IS “IDLE NO MORE” A HISTORIC TIPPING POINT FOR CANADA?

Idle No More rally, Fort Qu'Appelle, SaskatchewanHarper’s two Budget Omnibus Bills fundamentally undercut our environmental protection. The 450 page Bill C-38 changes 70 federal Acts in one fell swoop, including reducing water, fish and other environment protection. The longer Bill C-45 changes 44 laws, including removing fish habitat protections, making huge changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Ac, and reducing the federal role in environmental assessments “from 32,000 to just 97 lakes and from 2.25 million to just 62 rivers”. As OKT solicitors who have analyzed the Bill said, “This means that a shocking 99% of Canada’s waterways lost their protection…”

Opposition parties criticized these Bills as anti-democratic but Harper used his Conservative majority to force them through. Harper ignores the democratic procedures of parliament, where legislative changes are carefully examined in an informed way. Since taking power in 2006 Harper has restricted freedom of information, muzzled scientists and steadily increased his “rule by law” rather than governing by the “the rule of law”. The newest member of our Supreme Court issued us all a warning in the Dec. 29, 2012 Globe and Mail about the importance of the rule of law, saying “We are lucky here in Canada, but we should not treat that lightly. It could go away easily.”

The checks and balances against authoritarianism aren’t that strong in our first-past-the-post electoral system; a majority government can gut environmental protection with only minority support among the electorate.  Opposition parties used parliamentary tactics to slow down the passage of these bills, and environmental and scientific groups warned of deleterious consequences for the environment. But without broad-based political mobilization within mainstream Canada, there’s been no way to stop Harper’s actions.

Facing this dilemma many were starting to think that the majority voice would not be heard until the 2015 election. Then the Idle No More grass roots movement emerged and opposition to Harper’s corporate agenda began to spread like wild fire across the country.

TREATY RIGHTS

While Harper has been able to end-run parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, he has not so easily been able to end-run constitutionally-embedded treaty rights. Indigenous grass-roots, mostly youth and women, have come out into the streets to say “no!” to the erosion of environmental protection. We are all deeply indebted to them.

Perhaps Harper hoped a simple apology for the residential schools and finances for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would brush aboriginal concerns aside. In its Dec. 29th editorial, “Talk Don’t Starve” the Globe and Mail stated there was no need for Chief Spence to risk her health with her hunger strike because Mr. Harper “has already shown he is a friend of aboriginal people.”

What balderdash! The Globe editorialists, like Harper, misread the meaning of “truth and reconciliation”. Harper has made sweeping legislative changes and in the process moved Canada closer to becoming a corporate state. Simultaneously he has not fulfilled the government’s constitutional “duty to consult” with aboriginal people. Meanwhile Idle No More has brought more attention to Harper’s steady imposition of legislation to further weaken aboriginal rights, such as Bill C-27 which imposes a double standard, forcing aboriginal businesses to make public financial reports not required by other businesses. It includes other Bills, S-2, S-6, S-8, C-428, S-207 and S-212, all of which can be used to undercut treaty and aboriginal rights in the guise of addressing matrimonial issues, elections, safe water, the Indian Act and self-government.

THE “NATIVE WINTER”

The politics of course is complex and the divisions among Chiefs are not inconsequential. Some Chiefs still talk of treaty rights narrowly in terms of getting revenue sharing from existing resource extraction. This is how the Harper government wants it to be viewed; linking treaty rights to business as usual. Meanwhile the environment protection required as part of the treaties is being deregulated to accelerate resource extraction. Water will become more available to industry under provincial jurisdiction, in disregard for the treaty relationship between aboriginal people and the Crown. It took the media a while to understand why Chief Spence and other Chiefs refused to meet with Harper without the Governor General; the crown is symbolic of the nation-to-nation defence of the treaties and the land.

After the Jan. 11, 2013 meeting with AFN Chief Atleo and other Chiefs, Harper did what he does best – manage perception. While past AFN Chief Coon Come was pleased that Harper recommitted to “high-level discussions”, Harper’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Duncan was saying that the government had already met all its constitutional obligations to consult over the Omnibus Bills. Harper had already dismissed the main demand of the grass-roots Idle No More movement, to rescind the Omnibus Bills.

Appearing responsive to the pressing human needs highlighted at the meeting, Harper announced a $330 million expenditure on safe drinking water, which, upon examination, turned out to already be in the last budget. And this is far below what the federal government knows will be required. Remember, too, that soon after Harper met with 180 Chiefs a year ago, on Jan. 24, 2012, and promised to continue talks, his government introduced Bill C-45 which undermines both environmental protection and treaty rights. Without Idle No More and Chief Spence’s hunger strike Harper wouldn’t have bothered to meet with the AFN. The smoke and mirrors will continue.

SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT

The unity of aboriginal, environmental and scientific groups in opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline has already changed the political landscape. Then the convergence of Idle No More with the actions of Chief Spence sparked a pan-Canadian grass roots outpouring of dissent, participatory democracy at its best. Perhaps it is the start of a much needed “civil rights” movement here. Canada’s environmental and other popular movements should now step up and show unrelenting solidarity with aboriginal people.

Idle No More started as a “chat room” between four Saskatchewan women – Sylvia McAdam, Nina Wilson, Sheelah McLean and Jessica Gordon, about what might be done to educate and organize around this matter. Various Teach-Ins were held and within weeks the grass-roots movement had gone viral and there were round dances and flash mobs in shopping malls, on highways and bridges across the country. Acts of solidarity started abroad and these continue! When AFN leaders met with Harper on Jan. 11th, there were hundreds of actions from coast to coast to coast. Our own winter of discontent and awakening, like the “Arab Spring”!

At each event there’s been a call for solidarity among aboriginal and settler Canadians.  Polls show majority sympathy for overcoming degrading living conditions and poverty commonplace in many aboriginal communities; solidarity over protecting the treaties may be harder to come by. Until Canadians better understand how environmental protection and treaty rights are interwoven, and how “we are all treaty people”, Harper will continue to play one group off against another.

The AFN is caught in the middle. What will happen if more Chiefs shift their attention towards the grass-roots? Will there be more serious acts of civil disobedience?  The stakes are high for Canada and we can’t succumb to the politics of fear or racialized scape-goating. There is only “one biosphere”, whether we are aboriginal or not. Genetic mapping has shown that we all come from common ancestors. Defending treaty rights along with democratic rights can be a powerful means to bring the human race closer together and push us all towards sustainability.

It’s time we all stood up for the protection of the land and waters; “we stand on guard for thee”. This is the vision that needs to be nurtured as this tremendous historical moment continues into the spring and summer.

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