Thousands of people across Canada took to the streets for International Human Rights Day on December 10, launching a grassroots effort for Native rights and recognition in the face of controversial federal budget legislation.
Taking up the banner “Idle No More”– a slogan launched by four Saskatchewan women for local events last month – the rapid spread of loosely organized protests were seen by many as a sign that Indian country is mobilizing against government policies. Rallies took place in several dozen cities, towns and reserves, in most provinces across the country.
Tanya Kappo, an Edmonton, Alberta friend of the four women behind the movement, coined the #IdleNoMore hashtag, which trended in popularity on Twitter across Canada.
“Yesterday was about making space for First Nation people to find their voices again and use them in protection of our lands and waters,” Kappo told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It was beautiful to hear our voices raised, our songs sung, and our drums ring out loudly and echo across the country (…) from coast to coast to coast.”
On the West Coast city of Vancouver, B.C., several hundred people rallied downtown, led by Native education students at a local college. One of the speakers addressing the crowd was Kat Norris, spokesperson for the Indigenous Action Movement.
“I'm quite amazed and very pleased, as an activist, to see this happen,” Norris told ICTMN. “Our people are coming together. This is something prophesied since time immemorial, that our people would come together. There's a lot of concern over (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper's plans to change a lot of things – taking away a lot of rights from our people, especially as regards our waterways and changes to the Indian Act.”
Demonstrators took particular umbrage with the omnibus bill being voted on this week by the Conservative federal government, as well as other changes to the Indian Act they say were undertaken without consulting aboriginal people.
Bill C-45, the government's omnibus budget implementation bill, contains hundreds of legislative reforms, including changes to land management on reservations which critics say would enable Canada to control reserves. According to Kappo, changes include “drastically lowering the threshold of consent for community's to designate or surrender lands.”
The bill also alters the Indian Act – long under fire from aboriginal activists and allies as an example of modern discrimination – and lowers environmental protection for waterways. It is the second omnibus budget bill to follow from this spring's federal budget; the first one gutted the Fisheries Act, which critics warn endangers marine habitat and traditional livelihoods.
“It is more than Bill C-45,” Kappo said. “There [is] more than a handful of legislation that the current government expects to pass that will affect the lives of people who live in communities in a very real way—and not to their benefit—contrary to what the government is saying.”
Norris said the omnibus bill “really forces the assimilation process,” while the Assembly of First Nations released a statement alleging the reforms may go even further: toward the outright “termination” of aboriginal rights altogether.
“First Nation peoples stand united to reject assimilation and termination policies, processes or legislation imposed by other governments to harness the energy of our peoples, to seize this moment as the time for change, and to act now for our peoples based on our clear rights and responsibilities,” said an AFN statement.
“All the changes are quite ominous,” Norris said. “Everything is so detailed—there's a lot of information to glean through. Now, with these new laws being implemented, we're going backwards in time; we're not going forward at all. As we're trying to gain independence, as we try to learn what our rights are, then Harper goes and kicks us in the head again.”
The cross-country rallies came the same day as the announcement of a hunger strike by Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence. The federal government seized financial control over her reserve last winter, after she declared a state of emergency over abysmal housing conditions and poverty. She insisted she will refuse food until a meaningful meeting takes place between between Harper, First Nations, and a representative of the Queen, in hopes of resetting the relationship between Canada and aboriginal people.
Norris described the rally in Vancouver, B.C. as a good example of new energy in Indian country—particularly young people.
“It was a great turnout,” Norris said. “What I noticed was that there were so many young people, and so many people who had never come out to a rally before. So many people are realizing the enormity of loss for our people should this act go through, and are seeing the reality of what the Harper government is doing to our people.”