The Idle No More movement for all its diffuseness and disorganization has caught the attention of the media and the Canadian people. Attawapiskat, Theresa Spence et al. are now household names. This isn’t the first time that First Nations issues have captured the limelight, but in the past those issues have managed to slip out of the public eye quite quickly. The current drive by Canada’s indigenous people to change their plight in today’s Twitter and Facebook supercharged media environment seems to have staying power and momentum. The time of fleeting attention followed by long stretches of disinterest look like history. Great, let’s have this long overdue conversation about the plights of the First Nations and how to alleviate the suffering.
Canadian First Nations chiefs seem to think that the requisite solution is twofold: first give more sovereignty to First Nations and secondly give them more funding. What the chiefs of the Idle No More movement mean by more sovereignty is in fact less accountability. By less accountability they mean less strings attached to the increased funding they demand. What reasonable people call increased financing without strings is a handout. A little bit at odds with the movement’s name and aspirations for increased sovereignty but heck, who’s really keeping score. Sovereignty is big with First Nations chiefs; it is both a means and an end for them. The lack of Aboriginal sovereignty is closely associated to the “lack of respect between equal nations” perceived by First Nations peoples.
Canadian governments’ policies on aboriginal peoples are characterized by demographic assimilation and cultural erasure; suggest many in the Ivory Tower communities of Canadian anthropological university departments. Stories of off-reserve Indians struggling to preserve their heritage abound in editorial letter pages of Canadian newspapers. Worst even, on-reserve Indians believe the government isn’t doing enough to help protect the exceedingly diverse array of First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit cultures. Without wanting to seem insensitive towards these peoples; REALLY?! Welcome to the 19th century. Please go pick up any book ever written by an immigrant in the last 200 odd years or so. Irish, Italian, Indian (the ones from India here), Polish or Jewish immigrants have been writing about melting pots vs. mosaics and cultural clashes forever. Every people the World-over are fighting to preserve their cultures in the face of globalization (also called by some “internationally increasing living standards”).
As a matter of fact, one would have to be blind to think that in Canada, of all places, the issue of cultural preservation hasn’t been front and center of the political discourse for decades, just read a Pierre-Elliot Trudeau biography or those of any of his Parti Québécois contemporaries’, or any texts about the struggles of the Acadians. Cultures disappear every day as people abandon them, stop fighting for them or sometimes are forcibly extinguished. Others have had to live with this reality, and we’ve been doing better than most here in the Canadian mosaic. It’s every one’s individual responsibility to uplift and preserve those parts of our cultures that enrich our lives.
Of course we are conscious that Canada had proactive policies of cultural assimilation in the past, most notably with the Residential Schools system. Many of us are also comfortable admitting that the Canadian bureaucracy is a stifling institution, but you don’t need Indian status to suffer from an almost inhumane bureaucracy. Heck, you don’t need to be Canadian, since Orwell’s 1984 many savvy writers have complained about the ever expanding influence of the cold and impersonal hand of government and bureaucracy. Join the local libertarian club, you’re not alone to despair about the situation, and stop asking for money since you are just encouraging it. In any case those wrongs have been admitted to and an official apology by the Prime Minister was given.
Another grief oft cited by Idle No Morers is the environmental provisions of C-45, the Conservative government’s omnibus budget implementation bill. Virtually all lakes and rivers, except a handful, were removed from the Navigable Waters Protection Act. By a handful is meant; All three Oceans some of the most important Rivers and notably Athabasca River and Lake. What does that mean: the Oil Sands most important sources of fresh water are still subject to protection. But what of the other lakes and rivers? Well, they are not really going to be left unprotected. Rather, local governments and municipalities will be responsible for environmental protection. Yes ladies and gentlemen, that means First Nations will be responsible for the protection of their own territories and local waterways.
Sovereignty doesn’t just mean rights. It also means responsibilities. Now First Nations have more sovereignty than ever to block economic developments on their lands, if they so wish to; something that the Northern Gateway development attempts are already proving. Now casual observes may be excused for thinking that there is inconsistency in the Idle No More discourse, there is. It would not be the first time that lax due diligence on protesters part led them to oppose legislation they actually asked for. Even Her Majesty’s official opposition can’t be bothered to read a 400 page bill in a few weeks; why should First Nations leaders?
In any case some in the Canadian public believe that this movement hasn’t got its head on straight; quite the understatement when discussing a movement with apparently no head. Many of the movement’s complaints are of constitutional nature. Theresa Spence wants the government to respect the treaties that are now part of the Constitution. Yet, she is more than willing to discard Constitutional tradition by demanding a working meeting with both the Prime Minister and the Governor General. Quick reminder Miss. Spence, Canada is a democratic constitutional monarchy, part of our political culture is that the monarch and/or his representative isn’t allowed to influence the peoples democratic decisions. You are just making a fool of yourself and your cause by demanding respect for Canada’s constitutional tradition while simultaneously demonstrating you don’t have a clue what that tradition is!
As for Idle No More’s demands that the federal government skew revenue sharing of resource revenue in their favour; they are again disregarding the essence of the Constitution, which puts those revenues under provincial jurisdiction, Prime Minister Harper and the Conservatives can’t do that for them. Nor should the Provinces accede to such demands. It’s already bad enough that Canada remains the last industrialized nation to still have racial laws on the books enshrining two-tiered citizenry into law, we don’t need to continue legislating in such a direction by affording some but not all citizens extra powers of taxation.
The Government needs to stop yielding to this kind of debate. Canada is overdue for a discussion on First Nations’ legal and living conditions in Canada. The current conversation is not it. What Canada and Canadian aboriginal peoples need is an adult conversation, without the clumsy theatrics and overly emotional pleas for change. Let’s have a rational and informed dialogue and we shall all be better for it.