The challenge of Idle No More

June 2015, Volume VII, No. 2

This issue of Open Space offers some reflection on the Idle No More movement which came as a forceful sign of the times as well as a sign of hope.

Do you remember Bill C-45? Better known as the Omnibus Budget Bill, it made changes to a wide range of federal legislation in its 450 pages, including the Navigable Waters Protection Act. While the details may be vague for us a decade later, Bill C-45 remains crystal clear for Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon and Sheelah McLean whose concern for the impact on Canadian lands and water led them to actions that gave rise to the Idle No More movement.

That movement itself may also be fading from our memories, but not that of John Ralston Saul who regards it as a compelling symbol of an unstoppable comeback by Canada’s Indigenous people. His book, The Comeback (Penguin Canada, 2014), is short and clear. According to Joe Friesen, it is, “The story of a movement that has been building from a low point a little more than a century ago to where it’s now poised, [Saul] says, to reclaim a central place in Canadian affairs” (Toronto Globe and Mail, 10/31/14).

The Idle No More movement is focused on Indigenous sovereignty rights and respect for treaties. Its goals include stopping environmental degradation and economic and social inequality. It takes special exception to Bill C-45, which revised protection for forests and waterways with a view to removing obstacles to industrial development. Many of the waterways pass through traditional First Nations’ land, the same land that lies in the path of proposed pipelines with their accompanying hazards for water systems.

The Idle No More movement received widespread, sympathetic attention and media coverage both in Canada and internationally. But is there a realistic possibility of this Indigenous “comeback” becoming a genuine agent of change?

Let us first consider some of the serious obstacles. In September 2014, Canada was the only country to oppose a United Nations document adopted at the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. Canada objected to the inclusion of the term “free, prior, and informed consent.” FPIC, as it is known, is the principle that First Nations have the right to give or withhold consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands on which they live.

Although FPIC is commonly upheld as a principle in international law, Canada considered the wording problematic, claiming it could be interpreted as “a veto to Aboriginal groups and ... cannot be reconciled with Canadian law, as it exists.” Yet, according to Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief Perry Bellegarde, “Veto does not exist in the declaration anywhere. Why are they misleading and using that word?”

This incident is consistent with a long history of unfair and often unjust treatment of First Nations. The Indigenous peoples in general welcomed the new settlers to Canada. French colonial agents, settlers, fur traders and missionaries were among the earliest Europeans to have sustained contact with them. Although there were hostilities, France saw the Indigenous peoples as allies, independent groups with their own laws and customs. The French relied on them for survival and fur trade wealth. Yet, this indispensable contribution of Indigenous peoples to the building up of Canada was deliberately erased from the history text books and has only recently been somewhat recovered.

The escalation of tensions between the French and English over the control of the fur trade in North America led to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Henceforth, French colonial administrators had little contact with the Aboriginal peoples. The mindset of the British Empire and domination took over. Treaties were signed for large pieces of land with little consultation. Indigenous people believed that what they were agreeing to was sharing the use of their lands and their resources since most First Nations did not believe that land could, or should, be owned by individuals.

As Saul points out, the two groups were living out of very different worldviews and cultures. The British Empire thrived on ruthless economic development, an approach that has endured to this day in treatment of Indigenous peoples, with little interest in their beliefs and cultural thinking. To the colonizer’s mind they were “savages” – even less than human – to be contained on separate “reserves” with no effective rights. Over time, the Indigenous population dropped from some two million to about 150,000 due to new European diseases and the destruction of their own way of life.

In an effort to “rescue” them from their lamentable cultural and spiritual situation, the Canadian government partnered with Anglican, Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches to establish and operate boarding and residential schools for First Nations, Inuit and Métis children.

There the children were required to disown their language, religion and culture. The sexual and other abuses they encountered are now well documented – although the present government is slow to release archival documentation that describes how the government of the day undertook initiatives such as nutritional experiments on the already malnourished Aboriginal children.

What is equally disturbing is that the Aboriginal Affairs staff and lawyers still echo a colonial attitude towards the Indigenous people. One need only look at the inhuman situation on several reserves with regard to housing, sanitation and clean water. Or consider the fact that the federal government funds for children’s education on the reserves is significantly lower than per capita spending in most provincial school systems.

Quite clearly the government’s Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development does not treat Indigenous people as fully Canadian citizens with equivalent rights. Even with all the negative publicity surrounding the residential schools, justice for Indigenous peoples has never been a primary election issue for any political party. Most people do not seem to see that our governments and its agencies, acting on our behalf, have betrayed one of the basic principles on which Canada was founded – namely to promote harmony while recognizing cultural, religious and other differences.

So where do we find hope for dramatic change in the coming years? Not from government or Aboriginal Affairs, and surely not from public voices such as Conrad Black writing in Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present (McClelland and Stewart, 2014): “Indian society was not in itself worthy of integral conservation, nor was its dilution a suitable subject for lamentations.” On the other hand, Globe and Mail national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson, following the reasoning of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin, recognizes that only negotiations based on treaties between Aboriginal groups and the Crown can legitimate an infringement on Aboriginal rights.

John Ralston Saul compiles a remarkable selection of letters, speeches and writings by Aboriginal leaders and thinkers, showcasing the extraordinarily rich, moving and stable Indigenous point of view across the centuries. For him the time is now. The centrality of Aboriginal issues and its peoples has the potential to open up a more creative way of imagining ourselves and a more honest narrative for Canada.

There are two other factors working in favour of the Indigenous “comeback.” Indigenous peoples now number about one million and are increasing rapidly. Younger university-trained leaders are gradually taking over. Presently, over 30,000 Indigenous people are in university; already they have more than a 1,000 of their own lawyers. Saul lists dozens of names of leaders among these younger, intellectually accomplished Aboriginal men and women.

Today, Indigenous people hold legal and constitutional influence over vast stretches of commodity-rich land. They are the largest group in Labrador and the Northwest Territories; and the second largest in the northern part of all the provinces between Ontario and British Columbia. And they shall surely have a strong voice on Canada’s future in the Arctic.

Over the centuries, Indigenous leaders have been consistent in their demands on government – namely, in negotiations, Canada must honour the treaties signed between the First Nations and the Crown – not the federal government. Canadians often forget that Canada, as a political entity, was built on the legal structure of historic treaties between the Crown and the First Nations.

The Supreme Court of Canada has, for the past 40 years, consistently made judgments favouring this line of reasoning. For example, in 2013 the Court ruled that the 200,000 Métis and 400,000 non-status Indians in Canada are “Indians” under the Constitution Act, and fall under federal jurisdiction. In November 2014, the Sup-reme Court agreed to hear cases that will define the content of these treaty rights.

A June 2014 Supreme Court ruling on the Tsilhqot’in Nation vs British Columbia decreed that full Aboriginal land title exists and recognized that the nomadic and semi-nomadic people of the Tsilhqot’in Nation in B.C. hold the exclusive occupancy rights to a territory of more than 1,500 sq. km. in the province.

Noting the mind of the Supreme Court, some provinces and several corporations, particularly in the oil industry, have begun serious negotiations with First Nations and Band Councils. On the other hand, a Globe and Mail editorial (03/28/15) on the Tsilhqot’in Nation decision, points out: “Aboriginal title is very real, but it also has very real limits. The court said that, if there is ‘a compelling and substantial public purpose,’ an ‘incursion’ or ‘infringement’ on the Aboriginal title can be justified.

“ ... At some time in the future, BC or the federal government could assert, in good faith, that a pipeline, highway, hydro-electric dam, natural gas plant, railway or mining project is vitally essential to the economy and well-being of the province or the country – and the courts might agree. Or they might not. In other words, Tsilhqot’in has a kind of sovereignty but it is limited. And those limits, are, unfortunately, vague – and subject to future negotiations and litigation.”

Michael Murray, a Jesuit who has lived and worked with Canadian Aboriginal peoples for many years, sees John Ralston Saul’s optimistic assessment of a “comeback” by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples as unrealistic. Having observed the impact of North American culture on Native artistic expression and social and family life over the decades, he is more inclined to see the future as “The Indian Transition” than a comeback of Native culture.

Nevertheless, if it took Canadians a couple of centuries to discover a way to recognize and live with the identity and rights of francophone Quebec, is it not time to heal the last ugly wound in Canada that is a betrayal of our co-founders, the Indigenous peoples who were here before us?

This is certainly the demanding position of a recent movement inspired by the Idle No More experience, named Canadians For a New Partnership (CFNP).

Co-chaired by Tim Broadhead OC, and Mary Simon OC, CM, its founding board includes former prime ministers, Joe Clark and Paul Martin, former auditor general Sheila Fraser, former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci and a number of First Nations leaders including former Assembly of First Nations’ national chief Ovide Mercredi and Sheila Watt-Cloutier OC, past international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

They hold that efforts to improve education and welfare will fail unless Canadians build up a new partnership and restore the trust that has eroded by a litany of historic wrongs.

Canadians for New Partnership want to begin a new dialogue among Canadians about our relationship with Aboriginal Peoples. Concretely, when governments and corporations talk about “the national interest” and “equity,” CFNP wants them to ask themselves if their actions are in the interests of the marginalized as well as the mainstream and does “equity” apply to those at the bottom as well as the top.

Just maybe Ralston Saul’s challenge to be idle no more is being heard and acted on by a growing number of Canadians.

Endnote: Jesuits have engaged with First Nations peoples since 17th century missionary work with the Huron-Wendat confederacy at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Midland, Ontario. Present concerns of Indigenous people for community rights in signed treaties, social justice and ecological sustainability all fall within the interest and focus of the Jesuit Forum. We encourage our Forum friends to become members of Canadians For a New Partnership.

Bill Ryan sj