Hundreds of people gathered outside Vancouver City Hall today (January 11) as part of a country-wide series of Idle No More protests.
Members of First Nations including Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam and Cree gathered on the lawn of city hall as the crowd of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal supporters joined in singing, drumming, and chanting.
Several hundred people marched from the Native Education College on Main Street and East 5th Avenue along West Broadway to city hall, carrying banners, flags, and drums.
Khelsilem Rivers, one of the organizers of the event, said today’s rally marked just the beginning of further Idle No More actions.
“There’s been countless flash mobs, rallies, gatherings, and there’s more to come—there’s more we can do,” he told the crowd. “This is a day in the history of our peoples and the history of Canada, for we are not going to be idle no more. This is not the end, this is the beginning.”
Today’s protest coincided with similar demonstrations across the country, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with a group of First Nations leaders, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo. The meeting was boycotted by Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, and by delegations of chiefs from some provinces, who had asked for both the prime minister and the governor general to meet with them.
Since the Idle No More movement was sparked by four women in Saskatchewan in opposition to federal omnibus bill C-45, weeks of rallies, flash mobs, and round dances have taken place with the aim of bringing attention to issues including indigenous rights, treaty rights, poverty in aboriginal communities, and environmental protection.
Steven Kakinoosit, another organizer of today’s event, told the crowd he wanted to “thank Stephen Harper”.
“I want to thank him for doing something that no other government, no other person could do—he has united the people,” he said. “He has united us in such a way that it’s not just our brothers and sisters here in Canada, but we’re now uniting with our brothers and sisters in the rest of the Americas.
“We start by doing these rallies, by doing these flash mobs, this is where we start,” he added. “But it doesn’t end with rallies; it doesn’t end with flash mobs. It ends when our sovereignty is respected; it ends when our government works with our people on a nation to nation basis.”
While one speaker at the rally voiced dissent over Atleo’s choice to proceed with the scheduled meeting with the prime minister in Ottawa today, others urged for Idle No More demonstrators to form a unified front.
“[Atleo] had to go into that meeting today because somebody had to go—the dialogue has to stay open,” argued Cecilia Point. “It’s not what we want right now, but I think the first thing he should have on his agenda is probably another meeting with the demands that [Idle No More] and probably all of us here have. We want to be heard.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who was among the supporters at the march today, said the weeks of Idle No More actions have brought indigenous issues “to the front of the political agenda in Canada”.
“There’s a healthy level of public debate on all sides of this issue,” he said in an interview. “For government to know and understand that Canadians want to see dramatic and substantial changes on the aboriginal file, so to speak, is a good thing. We just have to keep the pressure up to force the Government of Canada to change its policy and approach to indigenous human rights and land rights.”
Stewart noted January 16 has been set aside as another Idle No More “day of action” across the country. When asked if the protests in B.C. might escalate to blockades, like the railway blockades that have been staged in Ontario, Phillip responded “I don’t think there’s any question about that”.
“I think that some communities and groups and individuals may choose to move in that direction—I think it’s the nature of these types of movements,” he said. “They’re very volatile, very emotional, and again, the bottom line here is there needs to be dramatic transformational change within the approach of the Government of Canada as it applies to aboriginal people.”