ATHENS—A First Nations leader, who was jailed for protesting uranium mining claims on his people’s territory, is now standing up against Israel’s illegal sea blockade of Gaza.
Robert Lovelace, former chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and a professor of Indigenous Studies at Queen’s University in Canada, is a passenger on Canada’s Boat to Gaza. The boat attempted to leave Greece for Gaza on July 4 but was stopped by the Greek coast guard. The U.S. Boat to Gaza was the first to attempt to leave Greece on July 1 and was also stopped by the Greek authorities.
The boats are participating in the second international Freedom Flotilla that aims to break Israel’s illegal blockage of the tiny Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean coast that is sandwiched between Israel and Egypt. The flotilla is a coalition of nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations from more than half a dozen countries that will soon sail through international waters to Gaza to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The first flotilla which sailed last year ended in tragedy when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, and killed nine activists, including an American citizen.
Israel imposed the sea blockade on Gaza in 2006 after Hamas candidates won a sweeping victory in what was certified as a clean, democratic election by former U.S. President JImmy Carter, who was an election monitor.
On Monday, June 27, Lovelace took part in an international press conference in Athens with panelists from the seven boats that are expected to leave for Gaza within days. Among the nine panel members were Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer who is a passenger on the U.S. Boat to Gaza; Ann Wright, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former diplomat who resigned in 2003 in opposition to the Iraq war; and Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian American with Israeli citizenship who is a founder of the Free Gaza Movement, and an attorney specializing in international human rights and humanitarian law. Other high profile passengers on the U.S. Boat to Gaza, which is called The Audacity of Hope after President Barack Obama’s memoir, include Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst and a critic of U.S. foreign policy; Kathy Kelly, a three-time Noble Peace Prize nominee and founder of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Medea Benjamin, founder of the anti-war movement Code Pink; and Hedy Epstein, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor.
The one-and-a-half hour press conference took place at a journalists’ union hall packed with international journalists from all the major wire services and newspapers, boat passengers and other activists.
Lovelace linked the Palestinian struggle for freedom and liberation with the worldwide struggle of indigenous peoples against colonialism.
“We need to open the port, we need to open the gates for the Palestinian people and allow civil society to grow and prosper. It is the only salvation from the effects of colonialism,” said Lovelace, who described colonialism as a “worldwide scourge.”
“The blockade of Gaza is just another extension of cold war politics that go back into the 17th and 16th centuries. It’s a scourge on the environment and the relationship of human beings to the earth. Democracy and colonialism cannot walk hand in hand!” Lovelace said, receiving a round of thunderous applause from the several hundred people who packed the union hall where the press conference took place.
Ten elected members from the parliaments of France, Norway, Sweden and Spain attended the press conference and intended to board Freedom Flotilla boats. The nine panelists sat on a stage in front of a huge banner that said, in Greek, “We are breaking the blockade.”
Lovelace, a long time activist, was sentenced to six months in a Canadian prison in 2008 for refusing an Ontario judge’s order to stop blocking trucks from entering Frontenac Venture’s uranium mining claims on the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation’s traditional land, a huge aboriginal territory located in the Madawaska, Mississippi and Rideau watersheds. The territory includes 14 different communities that the Canadian government tries to isolate through “divide and conquer tactics,” Lovelace said.
“There was no treaty of land sale during the 19th century, our land was never ceded, so now the Canadian government recognizes that we have full title to the land and they have no title, but they simply can’t accept that things can be that way so what they’re trying to do right now is push through a very corrupt land claim,” Lovelace said.
Lessons learned in his own indigenous community’s struggle apply to the Palestinians and other Indigenous Peoples and also to the immediate situation in which the U.S. government has warned U.S citizens against participating in the flotilla.
“In response to the U.S. State Department’s comment that the flotilla is just a provocative act and that the activists should just ask Israel for permission to deliver aid, as indigenous people one of the things we learned about colonialism is that you never ask the oppressor for permission,” Lovelace said to another round of thunderous applause.
Lovelace described Gaza as “the largest concentration camp in the world.” The 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza are subject to a tight Israeli siege that controls the borders, air space, and sea approach. Gazans do not have the freedom to leave their territory for medical treatments, to visit family abroad, to study or for any other reason without the permission of the Israel government, which is most often denied. A recent U.N. study found Gazans have an unemployment rate of 45 percent.
“Gaza is the largest Indian reserve that I’ve ever seen. It’s time to recognize that the Palestinian people have the right to self determination,” Lovelace said.
The Anishinabek leader highlighted the effects of colonialism on the First Nations population in Canada and predicted Israeli colonization of Palestine would have the same results.
“We’re the poorest population in the nation. Our youth have the highest suicide rate in the world. We have some of the highest rates of addiction. We have the fastest growing rate of AIDS of any population in Canada and the lowest education rates. These are the side effects Israel should be aware of as they colonize Palestine. Do Israelis want an ever present threat, an ever present population that is always going to be dependent and angry?” he asked. “I don’t think so,” he said.
For Lovelace, being on Canada’s Boat to Gaza is not only a gesture to support the Palestinian struggle for freedom, but also brings the struggle of the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island into the international arena.
“I’m going on the boat because Canadian Indian people are expected to ‘keep it in the family’ — they’re not expected to get involved internationally because it’s a closed system. What I’ve learned is Indigenous Peoples have to make their struggles an international issue because colonialism is an international issue and as long as someone else is suffering because of colonialism, it simply prolongs our own suffering,” Lovelace said.
There is a growing awareness of the parallels between the Palestinians’ situation and the struggles of Indigenous Peoples around the world over the expropriation and exploitation of their aboriginal lands and territories by nation states and their multinational corporate partners, Lovelace said.
“Israel is becoming just another Los Angeles. I know the kind of western development that’s going on there that takes land and destroys water systems. It’s a catastrophe.”
Efforts by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to paint a rosy picture of indigenous life in Canada are being contested by reality checks sponsored by indigenous communities, Lovelace said. “The Canadian government and mining companies pay for Indian people to go on junkets to Latin America to talk about how great things are in Canada and now some of the Indian communities in Bolivia and Ecuador have invited Indian people to go down and talk with real people about what’s actually going on. So Indigenous Peoples are starting to get some international exposure and that’s a good thing,” Lovelace said.
The Palestinian people also come under the protective umbrella of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, because they are the indigenous people who have lived there and cared for the land for so long, he said.
“The Palestinians fit the definition of indigeniety. Some people will argument that the Old Testament gives property title to only one group of people, but that land has been the homeland of many peoples who can lay claim to owning the land. I think that may be the solution to the peace process that those people who have cared for the land and are willing to care for the land and treat it as Mother Earth, and respect the replenishing cycle of the land – those are the people who should be considered the indigenous people of that land,” Lovelace said.
Lovelace’s concern for the protection of the earth was echoed by Alice Walker’s comments during the press conference.
“We’re freeing ourselves of the myths that have occupied us. We’re beginning to see what is the truth and if we can see what is the truth of this situation, we can free ourselves to work on the real issue of humanity, which is protecting the earth,” Walker said.
Walker took the U.S. government to task for failing to stand up for the Palestinian people in Gaza and for its ignorance of its own history.
“I’m going to Gaza because my government has failed us, has failed to understand and hear about the Gaza people, but worse than that our government is ignorant of our own history. For instance, when black people were enslaved for more than 300 years it took a lot of people from outside our communities to come and help free us,” Walker said. The same was true of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she said. “This is a fine tradition of going to people wherever they need us on the planet. This is our responsibility. This is what we’re here for as human beings.”
Walker also took a poke at U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said the U.S. Boat to Gaza’s mission was “not helpful.”
“Hillary Clinton can put out all the protests that she likes. The Israeli blockade of Gaza is insufferable,” Walker said. “We will not accept it. We will not, as Americans with our history of enslaving people, of segregation, of Apartheid, of brutalization, of lynching. We will not accept this, we will not.”
When the press conference ended, Walker made her way over to Lovelace and introduced herself and greeted him warmly. It was a natural gesture of affinity, she said. Walker has worked with the Native American struggle in the U.S. for a very long time and counts Dennis Banks and John Trudell among her friends in Indian country. She also counts American Indian roots in her heritage. “My own ancestry is part Cherokee and it’s very natural to feel close to the Indigenous Peoples of the United States as they were the ones who cared about the land in ways that the dominating culture never did and probably never will,” Walker said. Native people have been good teachers, but they’ve also been impoverished and marginalized, she said. So I have a long history with Native folks and it was absolutely natural, of course, to go over and say hello to the chief.”