Idle No More: Are we ready for Canada’s civil rights movement?

We all like a good flash mob. My Facebook and Twitter were a flutter with posts when Idle No More flash mobs began sweeping the nation in December.  For the first time a significant number of my ‘white’ friends seemed to be paying attention to First Nation concerns beyond the occasional somber nod to the tragedy of third world conditions on some Reserves.  For the first time there seemed to be a sense of kinship to the frustrations First Nation people are having with the Harper government.

And then the sensation of the flash mobs dissipated… And Harper’s spin doctors went into overdrive promoting the amount of money his government gave Reserves… And we were gently reminded that the problems facing First Nation communities are overwhelming and money sucking and really, let’s face it, they’re their own worst enemies…  And now we’ve gone back to somberly nodding – some asking: What exactly do they want anyway?

Fair enough. Given the complexity of issues at play, the frustrated protesters don’t have a simple sound bite to encapsulate their ire.  Simple sound bites are a lot easier when your goal is to discredit or distract.  They’re near impossible when you genuinely want to solve difficult problems.  So what really is going on?  And why should we care?

I think we should start by considering the idea that Theresa Spence is Canada’s Rosa Parks.  She’s probably not the woman with all the answers but she is the woman who just couldn’t take it anymore, sat down and said: Enough is enough.  To quote the Neville Brothers: “You are the spark that started our freedom movement.” A lot has been said and done to try and discredit Chief Spence since she began her hunger strike – great sound bites and the perfect distraction from why she sat down in the first place.

I am not an expert on First Nations issues, but I have been trying to dig beyond the simplistic sound bites to better understand the breaking point that compelled a woman to put her own life on the line for her people.  Here’s why I think we should all care:

We may not have segregation laws in this country, but we do have the Indian Act that succeeds in institutionalizing First Nations people as second-class citizens. From what I can tell people on all sides of the issues agree that the Indian Act stands in the way of much needed change. Where things get a little murky is around what those changes need to be and why.

The Harper government tells us the solution to the plethora of problems facing First Nation communities is giving them individual, Fee Simple, property rights.  These property rights would allow families and Reserves to take out mortgages, borrow against the value of the land, attract investors and generate the capital necessary for these communities to thrive and prosper. The plan is presented in such a clear and simple way – the intention framed altruistically in the best interests of First Nations people. Harper’s longtime friend and key advisor, Tom Flanagan, even suggests this plan is the road to emancipation. How could it be a bad idea? How could anyone be up in arms about being granted more rights and access to wealth?

As an article in that left wing rag known as the National Post suggests, the rationale behind the plan may not actually be based on solving the problems on First Nation Reserves.  It seems the plan may be more about creating a way for corporations to access the resource rich land currently being protected by the Reservations.  It may be the Enbridge lobby wanting to get their pipeline through as opposed to the devastating living conditions in Attawapiskat that has spurred the Harper government’s sudden interest in caring about reforming the laws that govern First Nations people.

Dr. Pam Palmater, spokesperson for the Idle No More movement, points out – the easiest way to get the B.C. pipeline through is to parcel up the Reserve land and then start picking off the lowest income families with modest offers of much needed cash.

Tough luck for those who refuse to sell – you’ll just have a gas pipeline through your back yard.

Then there’s the opportunity for international mining companies to start buying up Reserve land in Ontario’s resource rich north. How fair do you think the offers will be to people on the remote Reserve’s plagued by poverty and addiction?

Why is this giving me déjà vu…? I’ve got an idea – why don’t we get a bunch of ‘Indians’ drunk and offer them trinkets and small pox blankets for their signatures on these treaties written in the Queen’s language.

Ooops – sorry, back to the present:

One can definitely argue this is not the same thing.  Harper’s plan is just to give First Nation’s people the option of being able to own their own land.  If they choose to sell, they would be paid in dollars not trinkets. Even the Assembly of First Nations has been exploring the potential that might come with expanding property rights on Reserves and hasn’t ruled out the possibility.

The critical difference according to B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould is that Fee Simple is only one way to approach the issue of property rights.  There are many models that could be pursued that would ensure “the primary economic gain from the capital created in our land goes to our citizens and not to third parties and potential speculators.” The Harper government proposal is simply focused on enabling the sale of the land.

In the wake of two months of intensive protest Harper has now pledged to back off on his plans for the First Nations Property Ownership Act.  He has even vowed to focus his energy on improving education on Reserves.  Why are people still up in arms?

Perhaps it’s because his track record shows when faced with controversy, Harper backs off, avoids talking about the issues and then quietly sneaks mass amounts of legislative reform into Omnibus Budget Bills.  It’s how he removed environmental protections off of most of Canada’s lakes and rivers last month.  It’s how he “streamlined” the environmental assessment process in 2011 to make it easier for corporations like Enbridge to get questionable projects approved.  It’s how he made changes to E.I. so it’s harder for Canadians to qualify.

If I was Chief Theresa Spence and I was struggling to rebuild the health of my community – trying to work with a government more interested in how to access the land than help the people, I know I’d share her frustration. I can only hope I would share her strength and courage.

Our First Nations communities are coming through a long, painful period in their history, but things are changing. If we look beyond the news headlines that only show us the pockets of despair, we can see inspiring healing and rebirth. A new generation of leadership is rising up to take control of their destiny.  It’s not going to be an easy path and for some in Canada, as it was in the U.S. at the time of the civil rights movement, it may be hard to wrap our brains around, but our country will be a better place if we idle no more.



Filed under Canadian Civil Rights, Canadian Politics, Environment, First Nations

2 responses to “Idle No More: Are we ready for Canada’s civil rights movement?

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