This past December, Canadian parliament adjourned for winter break with much more of a bang than a whimper. In response to the conservative government passing omnibus budget bill C-45: The Jobs and Growth Act, the opposition members of parliament ended the session by chanting “2015, 2015″ indicating the year where Stephen Harper and the conservatives will hopefully be held accountable for their actions.
The Idle No More movement was started by four indigenous Canadian women in response to two parts of bill: changes to the Indian Act and the reduction of protected waterways from hundreds of thousands to two hundred, mostly situated in conservative ridings. The campaign grew into a unified pan-indigenous and national movement through the use of social media. The past month in Canada has brought a variety of peaceful demonstrations, public flash-mob round dances, and a critical spotlight on both this current government’s use of omnibus-style budget bills and the overall treatment of indigenous Canadians.
I write this particular article with a lot more reticence than I normally would write, well, pretty much anything. I am a pretty solidly middle-class white lady. I cannot pretend to speak to the experiences of indigenous Canadians, but I do believe in being an ally. I write today because I think that although Idle No More has by in large been a First Nations movement bringing First Nations issues forward, the things being discussed with Idle No More, everything from environmental protection, to democracy, to treatment of indigenous Canadians should concern everyone. Here are some reasons for supporting Idle No More.
1) The two initial issues raised about the Indian Act and Protected Waterways point to how our current government is changing Canada into something unrecognizable:
In order to discuss this, we need to first talk about omnibus bills. Much like proroguing parliament, omnibus bills have become standard for this current government. An omnibus is a multi-page, multi-clause bill which exists to get multiple things passed through parliament at a faster rate. While they have been used in Canada in the past, it was rather uncommon. Omnibus legislation is often criticized for being undemocratic, because parliamentarians don’t have adequate time to debate the bill or inform its constituents of its content and the media and the public don’t have time to respond to the bill before it is passed. Because the conservative party of Canada has a solid majority (and because our senate rarely filibusters) omnibus legislation is a way to change a lot of things about Canada with very little opposition or time for debate. Bill C-45 reduced protection of waterways and changed the Indian Act along with a number of other policies intended to create jobs.
The reduction of protected waterways in the Navigable Waters Act means that it is much, much easier for landowners (both individuals an corporations) to develop on and around waterways. This includes controversial areas like parts of the Peel Watershed. Much like the gutting of the sciences in the previous budget, reducing these protections opens the door to more resource harvesting. Because, apparently, that’s the only way to economic prosperity in this country (or, you know, for foreign investors). This affects First Nations Canadians who live near and use these waterways, and the bill was passed without any aboriginal consultation, an unusual practice in Canada.
An odder element of this bill was that changes to the Indian Act (the act which dictates relations between the government-or crown-, indigenous Canadians, their cultural practice, and land), in which the federal government again acted without any official consultation. Most of the changes are related to land use and land leasing on reserves. Under bill C-45, a small number of people in a band can decide to lease their reserve land for development whereas before, a majority vote of a quorum of members of an indigenous nation was required. Author of First Nations: Second Thoughts and former conservative campaign manager, Tom Flanagan suggests that this is actually a really great opportunity to First Nations Canadians. It gives economic freedom, he insists in a Globe and Mail editorial. There is a large hole in his argument, however. If this was something aboriginal Canadians wanted, as he so adamantly claims, then why are they protesting it now? And further to that, why was it necessary for the federal government to work alone in amending the act without consulting the Chiefs of these nations? These amendments also interfere directly with indigenous self government, a right First Nations Canadians began to be granted in the 1990s. By passing this bill, the conservative government has reached into every reserve and fundamentally altered their voting and power structures. Although the Indian Act is a document created in and mired with Canada’s colonial history, it is the protection that indigenous Canadians have of both their culture and their rights to land. It should be treated as the treaty that it is between First Nations people and the Canadian government, requiring ratification between both parties, rather than a document that can be changed on a whim.
2) Idle No More is about the treatment of indigenous Canadians overall.
Every few years, something shameful about the treatment of indigenous Canadians surfaces on the news. Either the UN scolds Canada for the living conditions on reserves, or footage of indigenous Canadians freezing in their northern homes is released because the band, after trying every other channel for help, has no other option than going to the media. These incidents slip into and out of the public consciousness.
This brilliant article points out that Idle No More has to be about more than the two things I have fleshed out above. This is about the Canadian governments honouring treaty rights, it’s about living conditions for indigenous Canadians being terrible and, at times, dangerous, it’s about this current government defunding the National Aboriginal Health Organization while sinking money into military fighter jets that were out of date at the time of purchase.
Finally, a thought to close: Canadians pride ourselves on multiculturalism, and yet we stand idly by while a minority population is consistently downtrodden by a colonial history most of us are barely taught about in school and would much rather pretend doesn’t exist. Canadians of all stripes, creeds, colours, and professions need to step up to the plate here and be allies rather than ambivalent and idle. If we don’t, our multiculturalism is really just an empty husk.