Late last year, former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin remarked, “we have never admitted to ourselves that we were, and still are, a colonial power.” Perhaps retirement has allowed Martin more time to reflect on the state of Indigenous relations in Canada, or perhaps the Conservative government’s arrogant and negligent attitude toward Indigenous peoples forced Martin’s hand. Regardless, his words – still rarely heard in mainstream politics – are not the lone musings of an old politico. His sentiment fits alongside those of tens of thousands across Canada who are mobilizing as part of the Idle No More movement.
In the movement’s own words, “Idle No More calls on all people to join in a revolution which honours and fulfils Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water.” The call has been heeded by drumming flash mobs, highway and rail blockades, and countless rallies across the country. These peaceful actions are the signs of a grassroots movement intent on building Indigenous sovereignty and protecting the environment from irreversible damage. Despite being less than two months old, the movement has attracted international attention. Over 700,000 tweets using the #IdleNoMore hashtag have been posted since December 10. The movement is forcing Canadians to confront both an ongoing colonial heritage and the actions of the current Conservative government.
The Idle No More campaign was started by four women in response to the Conservatives’ introduction of omnibus Bill C-45 to Parliament in October. The 457-page bill, which received royal assent on December 10 and is now known as the “Jobs and Growth Act, 2012,” contained changes to the Indian Act, Navigation Protection Act, and Environmental Assessment Act. These changes remove environmental protections for 99 per cent of the rivers and lakes in Canada and have drastically reduced the number of development projects that require environmental assessment. They also make it easier for the federal government to gain access to treaty lands and territory; protected indigenous land is often seen as red tape in the way of the government’s economic plans.
Idle No More, in protesting changes that bear consequences for all Canadian people, has nevertheless been met with resistance, much of it stemming from calculated misinformation spread by the government. Politicians and pundits discuss the ‘threat’ posed to Canadian sovereignty by Indigenous movements, and time and again the myth that Indigenous communities freeload off the state is trotted out to disguise the truth: First Nations mismanage funds no more than non-Native municipalities, and the de facto subsidies often run from territory to federal state, not the other way around. Moreover, despite mining, logging, and hydroelectric companies generating billions of dollars in profit from First Nations land – money that falls into the hands of the federal government in the form of taxes and royalties – annual government spending per capita averaged about $7,200 for First Nations residents, yet $14,900 per capita for residents of Ottawa, according to 2005 numbers cited by the Media Co-op.
The recent politically-motivated leak of an audit of the Attawapiskat reserve highlights the negative attitude of the current Conservative government, which treats Indigenous peoples as opposition that needs to be silenced, rather than citizens to be served. How else to account for the low priority status accorded First Nations residents, a policy that has dire human consequences. Canada has the world’s largest supply of fresh water, but over 100 Indigenous communities have tap water so dirty they are under continual boil alert. In the far north, the rate of tuberculosis is 137 times greater than the rest of the country.
Yet the more politicians fall into the hands of mining and logging companies, the more the newspapers buttress the Conservatives’ desperate defence of injustice, the more the pundits decry Idle No More’s “vast and ill-defined agenda, its vague and shifting demands, its many different self-appointed spokespersons,” the more it becomes clear that the alternative future being pointed to by Idle No More – one of respect for Indigenous sovereignty and respect for nature – is considerably preferable to a status quo that will surely be condemned by history.