Idle No More protesters filled the sidewalk outside the Palais des congrès on Friday, spilling into the streets. Protest organizers and aboriginal leaders chanted, pleaded, and preached into a loudspeaker, eliciting cries of encouragement from an excitable crowd.
The protest marked Montreal’s second rally as part of the indigenous rights and environmental protection movement that has come to be known worldwide as Idle No More.
Daphne Mitchell, a demonstrator, said that Friday’s protest was her first, after decades of living in Montreal.
“I think that it’s important to open up a dialogue about aboriginal issues between aboriginals and non-aboriginals,” she said. “I don’t know that much about it, but I’m here to learn.”
Lise Yolande, an Atikamekw woman who moved to Montreal from Obedjiwan, a reserve in the Mauricie region of Quebec, held her three-year-old daughter among the crowd of protesters.
“Everyone always says that aboriginal people are invisible, but I’m here to show that we’re visible, that we’re always here, and that we’ve always been here,” she said.
The demonstration was part of an international day of action in honor of the meeting that took place between aboriginal leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday.
Since early December, Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence has been fasting with the goal of obtaining a meeting between Stephen Harper, Governor General David Lloyd Johnston, and aboriginal leaders.
Because the Governor General did not attend Friday’s meeting, neither did Theresa Spence, although both attended a ceremonial reception with hundreds of aboriginal chiefs following the Harper meeting.
The chief is continuing her hunger strike, and has said publicly that she is “ready to die for [her] people.”
The meeting between the Prime Minister and aboriginal leaders resulted in a promise by Harper that he would participate in “high-level talks” about the situation of native peoples in Canada.
Some aboriginal leaders and activists have already expressed disappointment at the meeting, citing a lack of commitment to concrete change.
The Idle No More movement, which has continued to grow even despite Harper’s meeting with aboriginal leaders on Friday, has come to represent a general indignation about the situation of aboriginal peoples in Canada, as well as tense relations between First Nations peoples and the government.
“It’s terrible to see that native communities [in Canada] live in poverty without housing, without electricity, without schools, without proper health care, even though we consider them to be fellow Canadian citizens,” commented Ahmed Mashouf, a retired doctor who marched in the Montreal protest, holding a sign for progressive provincial party Québec solidaire (QS).
The movement has also singled out federal omnibus Bill C-45, which has been criticized for weakening environmental regulations and aboriginal land rights.
The Montreal Gazette reported that QS MNA Françoise David was in attendance, and quoted her as criticizing the PQ’s plans for development and resource extraction in the north of Quebec, stating that “we can’t just hand out mining permits to the highest bidder. There has to be oversight and there has to be consultation and meaningful participation from the aboriginal communities affected by this.”
Idle No More struggles to encompass the wide swath of complex problems faced by Canada’s aboriginal population. In Montreal on Friday, the Mohawk Traditional Council expressed its ambivalence about the movement.
“The Mohawk Traditional Council cannot directly support the ‘Idle No More movement’,” began a statement released by the Council, “due to the fact that there are too many voices saying too many different things, allowing those responsible for these problems within the Assembly of First Nations to hijack the movement.”
The Council called on native and non-native peoples to take specific steps to “undo the wrongs they have perpetuated on native peoples”, including dissolving the Indian Act and renouncing the band council system.
Stewart Myiow is the Wolf Clan representative to the Council, and he read its statement publicly at the protest.
“[Idle No More] is only positive in the sense that everybody is here today, together. Everybody here knows that something is wrong. But the way it is currently, the government has all the people like a dog chasing its tail, getting nowhere,” he told The Daily. “This is why we had to present our position, to identify clearly what the steps are that must be taken.”