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Cheol Joon Baek
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Cheol Joon Baek
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Cheol Joon Baek
Lots of feathers, drums and drama as Idle No More fills streets, highways and rail lines, and the country's consciousness, at NOW press deadline Wednesday, turning once-local issues into a national emergency.
The day of action follows Friday, January 11's, exploding tensions over which Assembly of First Nations chiefs would or wouldn't stand with Chief Theresa Spence to boycott any government sit-down without the governor general, not to mention the non-happening that was the meeting itself.
Friday was full of furious tweeting, round dances and media fixations. But in Toronto, by evening, all was sombre and still when Idlers No More gathered under the skeletal winter trees in Queen's Park.
I'd forgotten my candle, but no matter; there were enough tiny points of light for the water ceremony led by a woman who paid homage to her great-grandfather, a Cree warrior chief. She sent a prayer to the animals, the birds and the spirits of the Mississauga keepers of the land we were standing on.
In a movement where protest actions are so often light on banners, slogans and speechifying and heavy on communal dancing and spirit, there's lots of space, it seems, for the past to announce itself.
The woman standing next to me said she was here for her 90-year-old father, who as a child wasn't allowed to speak his Cree language, and for her great-grandfather, who fought in the war of 1812. Indeed, the learning curve for many non-natives means grasping that when First Nation leaders talk about treaties signed 100 years ago like they were yesterday, and conjure the power of the Crown reps who were their negotiating partners, they're not being dramatic.
Some communities have the luxury of freedom from the clutches of yesterday; others clearly do not.
There's a lot of heavy politics, to be sure, in the sweeping Idle No More tide. They're playing out online: debate about the legitimacy of the AFN leadership, the role of blockades, and who speaks for the uprising. INM is operating mostly as an online conscience, establishing key values like pacifism and open-heartedness for non-native supporters while issuing protest dates and legal analyses.
The movement seems to engage on a number of levels at once, on the one hand giving solace, identity and purpose, and on the other offering an astoundingly astute pitch to a Conservative-weary populace.
In terms of the first, I had a discussion Monday with Denise Booth of the Native Women's Resource Centre, an activist in family violence prevention. Booth was one of those caught up in the so-called 60s Scoop, when social workers took 20,000 children out of their native families and parachuted them into white families, obliterating their culture and personal past.
"I tell people,'' she says, "it doesn't matter if your family's been here for 17 generations or one generation or you decided to come here yesterday: when you became Canadian, my history became your history. Growing up, everyone else knew where home was, but I never did. And now I know where it is. For me, Idle No More is about protecting where I call home."
On a more strategic level, INM, despite the virulent racist backlash, is standing firmly behind its argument that defending inherent aboriginal rights is the key to checkmating unbridled Conservative resource-ravaging on behalf of all Canadians. All discussions lead to Bills C-38 and C-45, critical sections of which loosen enviro controls - and hence self-determination rights - over waters and lands mostly in native territory.
One starts to see the possibilities talking to Clayton Thomas-Muller, co-director of the Indigenous Environmental Network's tar sands campaign. There hasn't been a major enviro victory in the last 30 years in Canada, he reminds me - from the Great Bear Rainforest to conservation zones, parks in Dene country, Temagami, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and Quebec's hydro megaproject - without First Nations' assertion of aboriginal rights and title.
"Case study after case study shows that the main legal mechanism has always been aboriginal rights and title," the Ottawa-based Thomas-Muller says.
An indigenous-rights-based strategy in the courts, he says, is the "final and best hope" of defeating the tar sands and mining surge, and he points out that there are already two constitutional challenges on resource development incursions.
"The one place Harper can't stack the deck is in the Supreme Court. We have a track record of over 170 victories [in what was] once a muddled, grey area of aboriginal law but has become one of the strongest legal frameworks in the Canadian legal regulatory system."
Call it Idle No More's gift to the body politic. Regional Chief of Ontario Stan Beardy puts the discussion of C-38 and 45 this way: "We're not against resource extraction, but it can't be at the expense of mankind."
It doesn't take Beardy, whose org opted not to attend the January 11 meeting with Harper, long to get to northern Ontario's Ring of Fire mining development, much hyped by the provincial Lib government. He calls the project a likely "open pit in the midst of a swamp. What will they do with tailings? They will be absorbed into the water and the muskeg. All the life - fish, birds, animals, people - will consume toxic waste."
According to UN law on indigenous peoples, he points out, treaties have to be upheld, and the federal government must consult aboriginal people on such projects. As a "successor state," Canada doesn't have inherent rights to make decisions on its own, he says.
So here's the punchline: "We want to create national and international awareness that the government failed in its obligation to consult the rights holders, and the [consequence] will be economic uncertainty. It makes foreign investors have second thoughts. Their lawyers are saying that if the legal requirement to consult is inadequate, there could be a legal injunction down the line that will jeopardize investors' dollars."
And that could well be how aboriginal title will save the nation.