Idle No More: Native Peoples Challenge Canada's Gutting of Environmental Laws

As Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence enters her fourth week on a hunger strike outside the Canadian capital building, thousands of protesters in Los Angeles, London, Minneapolis and New York City, voice their support.

Spence and the protesters of the Idle No More Movement are drawing attention to some deplorable conditions in Native communities, and recently passed legislation 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 to have not drawn much attention by 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 across Canada and supporters have emerged from as far away as New Zealand and the Middle East.

Recently, hundreds of Native people and their supporters held a flash mob round dance, with hand drum singing, at the Mall of America, 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.

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

The Aamjiwnaang blockade is one of hundreds, drawing attention to recent legal changes in Canadian law, which eliminate many environmental regulations. A center of controversy is the $6 billion tar sands pipeline to the Pacific, which 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.

"Idle No More" is Canadian for: "That's Enough BS. We're Coming Out to Stop You."

Canada often touts a sort of " better than thou" human rights position in the international arena. And it has, for instance, a rather small military, so it's not likely to launch any pre-emptive strikes against known or unknown adversaries. And it has often sought to appear as a good guy, more so than it's southern neighbor. More than a few American ex patriots moved to Canada during the Vietnam war, and stayed there, thinking it was a pretty good deal.

That attitude is sort of passe , 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, at the bottom of Hudson Bay. The community's 1,549 residents (a third of whom are under l9) have weathered quite a bit: the fur trade, residential schools, a status as non-treaty Indians, and limited access to modern conveniences -- like a toilet, or maybe electricity. This is a bit commonplace in the north, but it has become exacerbated in the past five years, with the advent of a huge diamond mine.

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." This is good to know.

Hudson Bay 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 rather destitute conditions of the village. Infrastructure in the Sub Arctic is in short supply. There is no road into the village eight months of the year, four months a year, 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 the already stretched infrastructure gets tapped out.

There is some money flowing in. A 2010 report from DeBeers states that payments to eight communities associated with its two mines in Canada totalled $5,231,000 that year. Forbes Magazine reports record diamond sales by the world's largest diamond company "increased 33 percent, year-over-year, to $3.5 billion....The mining giant, which produces more than a third of the world's rough diamonds, also reported record (earnings) 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 under-funding 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 neighboring Kaschewan Village is in similar disarray. They have been boiling and importing water. The village almost had a complete evacuation due to health conditions, and "fuel shortages are becoming more common among remote northern Ontario communities right now," Alvin Fiddler, Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a regional advocacy network explained to a reporter. 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 this winter's ice road is solid enough to truck in fresh supplies, Mr. Fiddler said in an interview.

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.

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.

"If the prime minister will not listen to our words, perhaps he'll pay attention to our actions," Chief Chris Plain explained to the media. 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.

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 l993 and 2003, there had been two girls born for every boy to the tribal community, one of the steepest declines ever recorded in birth gender ratio. As one reporter notes, "these tribal lands have become a kind of petri dish for industrial pollutants. And in this vast, real-time experiment, the children of Aamjiwnaang (AHM-ju-nun) are the lab rats. I might have written 'boys of Aamjiwnaang,' but actually, there are a lot fewer of them around to experiment on.

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 CN and CSX trains to several large industries in Sarnia's Chemical Valley. Usually four or five trains move through a 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 rightwing 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, gutting 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 green house 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 that are treaties.

In the U.S., 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. For instance, Ojibwe from the Keewenaw Bay Community in Michigan rallied against a Rio Tinto Zinc mine project, and Navajo protesters in Flagstaff continued opposing a ski project with manufactured snow at a sacred mountain.

Pamela Paimeta, a spokesperson for the Idle No More movement in Canada, urges the larger community to see what is occurring 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, not just for our people but for Canadians as well," she says. "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." She adds: "It's very disrespectful, I feel, to not even meet with us."

The reality is that Attawapiskat, Aamjiwnaang and Kashachewan, are remote Native communities, which receive little or no attention, until a human rights crisis of great proportion causes national shame. Facebook and social media change and 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, 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.

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