“I knew then I was watching the beginning of a revolution,” wrote NDP MP Charlie Angus, reflecting on the first day of Chief Theresa Spence’s her hunger strike. Since December 10, as the cold winds lay siege on the teepee in which she’s residing not far from Parliament Hill, Spence hasn’t eaten. She wants to talk with Stephen Harper about what troubles her people. “I am not afraid to die,” Spence has said. “If that’s the journey for me to go, then I will go.”
She’s not alone in her fight. December 21 marked the Idle No More day of action across Canada. From the West to the East Coast, people are marching, singing, and hitting drums. Roughly 400 hundred protesters shut down a road in Edmonton. Despite the major snow storm in Ottawa, hundreds descended upon Parliament Hill. On Sunday afternoon, about 500 gathered in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. There were 25 speakers, the Oceanside Dakota drum group played, and there were four Jingle Dress dancers.
Together, they’re protesting their mistreatment. “We have never admitted to ourselves that we were, and still are, a colonial power,” former prime minister Paul Martin recently said, referring specifically to the First Nations.
Last week, Amnesty International Canada released a report entitled Matching International Commitments with National Action: A Human Rights Agenda for Canada. The report notes that “the fundamental right to water within First Nations communities continues to be cavalierly disregarded across the country.” Most of the water and sewage systems used by First Nations are contaminated, “with 39% of systems having major deficiencies that potentially threaten human health and the environment.” Over a hundred aboriginal communities have tap water unsafe enough that it has to be boiled—which is incredible in a country with the world’s largest supply of fresh water. Their land and resource rights are going unrecognized and unprotected. If the Enbridge pipeline receives approval, for instance, it “would lead to pipeline construction across roughly 1000 rivers and streams in the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples in Alberta and British Columbia; the transport of bitumen, oil and industrial chemicals over these territories and through coastal waters vital to other Indigenous nations; and ultimately contribute to increased demand for oil sands extraction on Indigenous territories in Alberta.” A fifth of our country’s prison inmates are aboriginal people, even though they make up only about three percent of the population. And the list of social ills runs on.
The omnibus budget bill C-45 recently withdrew the protection of waterways and helps sell reserve lands without consultation. “When corporate profit is privileged over the health of our lands and waters, we all suffer,” wrote Jeff Denis, assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University. “When government stifles debate, democracy is diminished. Bill C-45 is just the latest in a slew of legislation that undermines Canadians’ rights. In standing against it, the First Nations are standing for us too.”
In response, the government has ignored Spence and the movement, and has chosen to instead shift blame, claiming that the poor conditions on First Nations lands is due to the corruption and mismanagement of their leaders. This is untrue. Their communities are subject to strict accounting and control by the federal government. “Many people seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that First Nations have self-governance and run themselves freely,” wrote Chelsea Vowel. “Most First Nations have to get permission before they can spend money....Bands are micromanaged to an extent unseen in nearly any other context that does not involve a minor or someone who lacks capacity due to mental disability.” The narrative of entitled, wasteful freeloaders is borne of little more than prejudice and the unwillingness of the government to accept responsibility.
The Idle No More movement and Theresa Spence’s courageous stand should be taken seriously and supported by all Canadians. In the face of such deafening governmental indifference, their struggle for respect and recognition, livable conditions, and the possibility of a better future, speaks to the power of peaceful revolution.