Aboriginal peoples’ protests have dominated the Canadian media over the past few months. It is winter, it is cold, and yet Indigenous people of all nations and ages are gathering in the rain and snow in unprecedented numbers, all across this country, under the brave descriptive banner of Idle No More.
These grassroots expressions of deep anguish, frustration and resolve are shining a bright spotlight on the deplorable economic and social situation that is endured by so many Aboriginal peoples in this wealthy, land-rich and resource-rich G8 country called Canada.
Idle No More began as a protest concerning unjust and unwise proposed changes to Canada’s federal environmental protection regime, contained in federal Bills C-45 and C-38. These pieces of so-called “omnibus” legislation – which have now become law – have radically reduced the environmental protection that used to apply under federal law. For example, as a result of Bill C-45, 99% of Canada’s waterways – the lifeblood of our nations’ territories – have abruptly lost the minimal protection that previously existed under federal law for environmental assessment purposes.
Idle No More is saying that these sweeping changes to federal environmental protection laws are a serious threat to Indigenous peoples and to our lands and waters. Most Indigenous nations are still living in the hearts of our traditional territories, and many still depend to a great extent on the birds, animals and other natural resources with which we share our lands and waters.
The federal government has declared that it intends to fast-track unprecedented oil, gas, mineral, hydro and other resource exploitation across Canada. “Fast-track” is to weaken or avoid any prior assessment of the social and environmental impacts, come what may. The adverse impacts will affect Indigenous peoples more than anyone else, because we live in and depend on the sustainability of our lands and waters that the federal government is targeting for mega-industrialization.
Importantly, these legal changes affecting our peoples and our territories were passed into federal law without the prior informed consent of our peoples, much less any meaningful advance consultation about our Aboriginal, treaty or other human rights.
“Omnibus” legislation is not a new phenomenon in Canada. And legislation passed without considering the rights of Aboriginal peoples and over our objections is, sadly, not uncommon either. But the broad groundswell of support that Idle No More has activated is new and remarkable. The breadth and depth of this movement presents a challenge and an opportunity for all Canadians.
Canada is a country of enormous wealth and immense opportunities. It is also a country that says it upholds certain admirable values, including respect for fundamental human rights, environmental stewardship, and sustainable and equitable development. This may have been somewhat true in the past, but the messaging is wearing thin. The reality, in the eyes of Idle No More, is that Canada’s stated adherence to these important values is now a lie.
There are over 600 “First Nations” in Canada, and over 1,000 communities. The average social and economic development status in Indigenous Canada is decades or more behind the socio-economic status of the country as a whole, whether you look at health, education, labour market participation, life expectancy or income. Idle No More is saying, essentially: “This disparity is obvious and intolerable. It must be fixed. Now and for the future.”
Canada has a sophisticated system of governance. It has a constitution, laws, a head of state, legislatures, judiciary, governmental machinery and many other institutions of governance. However, amazingly, none of these many features of this great country were designed or implemented with the meaningful participation (or any participation, actually) of the original peoples in this land, namely Indigenous peoples and their governments. They have been imposed.
Instead, Indigenous peoples have been completely excluded, dispossessed, sidelined, oppressed, suppressed and ignored. Two orders of government, namely the federal and the provincial, each sovereign in their respective spheres, have carved up 100% of the total jurisdictional and resource wealth pie, and written the rules to serve themselves and to isolate and exclude indigenous peoples.
The result is that settler society in Canada – French, English, European and others who recently arrived on these shores – are doing very well in our territories, while Aboriginal peoples’ social development is languishing and we continue to experience mass poverty and unemployment, underdevelopment and despair.
Idle No More is not making this harsh diagnosis up. It is fully reviewed and explained in the 4,000 pages of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Reports. It can be read in many judgments of Canada’s non-Native courts, and in numerous UN studies and reports.
Aboriginal leaders, myself included, have warned for years that Canada is sitting on a social powder keg. The recent courageous protests by our grassroots people are the inevitable outcome of long-term and widespread frustration, anger, hopelessness – and now determination.
Up to now, Indigenous peoples have been expected, indeed told, to be patient and “realistic”. Indigenous peoples have been told that the many solemn agreements they have made in good faith with the Crown over the last 400 years, our treaties, are no longer relevant or meaningful, and are part of Canada’s heritage but no longer really part of Canada’s governing policies and laws.
The message of Idle No More is simple: Canada must commit itself to a new, consensual relationship with Aboriginal peoples, a respectful, nation-to-nation relationship based upon the treaties. The treaties are the only alternative to Canada being a colonial power in its own land. The only legitimate way forward is for this country to acknowledge that it has three orders of government, Indigenous, federal and provincial. These three orders of government must now fully acknowledge each other’s existence, legitimacy and role in the future of this country – including full participation in the benefit and wealth that lies in every Indigenous people’s back yard.
Apologizing for historic wrongs, important as that may be, is no longer adequate. All the apologies must now be translated into changes to the rules, and profound and meaningful changes to social and economic outcomes, so that Indigenous peoples can soon experience standards of living and participation equivalent to that of Canadians in general.
The alternative is continuing illegitimacy for Canada, continuing gross social disparities, and continuing unrest, because Idle No More is not going away.
As I see it, Idle No More also means Excluded No Longer and Included Fully From Now On. Only when there is profound change – including constitutional change – in the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown, and when the social and economic disparities have disappeared, will the protests and unrest become unnecessary.
Matthew Coon Come is the Grand Chief of Eeyouch, the James Bay Cree Nation. He was National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 2000 to 2003.