OPINION:Why "Idle No More" matters


Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence enters her third week on a hunger strike outside the Canadian capital building, and thousands of protesters in Los Angeles, London, Minneapolis and New York City, voice their support. Spence and the protesters of the Idle No More Movement, are drawing attention to some deplorable conditions in Native communities, and by the recent passing of the omnibus budget Bill C-45, which was approved by the Senate in a 50-27 vote. Aboriginal leaders charge the Conservative government with pushing the bill through without consulting them. They note the bill infringes on their treaty rights, compromises ownership of their land and takes away protection for Canada’s waterways.

"Flash mob" protests with traditional dancing and drumming have erupted in dozens of shopping malls across North America, marches and highway blockades by aboriginal groups across Canada and supporters have emerged from as far away as New Zealand and the Middle East.

On December 29, hundreds of Native people and their supporters held a flash mob round dance, with hand drum singing, at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, MN – as part of the Idle No More protest movement. This quickly emerging wave of Native activism on environmental and human rights issues has spread like a wildfire across the continent.

On December 21 a group of natives from Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia pitched a pick up truck across the tracks of a CN rail spur and blocked train traffic in support of the Idle No More native protest in Ottawa. The blockade began just after Boxing Day and has continued.

The Aamjiwnaang blockade is one of hundreds, drawing attention to recent legal changes in Canadian law, which eliminate many environmental regulations. A center of controversy is the $6 billion tar sands pipeline to the Pacific, which will cross over 40 Native nations, all of whom have expressed opposition. The legislative changes could expedite approval of this and many other projects – all of which are in Aboriginal territories.

"Idle No More" is Canadian for "That’s enough BS, we’re coming out to stop you" or something like that. Canada often touts a sort of "better than thou" human rights position in the international arena, and has often sought to appear as a good guy, more so than it’s southern neighbor.

Spence is the leader of Attawapiskat First Nation – a very remote Cree community from James Bay, Ontario. The community’s on-reserve 1,549 residents (a third of whom are under l9) have weathered quite a bit; the fur trade, residential schools, a status as non-treaty Indians, and limited access to modern conveniences.

Back at Aamjiwnaang, the Ojibwe have blockaded the tracks. Those are tracks that are full of chemical trains, lots of them. There are some 62 industrial plants in what the Canadian government calls Industrial Valley. The Aamjiwnaang people would like to call it home, but they’ve a few challenges in their house.

"If the prime minister will not listen to our words, perhaps he’ll pay attention to our actions," Chief Chris Plain explained to the media. There’s a recent Men’s Health magazine article called,"The Lost Boys of Aamjiwnaang." That’s because the Ojibwe Reserve of Aamjiwnaang has few boys. In a normal society there are about l05 boys to l00 girls born. However, at Aamjiwnaang, things are different.

Between l993 and 2003, there had been two girls born for every boy to the tribal community, one of the steepest declines ever recorded in birth gender ratio. As one reporter notes, "these tribal lands have become a kind of petri dish for industrial pollutants. And in this vast, real-time experiment, the children of Aamjiwnaang are the lab rats."

This trend is international, particularly in more industrialized countries, and the odd statistics at Aamjiwnaang are indicative of larger trends. The rail line, known as the St. Clair spur, carries CN and CSX trains to several large industries in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley. Usually four or five trains move through a day, all full of chemicals. The Ojibwe have faced a chronic dosage of chemicals for twenty five years, and are concerned about the health impacts. They are also concerned about proposals to move tar sands oil through their community in a pre-existing pipeline.

In the US, the Native community has been coming out in numbers and regalia to support the Canadian Native struggle to protect the environment – drawing attention at the same time to simlar concerns and issues here in the US. For instance, Ojibwe from the Keewenaw Bay Community in Michigan, rallied against a Rio Tinto Zinc mine project, and Navajo protesters in Flagstaff continued opposing a ski project with manufactured snow at a sacred mountain.

Pamela Paimeta, a spokesperson for the Idle No More movement in Canada, urges the larger community to see what is occuring across the country as a reality check. "The first Nations are the last best hope that Canadians have for protecting land for food and clean water for the future, not just for our people but for Canadians as well. So this country falls or survives on whether they acknowledge or recognize and implement those aboriginal and treaty rights. So they need to stand with us and protect what is essential."

Meanwhile , Chief Theresa Spence is still hoping to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging him to "open his heart" and meet with native leaders angered by his policies. "He’s a person with a heart but he needs to open his heart. I’m sure he has faith in the Creator himself and for him to delay this, it’s very disrespectful, I feel, to not even meet with us," she said.

The reality is that remote Native communities receive little or no attention, until a human rights crisis of great proportion causes national shame. Facebook and social media change and equalize access for those who never see the spotlight. With the help of social media the Idle No More movement has taken on a life of its own in much the same way the first "Occupy Wall Street" camp gave birth to a multitude of "occupy" protests with no clear leadership.

"This has spread in ways that we wouldn’t even have imagined," said Sheelah McLean, an instructor at the University of Saskatchewan, one of the four women who originally coined the "Idle No More" slogan. "What this movement is supposed to do is build consciousness about the inequalities so that everyone is outraged about what is happening here in Canada. Every Canadian should be outraged." Actually, we all should be outraged, and Idle No More.