On Saturday, September 13, people came from all over Quebec, Ontario, Hawaii, Ecuador, Chile and the States to walk alongside Montrealers as hundreds took to the streets in protest of the Canadian government’s refusal to adopt the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
At 2pm the crowds descended on Emilie-Gamelin Park above the Berri metro station to take in a series of activist speeches delivered from a flatbed truck before marching along de Maisoneuve Boulevard to Dorchester Square. Before the march began, a Mohawk Elder blessed the spiritual and political event. The march itself was led by the truck which carried a Mohawk drummer circle that played periodically amidst chanting, slogans and Indigenous pop music in a strange juxtaposition against the urban setting.
Though the event was organized by the Aboriginal Student Circle of the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, when the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador’s Chief, Ghislain Picard, heard about the event, the AFNQL was only too happy to lend its name officially to the event and participate.
“This UN declaration is a reality now, regardless as to Canada’s position. We know that Australia is reconsidering its position so I think the more we go with this, the more isolated the Canadian government will find itself,” said Picard in an interview with the Nation.
Picard addressed the crowds prior to the actual march and at the march’s final destination. His main message was for the government to end colonialism and replace the Indian Act with a First Nation Charter. Since the march took place in the middle of a federal election campaign, Picard had a message for both the present and future governments.
“The first challenge, for the next government of Canada, and for the government of Quebec, is to support the minimum standards for the survival of Indigenous people included in the Declaration. All organizations, civil groups and citizens of Quebec and Canada must continue their outcry against those governments that take positions that refuse to recognize, and jeopardize the human rights of all peoples.”
Marching alongside Picard to help him hold up the AFNQL banner was Abitibi-Est Parti Quebecois MLA Alexis Wawanoloath who was also there to show his fervent support of the UN Declaration. For Wawanoloath, getting the Declaration adopted was a provincial matter before federal.
“I think that with our history we might be able to adopt it quicker,” he said with a charismatic smile as campaigning was clearly never far from his mind.
Amnesty International had its own delegation at the event and was also one of the demonstration’s sponsors. Charles Peroux, an activism coordinator for Amnesty’s Canadian francophone section, felt it was necessary to show his presence not just to fight for Indigenous rights but to try and rally local support as many are so focused on the plight of foreign struggles and not the plight of the third world within Canada.
“Recently we have been doing a lot of work on China because of the Olympics and a lot of our own members are criticizing China for what they are doing to Tibet. But on the other end, we have just about the same thing going on here and in some cases it’s even worse for those on some reserves in Quebec. Sure it sounds great for everyone to be working on Tibet but even for us it’s hard to get a lot of our members to give a damn,” said Peroux.
As Canada was shamed earlier on this year by Amnesty for its treatment of its Indigenous women, various court rulings and land-rights issues, Amnesty members at the rally were there not just there to reinforce their message but to remind the public that human rights are for everyone.
“I think that it’s very important that we be here to show support and that it is not only an Indigenous issue that this effects everyone and when we lower the standards for one part of the population, we lower it for everybody else,” said Peroux.
Despite the long distance between their home and Montreal, many Algonquins had made the journey from Lac Simon to represent themselves and their own struggles. Among them was their chief, Daniel Pien.
“In Quebec the French language has protection and we don’t have that protection. If you look you will find that English as an official language is protected too but no First Nation language is protected. That is why we have to tell who we are and why we want protection for our territory. The territory is the land and the Creator gave us a place to stay and enjoy our life so we have to say who we are so we’ll have the privilege to enjoy our lives today,” said Chief Pien.
In that many of the Algonquins of the Abitibi-Temaskamingue region are not under the Indian Act, Third World-living conditions abound in these communities, those like the people of Lac Simon are some of the most dramatically affected by Canada’s refusal to adopt the Declaration.
Out with her daughter who works for the Quebec Native Woman’s Association, the Cree Health Board’s Diane Reid was only too happy to take part in the demonstration for herself and on behalf of the Cree Nation.
“I have spent most of my life being a social activist throughout the world for Indigenous rights so this is a day that is important for me as a Native person but especially as a Native woman because I am a grandmother. There are future generations to come of our children and grandchildren and we have to protect their rights,” said Reid.
As an activist, taking to the streets was familiar territory for Reid and a right that she felt was necessary to combat the complacency that so many people experience when it comes to Indigenous issues.
“I think that people get to be too much in a comfort zone of day-to-day life, walking out in the streets is a way of creating some awareness about Native people and their causes because people tend to feel that what we don’t see we don’t worry about,” said Reid, who considered the march a sacred event.
Amongst the marching masses, Andreas, a Chilean expatriate, marched alongside his girlfriend, carrying his placard and hollering like the best of them. As a Chilean, he could no doubt sympathize with the plight of Canada’s Indigenous people.
“We had no other reason to be anywhere else other than here today because this is the most important day to be here. In a broad sense we are talking about the self-determination of a people at a time when this is under attack and civil rights are under attack. In Canada, we don’t have a perfect guarantee of our rights either and so these are all struggles that are linked,” said Andreas.
Stephano from Ecuador who was marching a few feet away felt similarly. Having devoted his life to working with Indigenous peoples, he felt it necessary to show his presence at the event. “I feel very close to the problems that Indigenous people face here in Canada in terms of their fight for their rights,” he said.
Wearing traditional garb, Jack Watson from the Odanak Reserve Band Council was jovial about expressing his dissent at the demonstration. Having traveled to Montreal with a delegation of community members from his reserve to reunite with those from Odanak who were now living in Montreal, Watson took pride in marching with his own community.
“It’s a great and pleasant day to come and express our dissatisfaction with the federal government. We fully support this event!” said Watson amidst crowd of his peers.
Marching in Hawaiian traditional garb to show off his many traditional tattoos, Paul Richard Palmelo Kawanassnai III, an Indigenous exchange student at McGill University, carried a placard with a message about his own people that stated: We are not Americans.
Speaking about the plight of his own people who were once a kingdom before the United States claimed their traditional lands, Kawanassnai was passionate about the troubles all North American Indigenous people face under oppression.
“Americans just came in and took our kingdom away. They killed our people and desecrated our land, so speaking for myself and a lot of other Native Hawaiians back home, we want freedom! We want our independence and we want our land and we want our rights back and that will never happen with the attitude of the United Sates. It’s just like the unwillingness in Canada where they won’t even consider Indigenous rights,” he said.
As the demonstration progressed through the city streets led by the drone of the drums and chants, no one individual was more vocal at the rally than CKUT Radio’s Native Solidarity News producer Irkar Beljarrs, who drummed and spoke frequently over a microphone from the flatbed.
“I am here drumming for a good cause, I did not expect to speak as much as I did,” said Beljarrs who had never drummed in public before.
Throughout the event Beljarrs was also persistent in reminding those demonstrating that this march was not just about a Declaration but Canada’s negligence towards its Indigenous women as, according to the Native Woman’s Association of Canada’s new numbers, there are now 700 missing and/or murdered Aboriginal women and children who have fallen off the map.
“It’s that idea that because someone is poor that makes it easier to take advantage of and unfortunately we live in such a society where there are so many predators around and nothing is being done… I can guarantee if these were 700 SUV-driving suburban soccer moms who were missing, the military would be mobilized,” said Beljarrs.
As the marchers reached the city’s core where the event culminated, hundreds of passers-by stopped to watch the protest with cameras and cellphones in hand to record the event out of curiosity. For as much as there is an apparent lack of interest for Indigenous issues within the mainstream media, the crowd reaction to the demonstration proved that other médias exist and this fight can be played out online.
Though the fight for Indigenous rights may not be omnipresent on Canada’s airwaves, with every footstep that was taken on that bright and sunny Saturday afternoon, awareness grew, heads turned and questions were asked by those who did not know.
The fight to have the UN Declaration on Indigenous rights is not over and as the battle cries rang out, the struggle rages on.