Attawapiskat chief's hunger strike part of wider movement
Grassroots movement Idle No More driven by social media
CBC News Posted: Dec 18, 2012 2:44 PM CST Last Updated: Dec 18, 2012 9:37 PM CST Read 126
As Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence continues her hunger strike on Parliament Hill in an attempt to get a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a grassroots protest movement of First Nations activists across Canada has united on social media and at public rallies.
Idle No More's supporters say they are upset about the effects of the Harper government's policies on their communities. They want First Nations to be recognized as sovereign stakeholders in decisions affecting the country's land and resources.
A large group performed a Round Dance at the Cornwall Centre in Regina to raise awareness of their Idle No More campaign on Dec. 17. (Submitted to CBC)
Spence’s hunger strike underscores that wish. Now, after more than a week without eating, concern is mounting about her health as she protests what she sees as a lack of respect for the treaty rights of First Nations.
Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit has been keeping a close eye on developments with Spence.
Louttit said leaders and communities across the country are uniting in protest in a way he has not seen in the past.
“They can all relate to the fact that communities are in despair,” he said.
“Over a year ago, Attawapiskat declared an emergency for lack of housing and they are still not out of the woods. And they brought national attention to their issue. And people are seeing that and feeling that.”
Louttit said Spence's protest shows a long-standing fight over treaty rights has come to a head.
Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit. (CBC)
“The government does not want to talk about the treaty,” he said.
“The way they look at it is ‘this is 120 years ago and that's old business.’ But we are saying the treaty of 1905 is as relevant in terms of spirit and intent then as it is now.”
Attawapiskat is covered by Treaty No. 9.
Author and Nipissing University Prof. John Long, who has written a book about the treaty, said there is conflict due to interpretation.
“Virtually every treaty has this built-in contradiction,” he said.
“One party looks on it as a real estate transaction, giving up the land and rights to the land and the resources…and the other party says, ‘We agreed to share and there were promises made to help us and protect us.’”
'Massive gulfs between people'
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan told a CBC reporter last week that the rallies are a result of social media.
"We'll just have to see where that goes," he said.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
Duncan proposed a meeting with Spence to discuss issues affecting Attawapiskat, but there was no response.
Quebec City-based writer and activist Nora Loreto recently blogged, "Idle No More has reminded me that there exists massive gulfs between people, experiences and awareness."
She claims there’s been an “effective media blackout” on the cause.
“After an aggressive social media campaign, flash mobs, rallies, blockades, co-ordinated actions, letters of support from national unions and a hunger strike, the media coverage has still been significantly lacking,” she said.
“How can someone know what’s going on if none of their friends are talking about it?”
‘Moving towards sustainability’
The campaign was started by four women from Saskatchewan who were protesting against a number of bills before Parliament. They are particularly critical of Bill C-45, the government's omnibus budget legislation, which they say weakens environmental laws.
"There are many examples of other countries moving towards sustainability, and we must demand sustainable development as well," says a manifesto published on the group's website, idlenomore.com.
Theresa Spence on Parliament Hill at the start of her hunger strike Dec. 11. (Facebook)
"We believe in healthy, just, equitable and sustainable communities and have a vision and plan of how to build them."
Louttit is concerned that Spence’s quest to bring this message to Canada’s top leaders is heading down an unhealthy path, however.
“She's a mother and a grandmother and there's a lot of people, I think, that are worried about her,” he said.
The federal opposition parties and the head of the Assembly of First Nations have urged Harper to take steps to end the hunger strike.
In a letter to Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called on the prime minister and the Governor General to meet with aboriginal leaders to end the protests.
"I ask that you please act swiftly to avoid a personal tragedy for Chief Spence," Mulcair wrote. "I look forward to your early positive response to this urgent matter."
Spence has been living in a teepee on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, less than a kilometre from Parliament Hill, since beginning her fast Dec. 11.
Upcoming Idle No More rallies
Dec. 19, 5 p.m., North Bay Indian Friendship Centre.
Dec. 21, 10:30 a.m., Sudbury Community Arena.
Victoria Island is considered by the Anishinabe as traditional territory. New Democrat MP Paul Dewar visited Spence on the island Tuesday and reported that she is so far in good health.
Harper met with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo as recently as Nov. 28 to review progress the government has been making in addressing aboriginal issues, said spokeswoman Julie Vaux.
"The prime minister hosted an historic gathering of the Crown and First Nations this past January," Vaux said in an email.
"Since then, the government has been working with First Nations leadership to make progress in several areas, most notably education and infrastructure on reserve."
The Liberals and the Assembly of First Nations also sent letters Tuesday to Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston, calling for an urgent meeting to discuss Spence's demands.
"I urge you to agree to participate in this meeting and meet with Chief Theresa Spence to hear directly from her why she has felt it necessary to take such drastic action," wrote Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett.
Canada's Idle No More movement began as a small social media campaign – armed with little more than a hashtag and a cause.
"The movement's really been in play for a long time … but the kind of spark was this legislative initiative by the Harper government which started with Bill C-45 but also includes 14 other pieces of legislation that's being imposed on First Nations people …. But Bill C-45 … impacts both Canadians and First Nations …. And so what you had was an imminent threat, something that we couldn't put off for negotiations for 25 years, it was a piece of legislation that was being rushed through the House without any input or consultation. So we had no choice but to gather very quickly and react."
– Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University
But it has grown into a large indigenous movement, with protests and ceremonial gatherings held almost daily in many of the country's major cities.
The movement is spearheaded by Theresa Spence, the leader of the Attawapiskat, a small native band in northern Ontario.
Spence is now 22 days into a hunger strike on Ottawa's Victoria Island, just across from the Canadian parliament.
Spence and other First Nations groups are demanding better living conditions for Canada's aboriginals, and they are angry at the country's government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which they accuse of trying to erode their land and sovereignty rights.
Canada's aboriginal communities have long been disproportionately affected by poverty.
A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that, in 2006, the average income for aboriginal people was just under $19,000, which is 30 percent lower than the $27,097 average for other Canadians.
Although that is a slightly narrower gap than 10 years previously, it would still take 63 years to achieve income parity.
The same study also found the annual income gap between other Canadians and aboriginals is $7,083 higher in urban settings, and $4,492 higher in rural settings.
"It is important to understand that Canada is currently being governed by a very extremist power …. The reality of Bill C-45, and the complete gutting of 30 years of environmental approvals enforcement and regulatory mechanisms [is that it will] significantly kick open the door for international investment in tar sands, and other unsustainable and harmful and devastating extractive industries, which disproportionately impact our native people and our way of life … "
– Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous rights activist
Another study by the Campaign 2000 advocacy group found that one in four children within First Nations families in Canada lives in poverty.
And First Nations groups say Bill C-45, which is one of their main concerns, is just the latest bid by the government to change laws protecting the rights of Canada's indigenous people.
Its changes affect all Canadians, not just First Nations.
The bill amends laws that govern waterways and environmental protection. Canada's government says the changes are necessary to clear up 'red tape' and protect the economy.
But First Nations protesters say their lands, treaty rights and sovereignty are being eroded.
They say they were never consulted while C-45 was under consideration, and that is a violation of Canadian law, even though native groups repeatedly asked Harper to meet with them to discuss their concerns.
They also point out that the government has repeatedly supported limits on First Nations' authority, despite promising not to approve any changes to the Indian Act.
Spence says: "It is time for everybody to work together. That means the government too – to treat us with respect and honour the treaty. The purpose of that treaty was to go in peace and honour each other and respect each other and slide together with the future, not to go separate ways. And this is what's been happening with the government. He's not listening or honoring our leadership.
"So that was the purpose of that treaty – to be partners. But we feel like the way it is right now we are more like a slave to the prime minister, not a partner."
So, are Canada's First Nations groups being targeted by the country's government? And what are the rights of the indigenous people?
Inside Story Americas, with presenter Kimberly Halkett, discusses with guests: Pamela Palmater, a lawyer and chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto, and Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous rights activist and tar sands campaign co-director at the Indigenous Environmental Network.
Inside Story Americas invited several conservative MPs to join the panel but they all declined. However, John Duncan, the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, sent the following statement."The Minister and the parliamentary secretary have made repeated efforts to reach Chief Spence to engage in discussion on the issues she has raised. We will continue trying to engage the chief and other First Nation leaders to discuss how we can build on the progress we have made since 2006
Built over 30 new schools
Renovated over 200 schools
Built over 10,000 homes and renovated thousands more
Invested in safe drinking water systems
Increased funding for child and family services by 25 percent
Introduced legislation to protect the rights of women on reserves
Settled over 80 outstanding land claims
Invested in over 700 projects that link aboriginals to job training and counseling services
"We believe that working together is the best way to build on this progress."