Island First Nations and friends protest Bill C-45

MANITOULIN­­––A storm of protest swept across the nation during the final days leading up to Christmas as the passage of a massive 400-page omnibus budget bill containing numerous provisions that will impact on treaty rights and environmental protection unleashed a reservoir of pent up frustration among First Nations, particularly among youth.

That frustration filtered through the blogosphere, building momentum from an initial tweet and a Facebook page created by four women, Nina Wilson, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon, four women in Saskatchewan who shared “a vision of bringing together all people to ensure we create ways of protecting Mother Earth, her lands, waters and people.”

The initial tweet under the hashtag #idlenomore may have sparked the movement that rolled across the country, collecting both Native and non-Native support among those opposed to the provisions buried within Bill C-45, but a key catalyst that punctured the dam holding back the anger of First Nation youths appears to have been the reaction, or lack thereof, of the prime minister to a decision of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to begin a hunger strike (entering its second week as of this writing, and possible its third at the time this article is read).

First Nations leaders and members of Chief Spence’s community have expressed deep concerns about her health. “I am frightened, deeply frightened,” admitted Whitefish River First Nation Chief Shining Turtle. “Is this the thing that will turn the Harper regime back from the path they have decided to take? I don’t know. But I am very concerned about her health.”

Chief Shining Turtle indicated he would be travelling to Ottawa to visit Chief Spence following a blockade of Highway 6 and 17 at Espanola planned for the morning of Saturday, December 22.

Chief Spence’s community captured national and international attention when it was revealed that community members were facing the bitter Canadian winter in un-insulated plywood shacks. The federal government eventually responded to the housing crisis in Attawapiskat by sending several modular homes to the reserve, while imposing a third party manager on the community (a reaction later condemned by the courts and characterized by opposition parties as an attempt to shift blame onto victims of government neglect and chronic under funding). Housing in the community remains a significant issue.

Chief Spence has vowed to continue her hunger strike until Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Crown (the Queen or Governor General David Johnston) agree to a meeting about the deplorable conditions on her reserve, even if she should die. As of this writing, little communication on the matter has emerged from the prime minister’s office (PMO), although the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, John Duncan, has offered to meet with the chief.

As the Idle No More movement spread from its prairie birthplace, it began to manifest itself in flash mobs rising up in shopping malls and outside politician and government offices and, to the distress of last minute shoppers and holiday travellors, road closures on major highways.

The road closures, including the one scheduled for the Espanola juncture of Highway 6 and Highway 17, had garnered many negative reactions from inconvenienced travellers, and a number of those who tend to weigh in against Native protests in general in coffee shops and online postings.

“Protest at Highway 17 and 6? Right by Tim Hortons and Wendy’s. You’re so hard done by, having to travel that direction on roads paid by taxpayers, interrupting the lives of people working and having to travel for medical and family situations and Christmas. How thoughtful. Sure saps the sympathy out of me,” a post by Lixii on the Expositor website is one of the less provocative negative comments on an initial posting about the rumoured road closure.

But the debate was not all one-sided. “Bring the message with ‘limited inconvenience’!??? First Nations have been inconvenienced with paternalistic policies for over 500 years!! People can’t ‘inconvenience’ themselves for one day to stand up for injustice!? The Bill will not only affect First Nations! Get your head out of your cushy clouds for a minute to take a sniff of the reality is happening around you!” came in a posting from Fearforhumanity.

Anishinabek Nation Grand Chief Patrick Madahbee, whose recent scuffle with security guards outside the doors to the floor of the House of Commons was captured in a Canadian Press photo and posted around the world, noted that the frustration felt by First Nation youth and community members in general has been building for some time. He said that the outrage is as much the result of the apparent indifference displayed by the prime minister to First Nations treaties and obligations as it is to the issues themselves.

“We have been trying to tell anyone who will listen how the provisions in Bill C-45 will impact all Canadians,” he said. “Once this government got in with a majority, it is like their ears fell off as they sat down.”

Grand Chief Madahbee’s tussle with Commons security came when he and other chiefs tried to follow the Minister of Indian Affairs as he turned away from them in the hall. “We are tired of the Canadian government disrespecting everything and everyone who has a different point of view,” he said. “There was absolutely no consultation in regard to provisions that will have a serious impact on our treaty rights and the health of our traditional lands and resources.”

The chiefs were concerned about the immense media silence that seemed to descend over their concerns with Bill C-45 and the negotiations over First Nation education.

“People are finally saying, ‘enough is enough’,” said Grand Chief Madahbee.

Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo’s statement on the Idle No More movement echoes the warnings of Grand Chief Madahbee. “This is just the beginning,” he said.

Manitoulin historian Shelly Pearen, whose recently published book ‘Four Voices’ on the circumstances surrounding the 1862 Manitoulin Treaty, has been the subject of a number of columns published in The Expositor, and noted that the view of the Idle No More movement from Ottawa, where she currently resides, is somewhat more than simply a First Nations movement.

“When the protests went on at the Hill, there were a lot of non-Native members of the community who went up to take part,” she said. “I think people are frustrated by what they see is a lack of action. It has been bottled up inside of people and they have finally had enough. Here in the nation’s capital, people are so frustrated with the Harper government. They have been decimated by the cuts that have taken place here over the last couple of months. I think 90 percent of civil servants are just fed up with this government’s approach.”

Ms. Pearen noted that her own ancestors, on both sides, owe a tremendous debt to the generosity of Island First Nation members. “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for that generousity of spirit,” she said. One of her progenitors was a Church of England minister who came to Manitoulin shortly after the controversial signing of the 1862 treaty. “He came over from England in 1864,” she said. The Anglican minister drowned in 1869. “He left behind a wife and six children, stranded on the edge of a reserve with no money and no way to get back to England,” said Ms. Pearen. Members of the Sheguiandah reserve sheltered and fed the family, helping to keep them alive in a time long before the social safety net was in place.

The church minister had been encouraging Natives to sign a government register that would ensure that Natives received the land to which they were entitled. “There was a lot of suspicion toward the Indian agent,” she said.

Since this period in history was the advent of the great westward expansion in the United States and Canada, and news of the massacres and genocide taking place south of the border was commonplace, even in those days before the advent of the 6 o’clock news, Facebook and Twitter, that suspicion could hardly be characterized as undue paranoia.

The maternal line of Ms. Pearen’s family tree traces back to merchant trading in fish whose family resided in Wikwemikong. “He would frequently travel to Chicago on business, Chicago being where most of the fish from Wikwemikong would wind up,” she said. “He went through two wives, both of whom died in Wikwemikong while he was away.” It would be months before the merchant would return.

“Except for the generosity of the people of Wikwemikong in taking care of the children, aged three and seven at one time, they would never have made it,” said Ms. Pearen.

She admits to having a sense of guilt in regard to the way the 1862 Treaty was negotiated and the manner in which the obligations from even that document were flouted through the years.

“I grew up with that sense of guilt,” she said.

Opposition parties were quick to side with the protest. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath released a statement on the movement, saying “The hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and the Idle No More movement is a vivid reminder of the problems and challenges that First Nations in Canada and Ontario still face when dealing with the federal and provincial governments that seem unwilling to honour treaty obligations.”

“Governments looking at developing natural resources on traditional First Nation land offer very little sharing of wealth,” she said. “While passing long lasting environmental consequences on to First Nations. In Ontario, the development of resources, especially in the Ring of Fire, must be done with proper consultation with affected First Nations groups and lands. Too many people living in First Nations communities in Ontario, and communities like Attawapiskat, continue to suffer from poverty and inadequate living conditions, even through their traditional lands are home to a wealth of resources.

Federal and provincial governments have been big on words but short on actions. Both levels of government need to move forward with meaningful negotiations to ensure that resource revenues are shared with First Nations communities. It only makes sense that First Nations share in the profits made through mining and resource extraction in their territory. This discussion is particularly important now as the province continues to explore the unparalleled wealth potential of the Ring of Fire. Access to shelter, clean water and food are basic human rights. Governments must not stand idly by while First Nations suffer. We all must work together to find solutions that recognize the rights and needs of Ontario’s First Nations communities.”

Manitoulin Green party representative Justin Tilson reflected on the frustration being felt among many younger Canadians over the environmental changes being implemented in Bill C-45, particularly the withdrawal of federal environmental protection from several thousand lakes and rivers-retaining that protection on only eight designated waterways.

“Sometimes I think humanity has to dig itself deeper into the hole before we finally wake up and realize what it is that we are doing to ourselves,” he said. “Clearly we have not reached that point yet.”

Mr. Tilson said that in a backhanded manner, perhaps the Harper government was helping to accelerate that wake up call. “The Conservative majority is helping to dig that hole faster and deeper than might otherwise be the case,” he said. “So maybe we will all wake up just a little sooner and stop fooling ourselves that it isn’t going to be our problem or that of our children.”

Mr. Tilson suggested that the current situation may remain past the next election unless the other political parties start to work together. “If you are going to be successful at all, the Liberals, NDP, and Greens will have to cooperate in the next election,” he said.

The provisions in Bill C-45 most upsetting to the First Nations have been identified as those dealing with the removal of protections from waterways, the provisions to make it easier for First Nations lands to be surrendered or sold to non-Natives.

Those provisions are buried among the 400 pages of legislative pages contained within Bill C-45.

Michael Erskine