Support Pours In As 'Idle No More' Movement Steams Ahead

Rail blockades, street protests, flash mobs and an ongoing hunger strike give fuel to indigenous rights campaign in Canada

The indigenous rights movement Idle No More continued its national campaign on Wednesday, holding demonstrations at shopping malls across Canada, blocking streets in major cities, and maintaining a rail blockade with promises of more.

Leveraging the large public crowds on Boxing Day, First Nations protesters held rallies and flash mobs challenging the recent changes to the federal Indian Act--contained in an omnibus piece of legislation, Bill C-45--which the group says undermines previously agreed to treaties, threatens their communities, and harms the natural environment for all Canadians.

Flash Mob round dance Marlborough Mall Calgary

As part of the ongoing and growing movement, Atiwapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence has been on a hunger strike since December 11th, resolved to starve herself to death unless Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets to discuss treaty rights and Canada's relationship with its indigenous peoples.

The movement has also spurred the blockade of a CN Rail line in Sarnia, Ontario.

Flash mobs at busy shopping malls, which featured traditional round dances and drums, were reported across the country, including in Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Ragina and elsewhere with hundreds of individuals involved at each location.

In Vancouver, as CTVreports, protesters blocked traffic on Burrard and Robson Streets, which were busy with shoppers and pedestrians.

The Edmonton Journalreports on the local protest there:

Nearly 100 people sang and danced in a flash mob round dance at West Edmonton Mall on Wednesday afternoon, the latest action in the Idle No More movement.

The traditional Aboriginal dance took place around the Ice Palace inside the mall on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Those taking part gathered in support of Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike, which entered day 16 Wednesday in protest of Bill C-45, which challenges First Nations treaty rights.

"I'm out here for my son," said Fawn Wood of the Saddle Lake First Nation. "It doesn't just affect us, it affects all of Canada. As First Nations people it's our obligation to protect our land, not just for First Nations but for all of Canada."

Drumming began at noon as participants across the ice rink sang and cheered on the drummers.

"This is not only for the natives, it's going to affect everybody." said Violet Campio from the Driftpile First Nation.

A separate protest also blocked a local highway for a period Wednesday afternoon.

"Until [Harper] and meets with Chief Spence, this will continue, road blocks will continue," Elder Taz Boucher told the Journal. "It's OK to be loud."

Support Growing for First Nations Blockade of CN Rail Line in Sarnia (Leader Post):

SARNIA, Ont. - A member of a southwestern Ontario First Nation blockading a CN Rail line in Sarnia says gestures of support are flooding in as the protest reaches its fifth day.

Ron Plain of the Aamjiwnaang (AWN'-ja-nong) First Nation says donations such as blankets and food and other offers of help are coming in from within the province and from as far away as California as word spreads through social media. [...]

Sarnia police have said they won't move to stop the blockade unless there is a safety risk.

Demonstrators say the blockade will continue until Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with Attiwapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. The leader of the northern Ontario First Nation is on a hunger strike in Ottawa to bring attention to aboriginal issues.

Meanwhile, members of two First Nations near Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario have posted a message on Facebook saying they plan to launch their own rail blockade on Thursday to back Spence.

Plain says there is an "air of excitement" at the Sarnia blockade, with Aamjiwnaang youth -- who started the protest Friday as part of the national Idle No More movement -- building snowmen along the tracks.

"The resolve of the community seems to be deepening," Plain said, adding the demonstration is "turning into a community event as opposed to a blockade."

The protest has seen dozens huddle around tents, tables and vehicles, shutting off rail access to several chemical plants.

"We've got people coming in from all over Ontario. We've got people coming in from the United States to sit in," Plain added.



How the Idle No More movement started and where it might go from here (National Post):

What exactly is Idle No More?

Conceived in November by four Saskatchewan women frustrated with the Tories' latest omnibus budget bill, Idle No More is a First Nations protest movement looking to obtain renewed government guarantees for treaty agreements and halt what organizers see as a legislative erosion of First Nations rights. The movement's most visible spokeswoman is Theresa Spence, chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, the Northern Ontario reserve struck by an emergency housing crisis last year. Since Dec. 11, Ms. Spence has been on a hunger strike while camped on an Ottawa River island only a few hundred metres from Parliament Hill, vowing not to eat until she has secured a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Since early December, protests spurred by Idle No More have included a 1,000-person demonstration on Parliament Hill last week, a blockade of a CN rail spur near Sarnia that continued for a sixth day on Wednesday and a variety of brief demonstrations and blockades across Canada and parts of the United States.

The crux of the protest is ensuring that treaty rights are respected. Are treaty rights being disrespected?

Ontario, the three Prairie Provinces as well as large parts of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories all sit on land that First Nations people signed over to Canada in exchange for a package of government guarantees. Treaty 9, the 1905/1906 treaty signed the people of Attawapiskat, for instance, guarantees that, in perpetuity, First Nations would receive "benefits that served to balance anything that they were giving." The treaty also guaranteed total Aboriginal control over reserve lands. Idle No More organizers point to the disastrous state of Aboriginal health and living conditions on First Nations reserves and allege that these treaty rights are not being properly honoured -- and that current attempts to amend the Indian Act will only erode existing Aboriginal rights. "Canada has not committed itself to addressing the colonial relationship it still has with indigenous peoples," wrote Metis blogger Chelsea Vowel earlier this month. "I think it's fair to say that most Canadians believe that kind of relationship no longer exists. We are trying to tell you that you are wrong."

How wide is support for the protests among Canada's First Nations?

Not all First Nations protests are created equal. In the past, several high-profile demonstrations such as the 2007 blockade of Ontario's Highway 401 or Aboriginal protests surrounding the 2010 Vancouver Olympics were conducted by fringe groups with little or no official ties to the groups they claimed to represent. Idle No More's protests, on the other hand, have received the official backing of First Nations groups and leaders across Canada, including Assembly of First Nations grand chief Shawn Atleo, who has often been noted for advocating close co-operation between Aboriginals and the Tory government.

David Suzuki Foundation letter of support for Idle No More (read the full letter here):

The commitments laid out in the UN Declaration and in subsequent promises by Canadian governments to Aboriginal communities across the country cannot be taken lightly. Canadian and international experts, and well-respected human-rights organizations, such as Amnesty International , have found that Canada's Aboriginal peoples suffer unacceptable risks to their health and wellbeing from poverty, poor housing, and ongoing environmental degradation of their lands and waters.

For example, the David Suzuki Foundation recently released a study of industrial resource tenures in the Peace Region of northeastern BC on the lands of First Nations that are signatories to Treaty 8 . The study found that forestry, energy, and mineral tenure concessions to industry are widespread and often multilayered in the same area. More than 65 per cent of the region has now been impacted by industrial development and too little intact wildlife habitat remains to sustain local First Nations communities and their activities such as subsistence hunting of caribou.

Similar environmental impacts are being felt in other Aboriginal communities across the country.

For this reason, the David Suzuki Foundation believes that Canada's efforts towards improving the wellbeing of Aboriginal peoples must be guided by our commitments under the UN Declaration, including obtaining free, prior and informed consent when it comes to resource development on lands and waters that have sustained Aboriginal communities for millennia.

The growing Idle No More movement was sparked by concern over the weakening of environmental laws and undermining of Aboriginal governance with Bill C-45. Along with the ongoing hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence, this is evidence that despite old lofty commitments, Canada must do far more to engage First Nations, Inuit and Metis in a manner that is respectful and conducive to reconciliation.

The David Suzuki Foundation urges you to meet with Chief Spence and other First Nations leaders to address their immediate concerns pertaining to poor housing, chronic underfunding, lack of safe water and other pressing issues, and to initiate a dialogue on the concrete actions that are necessary to ensure that Canada effectively promotes and protect the rights of Aboriginal peoples, including the right to a healthy environment.

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