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Why First Nations Movement Is Our Best Chance for Clean Land and Water

In an urgent pursuit for environmental justice and basic human rights, First Nations gather across North America under the banner of Idle No More.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence enters her fourth week of a hunger strike outside the Canadian parliament building, thousands of protesters voice their support in Los Angeles, London, Minneapolis, and New York City. Spence and the protesters of the Idle No More movement are drawing attention to deplorable conditions in native communities and the recent passage of Bill C-45, which sidesteps most Canadian environmental laws.

Put it this way: Before the passage of Bill C-45, 2.6 million rivers, lakes, and a good portion of Canada’s three ocean shorelines were protected under the Navigable Waters Act. Now, only eighty-seven are protected. That’s just the beginning of the problem, which seems not to have drawn much attention from the general public.

"Flash mob" protests with traditional dancing and drumming have erupted in dozens of shopping malls across North America, marches and highway blockades by aboriginal groups and supporters have emerged across Canada and as far away as New Zealand and the Middle East. This weekend, hundreds of native people and their supporters held a flash mob round dance, with hand drums and singing, at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, again as a part of the Idle No More protest movement. This quickly emerging wave of native activism on environmental and human rights issues has spread like a wildfire across the continent.

Prime Minister Harper’s push for tar sands and mining

A group of natives from Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, Ontario, pitched a pickup truck across the tracks of a Canadian National Railway spur and blocked train traffic Friday in support of the Idle No More protest in Ottawa. The blockade began just after Boxing Day, that famed Canadian holiday, and has continued.

The Aamjiwnaang blockade is one of hundreds. A center of controversy is the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would cost $6 billion and bring tar sands from Alberta to the Pacific. The pipeline will cross over 40 native nations, all of whom have expressed opposition. The legislative changes could expedite approval of this and many other projects—all of which are in aboriginal territories.

Canada often touts a sort of “better than thou” human rights position in the international arena

“Idle No More” is Canadian for “That’s enough BS, we’re coming out to stop you,” or something like that. Canada often touts a sort of “better than thou” human rights position in the international arena and has, for instance, a rather small military, so it’s not likely to launch any pre-emptive strikes against known or unknown adversaries, and has often sought to appear as a good guy, more so than its southern neighbor. More than a few American expatriates moved to Canada during the Vietnam war, and stayed there, thinking it was a pretty good deal.

That is sort of passé, particularly if you are a native person. And particularly if you are Chief Theresa Spence. Spence is the leader of Attawapiskat First Nation—a very remote Cree community from James Bay, Ontario, which is at the bottom of Hudson Bay. The community’s 1,549 on-reserve residents (a third of whom are under the age of 19) have weathered quite a bit, including the fur trade, residential schools, a status as non-treaty Indians, and limited access to modern conveniences such as toilets and electricity. This is a bit commonplace in the far north, but it has become exacerbated in the past five years.

Enter DeBeers, the largest diamond mining enterprise in the world. The company moved into northern Ontario in 2006. The Victor Mine reached commercial production in 2008 and was voted “Mine of the Year” by the readers of the international trade publication, Mining Magazine. The company states that it is “committed to sustainable development in local communities.” But this is where the first world meets the third world in the north, as Canadian MP Bob Rae discovered last year on his tour of the destitute conditions in the village. Infrastructure in the subarctic is in short supply. There is no road into the village eight months of the year; during the other four months, during freeze up, there’s an ice road. A diamond mine needs a lot of infrastructure. And that has to be shipped in, so the trucks launch out of Moosonee, Ontario. Then, they build a better road. The problem is that the road won’t work when the climate changes, and already stretched infrastructure gets tapped out.

There is some money flowing in, that’s for sure. A 2010 report from DeBeers states that payments to the eight communities associated with its two mines in Canada totalled $5,231,000 that year. Forbes magazine reports that diamond sales by the world’s largest diamond company “increased 33 percent, year-over-year, to $3.5 billion” and that DeBeers “reported record EBITDA of almost $1.2 billion, a 55 percent increase over the first the first half of 2010.”

As the Canadian Mining Watch group notes, “Whatever Attawapiskat’s share of that $5 million is, given the chronic underfunding of the community, the need for expensive responses to deal with recurring crises, including one that DeBeers themselves may have precipitated by overloading the community’s sewage system , it’s not surprising that the community hasn’t been able to translate its … income into improvements in physical infrastructure.” Last year, Attawapiskat drew international attention when many families in the Cree community were living in tents.

The Canadian aboriginal youth suicide rate is five times the national average.

The neighboring village of Kashechewan is in similar disarray. They have been boiling and importing water. The village almost had a complete evacuation due to health conditions, and as Alvin Fiddler, Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a regional advocacy network, told a reporter, “fuel shortages are becoming more common among remote northern Ontario communities right now.” That’s because the ice road used to truck in a year’s supply of diesel last winter did not last as long as usual. “Everybody is running out now. We’re looking at a two-month gap” until the ice road is solid enough to truck in fresh supplies, Mr. Fiddler said.

Kashechewan’s chief and council are poised to shut down the band office, two schools, the power generation center, the health clinic, and the fire hall because the buildings were not heated and could no longer operate safely. “In addition, some 21 homes had become uninhabitable,” according to Chief Derek Stephen. Those basements had been flooded last spring, as the weather patterns changed. (Just as a side note, in 2007, some 21 Cree youth from Kashechewan attempted to commit suicide, and the Canadian aboriginal youth suicide rate is five times the national average.)

Both communities are beneficiaries of an agreement with DeBeers.

The lost boys of Aamjiwnaang

Back at Aamjiwnaang, the Ojibwe have blockaded the tracks. Those are tracks that are full of chemical trains, lots of them. There are some 62 industrial plants in what the Canadian government calls Industrial Valley. The Aamjiwnaang people would like to call it home, but they’ve a few challenges in their house.

There’s a recent Men’s Health magazine article called, “The Lost Boys of Aamjiwnaang.” That’s because the Ojibwe Reserve of Aamjiwnaang has few boys. Put it this way: In a normal society, there are about l05 boys to l00 girls born. That’s the odds for a thousand years or so. However, at Aamjiwnaang, things are different.

Between 1993 and 2003, there had been two girls born for every boy in the tribal community, one of the steepest declines ever recorded in birth gender ratio. As the reporter for Men’s Health notes, “These tribal lands have become a kind of petri dish for industrial pollutants.”

The Ojibwe have faced a chronic dosage of chemicals for twenty-five years, and are concerned about the health impacts.

This trend is international, particularly in more industrialized countries , and the odd statistics at Aamjiwnaang are indicative of larger trends. The rail line known as the St. Clair spur, carries Canadian National and CSX trains to several large industries in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley. Usually four or five trains move through each day, all full of chemicals. The Ojibwe have faced a chronic dosage of chemicals for twenty-five years, and are concerned about the health impacts. They are also concerned about proposals to move tar sands oil through their community in a pre-existing pipeline known as Line Nine.

The Idle No More movement is further spurred by what Clayton Thomas Muller, a representative of the movement, calls “the extremist right wing government of Steven Harper,” a government that seems intent on selling the natural wealth of the Canadian (aboriginal) north to the highest bidders in a multinational market. The recent passing of the omnibus budget Bill C-45, which gutted thirty years of environmental legislation, was approved by the Senate in a 50-27 vote.

Aboriginal leaders charge the Conservative government with pushing the bill through without consulting them. They note the bill infringes on their treaty rights, compromises ownership of their land, and takes away protection for Canada’s waterways and most of the environment. Since Canada’s economy is largely based on exploiting natural resources at an alarming rate, moving into a leading position in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, fracking and lacing pristine water with cyanide for new mines, it’s convenient to gut the environmental laws. It’s also convenient to violate the international laws which are treaties.

Start seeing Indians

In the United States, the native community has been coming out in numbers and regalia to support the Canadian native struggle to protect the environment—drawing attention at the same time to similar concerns and issues here in the U.S. For instance, Ojibwe from the Keewenaw Bay Community in Michigan rallied against a Rio Tinto Zinc mine project, while Navajo protesters in Flagstaff, Ariz., continued opposing a ski project with manufactured snow at a sacred mountain.

“The first Nations are the last best hope that Canadians have for protecting land for food and clean water for the future,” said Pamela Paimeta, a spokesperson for Idle No More.

Pamela Paimeta, a spokesperson for the Idle No More movement in Canada, urges the larger community to see what is occuring across the country as a reality check.

“The first Nations are the last best hope that Canadians have for protecting land for food and clean water for the future,” she said. “Not just for our people but for Canadians as well. So this country falls or survives on whether they acknowledge or recognize and implement those aboriginal and treaty rights. So they need to stand with us and protect what is essential.”

Meanwhile , Chief Theresa Spence is still hoping to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging him to "open his heart" and meet with native leaders angered by his policies.

"He's a person with a heart but he needs to open his heart,” she said. “I'm sure he has faith in the Creator himself and for him to delay this, it's very disrespectful, I feel, to not even meet with us.”

The reality is that Attawapiskat, Aamjiwnaang, and Kashechewan are remote native communities that receive little or no attention until a human rights crisis of great proportion causes national shame.

Facebook and social media equalize access for those who never see the spotlight. (Just think of the Arab Spring). With the help of social media, the Idle No More movement has taken on a life of its own in much the same way the first "Occupy Wall Street" camp gave birth to a multitude of "occupy" protests with no clear leadership.

"This has spread in ways that we wouldn't even have imagined," said Sheelah McLean, an instructor at the University of Saskatchewan and one of the four women who originally coined the "Idle No More" slogan.

"What this movement is supposed to do is build consciousness about the inequalities so that everyone is outraged about what is happening here in Canada. Every Canadian should be outraged."

Actually, we all should be outraged, and Idle no More.