada has a long history of policies aimed at assimilating indigenous peoples into the Canadian mainstream and denying their nationhood. Such an attitude has long been the source of frustration among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, and the Idle No More movement could arguably be representative of a growing sense of nationalism among First Nations in response to this ongoing internal colonization.
Taiaiake Alfred offers a sense of optimism when he writes: “With a growing realization of their inherent ability to survive as people and persist as nations, Native societies are developing the confidence to assert themselves both culturally and politically” (Alfred, 1995: 6). In theorizing Native nationalism, Alfred argues that the formulation of nationalism itself must be reconstructed, due to the fact that the dominant understanding is based on colonial assumptions and a European understanding of nation-building (Alfred, 1995: 9). Alfred refers to this early formulation of nationalism as “State Nationalism”, which he defines as: “a form oriented toward incorporating groups into a larger community and creating a common identity which supports the development of hegemonic state institutions” (Alfred, 1995: 14). In contrast to this, Alfred provides a different type of nationalism which he calls “Ethno-Nationalism (Autonomy)”:
a form which seeks to achieve self-determination not through the creation of a new state, but through the achievement of a cultural sovereignty and a political relationship based on group autonomy reflected in formal self-government arrangements in cooperation with existing state institutions (Alfred, 1995: 14)
This is the form of nationalism which he argues best reflects the Native nationalism in Canada, which is experiencing an increase due to frustrations which First Nations have in their dealings with the government.
Negotiations currently suffer greatly from the ethnocentric federal position, as for the government, “negotiations that do not ensure extinguishment [of Aboriginal rights and title] hardly seem worthwhile” (Asch and Zlotkin, 1997: 5). Michael Asch and Norman Zlotkin argue that the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government will never recover if the status quo is maintained due to an ongoing sense of injustice. Consequently, they offer an alternative which corresponds to Alfred’s notion of Ethno-Nationalism, in which the “recognition and respect for First Nations as self-determining and distinct nations […] must be the hallmark of this new relationship“(Asch and Zlotkin, 1997: 12).
Tully also supports such a solution to internal colonization, arguing that certainty can only be found by recognizing First Nations as self-governing and autonomous people who are equal in status to the Canadian state and willing to negotiate shared jurisdiction of land and resources in a relationship of mutual respect and consensus (Tully, 2000: 53). Leanne Simpson, in a recent interview about the Idle No More movement, summarized it well:
We’re not talking about getting a bigger piece of the pie […] we’re talking about a different pie. People within the Idle No More movement who are talking about indigenous nationhood are talking about a massive transformation, a massive decolonization. (Klein, 2013)
Ultimately, the Idle No More movement could be regarded as an Ethno-Nationalist movement (along the lines of Alfred’s definition), as its goals coincide with the Ethno-Nationalist aims of achieving self-determination and sovereignty based on a political relationship of cooperation rather than any form of domination by one party over the other.
Respecting treaty inherently goes hand in hand with acknowledging the sovereignty of First Nations, and it seems clear that many assumptions, such as that of the supremacy of Canadian law within Native communities, should be challenged. Only once sovereignty and aboriginal rights are acknowledged can a new relationship be built “according to the principle of equitable sharing of ownership and jurisdiction” (Asch and Zlotkin, 1997: 2).
To conclude, the Idle No More movement could be regarded as an Ethno-Nationalist movement (if we take Taiaiake’s definition) which has arisen out of the frustration felt by First Nations people as a result of the ongoing internal colonization which is being carried out by the Canadian state, embodied by the unilateral imposition of legislation such as the omnibus Bill C-45. Such unilateral legislation is in direct violation of Treaty, which from the indigenous perspective is an ongoing relationship founded on peace and friendship, not the extinguishment of indigenous rights and title as is often assumed by superficial readings of the Treaties.
This article has touched upon numerous topics, such as colonialism, nationalism, sovereignty and citizenship, all of which could have benefited from deeper discussion, however this illustrates the complexity of the discussion at hand. Hopefully this work has illustrated however that there are numerous assumptions held within the dominant and current political logic which need to be challenged in order to find some common ground.
It is apparent that the colonial policies of assimilation and extinguishment have fortunately failed. Indigenous peoples in Canada are no longer in a position where they are simply surviving – they have persisted. As the population and confidence of First Nations steadily grows their voices calling for sovereignty and respect of Treaty will grow ever louder. The Canadian state can only pretend to be deaf for so long – eventually they will need to face the promises which have been broken and they will need to strive for certainty by restoring a sense of justice.
As has been argued by Asch, Zlotkin, Tully and many others, this certainty can only be found by the recognition and affirmation of Aboriginal rights and title and the creation of a new relationship based on equality and shared understanding.
Alfred, Gerarld. Heeding the Voices of our Ancestors. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Asch, Michael and Norman Zlotkin. “Affirming Aboriginal Title: A New Basis for Comprehensive Claims Negotiations.” Asch, Michael. Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997. 208-230.
Asch, Michael. “On the Land Cession Provisions in Treaty 11.” Ethnohistory (2013): 451-467.
Cairns, Alan. Citizens Plus. Vancouver and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.
Flanagan, Tom. First Nations? Second Thoughts. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press , 2000.
Idle No More. Manifesto. 24 January 2013. 2 May 2013. <http://www.idlenomore.ca/manifesto>.
—. One of Idle No More Co-Founders, Nina Wilson Speaks: We Need You…You Need You. 24 March 2013. 2 May 2013. <http://www.idlenomore.ca/articles/latest-news/global-news/item/170-idle-no-more-needs-all-of-you>.
Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Nina Wilson and Sheelah McLean. Idle No More: Indigenous Brothers and Sisters Taking the Initiative for a Better Tomorrow. 17 December 2012. 2 May 2013. <http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/article/idle-no-more-indigenous-brothers-and-sisters-taking-initiative-better-tomorrow-146378>.
Klein, Naomi. “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson.” YES! Magazine 5 March 2013. 2 May 2013. <http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/dancing-the-world-into-being-a-conversation-with-idle-no-more-leanne-simpson>.
Treaties Made in Good Faith. By Sharon Venne. University of Alberta. n.d.
Tully, James. “The Struggles of Indigenous Peoples for and of Freedom.” Ivison, Duncan, Paul Patton and Will Sanders. Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 36-60.