As First Nations leaders prepare to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa next Friday, aboriginal-led Idle No More protests are set to continue across the country, including a rally planned for the Peace Arch border crossing in Surrey this weekend.
Organizers of the action being organized for Saturday (January 5) say the demonstration will be a peaceful gathering, not a blockade.
Kat Norris, one of the local indigenous women organizing the event, said delegations from both sides of the border will attend, with hundreds of people expected to participate.
“If things go the way they look right now, I think there should be a total of about 1,000 people,” she told the Straight.
The event is part of a series of local actions organized this week under the banner of Idle No More. The grassroots movement was initially sparked by four women in Saskatchewan concerned about federal omnibus bill C-45.
“One of the basic messages behind all this action is that we’ve been treated unfairly, and that we should be consulted before anything that relates to us as a people,” said Norris. “I think anyone would want that.”
Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk scholar and professor of indigenous governance and political science at the University of Victoria, said the Idle No More protests centre around concerns including the political and treaty relationships between indigenous people and the federal government, and new legislation that affects those issues.
In a recent statement co-authored by Alfred, he identified what he called the most crucial and imminently needed recommendations from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report. Those include legislated recognition of political authority in indigenous communities, legislated devolution of governance over areas including housing, health, and educational services to indigenous governments, and an “unrestricted modern treaty process”.
“There’s only one meaning for indigenous governance, and that’s our systems of decision-making, our systems of leadership selection, and our systems of governing within our own communities, and those are all different among different nations," Alfred told the Straight by phone. "But all of the nations are common in having systems that were displaced by the Indian Act, and in most cases forcefully…by the Canadian government in the early part of the 1900s.
“In the face of the growing epidemic of social and health problems, and violence in communities, how could anyone claim that the system that we’re in now is any better than the alternative that is our true government?”
The prime minister's office announced today that Harper will meet with a delegation of First Nation leaders on January 11, to be chosen by the Assembly of First Nations. In a statement, Harper described the discussion as a “working meeting” that will focus on the treaty relationship, aboriginal rights, and economic development.
“The Government and First Nations committed at the Gathering to maintaining the relationship through an ongoing dialogue that outlines clear goals and measures of progress and success,” he said, in reference to a Crown-First Nations summit that took place on January 24, 2012. “While some progress has been made, there is more that must be done to improve outcomes for First Nations communities across Canada.”
The announcement of the meeting came as Theresa Spence, the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, marked her 25th day of a hunger strike intended to secure a meeting with the prime minister. Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, had sent an “urgent invitation” to Harper to meet with First Nations leaders.
In a statement issued today, Atleo called the meeting next week “an important and essential next step”.
“This is an opportunity for the Government of Canada and Crown to honour their responsibilities with First Nations in this country,” he said. “We look forward to engaging in urgent reforms in priority areas as led by First Nations and to build the solid foundation for tangible results for our peoples.”
Norris indicated she's cautiously waiting to see the results of the discussion.
“We’ve learned to not trust, because every meeting has only benefitted the government or the imperial powers…so it’s hard for us as a people to have high hopes for it,” she said. “We do say it’s about time—but we can’t celebrate until we know the outcome.”
Alfred dismissed the meeting next week as “meaningless” and predicted the outcome will be met with varying reactions from participants in the Idle No More movement.
“My sense is that the collaborators, Atleo and gang, will make a deal and some people will be satisfied with that, and that’ll draw some energy away from the Idle No More movement,” he said. “At the same time, that will radicalize, I think, a number of people, and a segment of the movement, which is going to see the AFN and the Indian Act system as in fact the closest and the biggest problem, and probably try to organize to get rid of that problem, which is to end the legitimacy and the authority of the Indian Act in our communities and begin to put in place again a truer form of government.”
The demonstration at Peace Arch Park is scheduled to take place from 1 to 2 p.m. on Saturday.