A new campaign for indigenous rights and environmental justice is spreading across Canada. The "Idle No More" movement began as a series of protests against a controversial government budget bill but has since expanded into a nationwide movement for political transformation. Aboriginal and environmental activists are calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to honor treaties with aborigines, open dialogue with environmentalists, and reject tar sands pipelines that would infiltrate First Nation territories. We go to Toronto to speak with Pamela Palmater, chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University and spokeswoman for the Idle No More movement. "We, First Nations people, have been subsidizing the wealth and prosperity and programs and services of Canadians from our lands and resources," Palmater says. "And that’s the reality here that most people don’t understand." [includes rush transcript]
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NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a new campaign for indigenous rights and environmental justice that’s spreading across Canada. The "Idle No More" movement began as a series of protests against a controversial government budget bill but has since expanded into a nationwide movement for political transformation. Aboriginal and environmental activists are teaming up to resist what they say is the conservative Canadian government’s attempts to appropriate resource-rich lands and to assimilate aboriginal nations. They are calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to honor treaties with aborigines, open dialogue with environmentalists, and reject tar sands pipelines that would infiltrate First Nation territories.
The website idlenomore.com calls on people to, quote, "join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty" and "protects the land and water." Spreading their message on social media outlets, activists with Idle No More have rallied in dozens of Canadian cities, held countless teach-ins, blocked major highways, organized flash mobs in shopping centers, and even interrupted the legislature.
One of the movement’s most high-profile supporters is Chief Theresa Spence, who is on her 16th day of hunger strike in a tepee just outside Ottawa’s parliament. She warns she will starve herself until she gets a meeting with Prime Minister Harper to discuss respect for historical treaties.
CHIEF THERESA SPENCE: We’re living in the Third World. And this shouldn’t be happening in this country, you know? They’re getting rich by our land. Everybody is using our traditional land except us. And all these mining companies and other forestries and other things that’s been happening in our community, there’s no benefits for us. It’s all going to the government.
AMY GOODMAN: So far, Chief Theresa Spence has not received a response from Canadian Prime Minister Harper. In Canada, aborigines suffer far higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, incarceration and suicide than the general population.
We’re going now to Toronto, where we’re joined by Pamela Palmater, the chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University, spokeswoman for the Idle No More movement and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation.
Pamela, welcome to Democracy Now! Start off by why the name of the movement, "Idle No More"?
PAMELA PALMATER: Well, it’s really symbolic of trying to get people organized at the grassroots level, because for many decades we have this scenario where politicians in Canada are making decisions over the lives of First Nations communities across this country and First Nations leaders who are trapped in this system under the Indian Act—that’s federal legislation that we have—that controls every single action and decision they make, which really leaves the grassroots people out of the decision-making process. And for traditional indigenous governments here in Canada, it’s the indigenous grassroots people that are the real decision makers. They have been kept in the dark. They haven’t known what’s going on. And so, what we tried to do for this movement is come up with teach-ins, come up with information that would help empower the grassroots to know what is the threat against them and how to take action to address it, regardless of what’s happening at the political level.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Pamela, can you say a little about what precisely sparked these protests? What was the budget bill that was being considered?
PAMELA PALMATER: Well, it’s actually 14 pieces of legislation. Some of the earlier protests were focusing just on Bill C-45, which was a giant omnibus bill which made amendments to tons of pieces of legislation. But the two kind of critical pieces for us at the time were the changes to the Indian—unilateral changes to the Indian Act, which would allow the easy surrender of our reserve lands, and the changes to the Navigable Waters Act, which doesn’t just impact First Nations people, it also impacts Canadians and Americans because we share, between Canada and the U.S., lots of waterways and water basins and rivers and lakes. And so, these changes will be catastrophic to those waterways and affect people on both sides of the border. So what we were trying to do was not to just inform and empower First Nations communities about that violation to our treaty rights, because we never surrendered our waterways, but also the devastating impacts on Canadians and Americans in terms of clean drinking water.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Greg Rickford, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of aboriginal affairs in Canada. He told the Global Toronto that the government is willing to engage in more dialogue between First Nations and the Canadian government.
GREG RICKFORD: We understand the dynamic of that demand, and we want to be sure, in every sense, that we’re working and singing from the same songbook, in terms of having shared priorities with—that deliver real results.
AMY GOODMAN: Pamela Palmater, your response?
PAMELA PALMATER: Well, I mean, it’s just more of the status quo. We have—I mean, from very early times, we negotiated nation-to-nation-based treaty relationship, and ever since then, Canadian officials have decided to make laws and policies and direct our communities without any consent on our part. This is just more of the same. You notice how he doesn’t address any of the core issues, like the fundamental crisis in many of our communities—the purposeful, chronic underfunding of water, sanitation, housing, food, education, the very things that contribute to our premature deaths by up to 20 years less than other Canadians.
What he’s talking about more dialogue. Well, we have been dialoguing for decades, and look at where it has got us. In the last 20 years, every single socioeconomic indicator for First Nations has gone downhill, which, when you look at the mandate of Indian Affairs, they only have one job, of those 5,000 bureaucrats who use up billions of our dollars, have to improve the social well-being of First Nations in this country, and they have failed over and over again. So dialogue is not going to do it; it’s only going to be action.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Pamela, can you talk a little about how the Idle No More protests tie into the national movement against tar sands, the tar sands pipeline that would cross aboriginal territory?
PAMELA PALMATER: Well, when you think about it, this movement has been in the works for several years. I know myself and many others have been working to inform First Nations about what’s happening on their territories, not just in terms of legislation and the funding cuts, but also what’s happening politically, and then what’s happening in terms of the aggressive resource development that’s happening without our knowledge and consent, like tar sands, like pipelines, like mining, hydrofracking and all of those things. All of that is tied in. You’ll notice, even before the Idle No More movement officially came out on social media, you’ve had lots of protests against Enbridge and Kinder Morgan and, I mean, even earlier, against MacMillan Bloedel for forestry and that kind of thing. So we have been working on resisting what’s happening here in Canada; it’s just that what this movement has done is kind of tied it all together.
So, the Idle No More movement tied in with the resistance to pipelines, with, you know, other informal movements called the Indigenous Rights Revolution and individual First Nations who are standing up and exercising their sovereignty to protect the lands and resources for everybody, because something that Canadians don’t often realize is that First Nations are the last best hope that they have of protecting lands for food and clean water for the future, not just for our people, but for Canadians, as well, because we have constitutionally protected aboriginal and treaty rights that they don’t have. So this country falls or survives on whether or not they acknowledge—or recognize and implement those aboriginal and treaty rights. So they need to stand with us to protect what will be essential. And what we’re talking about is having food and water for future generations, and that impacts all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: Pamela Palmater, I wanted to ask you about Chief Theresa Spence, who has been on a hunger strike for over two weeks. She says she’s willing to die for her people. She wants Prime Minister Harper, native chiefs, the queen, to discuss respect for historical treaties. However, her hunger strike has led some to voice caution and even disapproval, like Patrick Brazeau, a Native senator appointed by Harper, stating he thought she wasn’t setting a good example for aboriginal youth. Meanwhile, Kate Heartfield of the Ottowa Citizen warns this isn’t the way to deal with a government headed by Harper. And politician Charlie Angus suggested this type of potential martyrdom could lead to the type of strife experienced in Northern Ireland. What is your response to this?
PAMELA PALMATER: Well, I mean, you have to look at who is—who are making those comments. So, Senator Patrick Brazeau, he’s an indigenous person that came to Senate. Most First Nations in this country consider him a traitor, because he actively works against First Nations’ interests, for his own personal gain, according to First Nations. And so, we tend not to pay attention to the things that he says.
But in terms of other politicians, of course they’re going to say these things, because the current status quo benefits the majority population, even if they don’t have a direct hand in it, because we, First Nations people, have been subsidizing the wealth and prosperity and programs and services of Canadians from our lands and resources. And that’s the reality here that most people don’t understand.
This hunger strike is very symbolic. If you look at every day that Chief Theresa Spence doesn’t eat, she’s slowly dying. And she’s doing that for her people. And why? Because our people are slowly dying. Twenty-two percent of our youth die from suicides. Our people die in child and family services, in prisons, from contaminated water and lack of food, lack of housing. This is what’s happening to our people. And Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike is meant to bring awareness to what’s happening around the world, because international countries look at Canada and see the Olympics and some Native people dancing in their regalia at the opening ceremonies and think everything is wonderful here in Canada, when in actual fact, you know, the United Nations Human Development Index puts Canada from number four as a wonderful country for living down to 78, if you isolate First Nations. That’s how bad things are here in Canada.
AMY GOODMAN: Pamela Palmater, we’ll have to leave it there, chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University. I want to thank you for being with us, spokeswoman for Idle No More.