In just one month since the explosion of the Idle No More movement, what has been termed the “Round Dance Revolution” – on account of thousands participating in circle dances in malls and intersections – has captivated the hearts of many. The Native rights movement that began in Canada on International Human Rights Day has spread south of the border and overseas, demanding fundamental change.
Today, as the grassroots, leaderless phenomenon holds a day of action in dozens of cities across the globe, the chief of a remote first nation continues her now 30-day-long hunger strike protest in a tipi just minutes from Canada’s capital, Ottawa.
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence had vowed to die unless the Prime Minister and Governor General met with Aboriginal leaders to change the government’s relationship to Indigenous peoples. The most contentious piece of legislation being protested on the streets today is Bill C‑45, a sprawling omnibus bill hundreds of pages long, which guts the protection of waterways, facilitates the surrender of reservation lands, and much more. But many other bills would undermine Aboriginal title and rights, analysts say.
Nearby, Native leaders are meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to convey their concerns. The meeting was Spence’s key demand, but Harper did not even respond until weeks into her fast. At the urgent pleading of other chiefs, and Spence is waiting to end her fast pending a satisfactory outcome.
“The only thing we can do is hope and pray that the Prime Minister finds the heart,” says Gladys Radek, a Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en activist in Ottawa, who visited Spence in her tipi. “What’s she’s fighting are crimes against humanity.
“If she dies, I believe there ‘s going to be a huge, huge revolution. People are angry. We’re all tired of living the way we have. She’s fighting for all our rights – not just her community. What gives me the greatest hope is solidarity. From every corner of the world, their eyes are on the Prime Minister and Chief Spence.”
A broader movement
But as more and more events pop up, the Idle No More movement is clearly much bigger than any one chief or particular policy.
Started in late 2012 by four women in Saskatchewan, the phenomenon quickly spread. While First Nations people have always been active in fighting colonialism and defending their lands from resource extraction, what’s new about Idle No More is its scope, and its extensive use of online social media for organizing.
“This is our future that we have to fight for,” says Krazie Nish, a Gitxsan and Mohawk organizer with the Turtle Island Movement in Vancouver, B.C. “I’m a single parent; I’m also doing this on behalf of my kids – and not just mine, but million of kids across Canada, and millions that have yet to be born.
“We’ve gotta start thinking generations ahead of time like we used to, not two, three or four years like the government does (…). Our young warriors are not using our bows and arrows any more. Times have changed, as have we. We’re getting educated and informed. We have people educating others. Our elders have been teaching us for years. It’s time for our youth to stand up and take a stand.”
At this point in time, the stakes couldn’t be higher. For centuries, Aboriginal people in Canada have struggled with extreme rates of imprisonment, violence, poverty, lack of safe housing, the pollution and destruction of their traditional lands and more. There are more than 600 Native women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing in the last several decades.
Today, there are more Aboriginal children in the child welfare system than were held in the country’s notorious Indian residential schools, according to a 2011 report commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Family Services. The residential school system, in place until 1996, was widely seen by Aboriginal people as an attempt at genocide, and Native leaders say they are facing another generation of lost children.
“There are so many tensions and issues in the Aboriginal community, the Indigenous community,” says Wab Kinew, an Anishnaabe journalist and commentator in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “Missing and murdered women, poor health outcomes, poor education, poverty, social issues, racism, and on and on and on.
“Bill C‑45 was the match, but it landed on a tinder box or powder-keg. Now you’re seeing all these other issues come to the surface. … It’s now much broader than about one specific piece of legislation – it’s about people wanting to assert they have a voice in determining their own future.”
The “drums of war”?
Many activists recall what happened the last time a massive Native movement sprung up country-wide. In 1990 at Oka, Quebec, Canada deployed its army after Mohawks at Kanestake protested the the proposed destruction of their cemetery by a golf course expansion. The move sparked an armed standoff and railway, bridge and highway disruptions from coast to coast.
Idle No More has already seen direct action reminiscent of this: a two-week blockade of the main railway line at Sarnia, Ontario; a highway blockade outside Alberta’s controversial tar sands megaproject; a brief takeover of a major bridge in Quebec, and more.
Native leaders are warning that the “drums of war” will beat if Chief Theresa Spence dies from hunger – one chief even expressed concern for the safety of Prime Minister Stephen Harper if that occurs – galvanizing those attending today’s events to demand fundamental change in Canada’s broken relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
“I’ve watched the movement get organized through social media – their flashmobs, their rallies, all that,” says Russell Diabo, a Mohawk policy analyst and editor of the First Nations Strategic Bulletin, based in Quebec. “I don’t think it’s a flash in the pan.
“We’ve never had the social media before, and I think that’s what is allowing people to communicate. First Nations have always adapted with technology – especially with communications, smart phones, Facebook and Twitter – people are able to organize and show up at the same place. You’re seeing that with the flash mobs. Obviously there’s a common feeling resonating, because all these people are coming together and doing actions directed at the federal government – they don’t like what the Harper government is doing. I’d say this is unprecedented, and I think it probably will be sustained, especially because our population is so young and obviously very skilful at using this new social media (…). Instinctively, they know what’s wrong with what the Harper government’s doing – pushing this suite of legislation – and they’re reacting to it.”