The sounds of drums and chanting outside the United Nations in New York battled to be heard over traffic recently. In a continuation of rallies and demonstrations held in front of the UN earlier in January, seven Native American protestors gathered behind a large purple banner to show their solidarity with the Idle No More movement in Canada.
The movement, which began in October in response to a proposed omnibus budget in the Canadian Parliament to change legislation on aboriginal land rights and environmental protections, has grown from a grass-roots protest in Saskatchewan to an international demand by native people and environmental activists for recognizing indigenous rights. Since the budget, called Bill C-45, became law on Dec. 14, the protests have spread across Canada to the United States and even to Australia and Finland.
What’s at stake is not just the land and water belonging to tribes, or “bands,” as they are referred to in Canada – but the bill ends protection of certain natural resources nationwide. The indigenous Canadians want the bill repealed, while the government said that removing development restrictions would open up billions of dollars in investments for the country.
The bill is the latest swing in enduring tensions between native Canadians and the government over human rights and economic issues. Canada, for instance, rejected the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples twice before endorsing the document, which was adopted in 2007 by the UN General Assembly and is meant to be used to manage affairs with indigenous people on land rights, cultural heritage and social justice.
The protestors’ main objections to bill, which is more than 400 pages and affects 64 acts and regulations, are the amendments made to the Indian Act, the Navigation Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act. For the Indian Act, the bill changes the voting process on how indigenous people can surrender or lease reserve lands. In the modified navigation act, the number of protected waters dropped by more than 99 percent, from 32,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers to 62 rivers, 97 lakes and 3 oceans, the Canadian Wildlife Federation said. And in combination with the adjusted Environmental Assessment Act, which lowered the number of development projects that require impact assessments, indigenous people worry that much of their land will be destroyed by mining and oil extraction.
Chief Edward John is chairman of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body of the Economic and Social Council that has political and administrative mandates but no legal powers. John is also chief of the Tl’azt’en nation in British Columbia. He said that for years there have been disagreements between the Assembly of First Nations, which represents the indigenous people, and the Canadian Parliament. The passage of the bill was the breaking point for most native people, John said.
“I think what it did was tap into a deep level of dissension or deep level of concern by indigenous people around government policies and actions – or inactions,” John said by phone.
Andrea Landry, an Anishinaabe from the Pays Plat nation in southern Ontario said: “We’re so connected to our land, the land is seen as a living and breathing entity that’s part of us. So when you desecrate our land you desecrate us as well.”
Landry participated in a UN international workshop on indigenous youth, held in January by the UN forum on indigenous issues. At the event, Landry shared her experiences in the Idle No More movement, including her work organizing a rally outside Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada’s capital,which drew 8,000 supporters.
The protest, which featured speakers, prayers, round dances and ceremonies, was one of dozens of rallies in Canada that brought together huge crowds. On Jan. 16, hundreds of protestors prevented about 2,000 people from using Pat Bay Highway in British Columbia, reported the Times Colonist, a paper based in the region. Throughout December and January, different indigenous communities and groups poured onto railroad tracks in Winnipeg and Ontario, preventing commuter and freight trains from operating, the Times Colonist said.
Round dances – traditional performances – have been held in malls and outside government buildings across Canada; on Jan. 28, a national day of action, events took place in more than 70 Canadian cities.
Perhaps the most extreme protest was that of the Attawapiskat chief, Theresa Spence, who went on a hunger strike Dec. 11 and ended it Jan. 24. During that time, Spence subsisted on herbal tea and broth, demanding that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative, discuss treaty rights issues and Bill C-45 with indigenous representatives. Although Harper had refused to address the Idle No More protests, he agreed to meet with the Assembly of First Nations national chief, Shawn Atleo, on Jan. 11. At the meeting, they discussed steps toward recognizing treaties between the government and First Nation communities.
Since then, Spence has worked with the Assembly of First Nations, which in the past has been subjected to infighting among tribes, and the Liberal and New Democratic caucuses in Canada to draft a 13-point declaration on actions the Canadian government should take to ameliorate its relations with indigenous people.
These include a request that the government fully carry out the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The UN declaration, which includes 46 articles outlining native rights, was adopted in 2007 with 143 countries voting in favor, 11 abstaining and 4 no votes. Of the no votes – the “settler” countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – Canada was the only UN member to vote against the declaration twice, first when it was adopted by the Human Rights Council in Geneva and then by the General Assembly.
Although Canada agreed to conditionally support the declaration in November 2010, it has not used it to deal with the legal issues on land and water rights and social justice matters. The declaration is not binding, although some international law scholars contend it has a certain legal force.
James Anaya, the UN Human Rights special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, said in a statement that he encouraged the Canadian government to hold a discussion with protestors, though he would not provide a comment for this article. A spokesman said that Anaya was instead releasing another report in the coming months.
Although the talks with Harper and Spence’s success with her 13-point declaration indicate progress for indigenous people, most protestors think they still have far to go, since there is no sign of the government’s repealing the law.
“The reason we brought about these changes was to strengthen Canada’s economy, harness the resource potential, and the greatest beneficiaries will be our First Nation and aboriginal people,” Peter Van Loan, Canada’s Government House leader, said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
The Canadian protestors do not think the bill will have any positive effects for them, and their concerns for the environment are shared by American Indians, who are protesting in solidarity.
Tristin Moone is a Navajo from Arizona studying at Columbia University. She helped organize a New York City rally and a teach-in on Jan. 28 to educate people on indigenous rights in Canada and the US. Although she was previously less familiar with Canadian aboriginal issues, her generation is fluent in social media networking, making it easier to connect protestors globally.
“[We] can see parallels between other civil rights movements, and I can actually say something about this, do something about this,” Moone said.
John, the UN permanent forum chairman, also hopes that Canada will carry out all aspects of the UN declaration.
Canada “has an opportunity to demonstrate they’re able to respond to the concerns of indigenous people,” John said.
Andrea Landry, the representative at the UN workshop on indigenous youth, doubted that Canada would ever use the UN document. But she was certain there would be change, since Idle No More protestors will continue holding rallies and voicing their concerns until the government listens, she said.
“I’ll just keep supporting the movement and ensure that it’s brought forth to the international level,” Landry said.
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Lorraine Boissoneault is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, with a magazine concentration. She has reported on immigration issues, public housing and the waterfront environment, and her articles have been published in The Brooklyn Paper, City Limits and Narratively.
Boissoneault is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she earned a B.A. in international studies and English/creative writing. She speaks French and conversational Mandarin and has studied Arabic and Italian.