Idle No More – Canada’s indigenous citizens fight for their rights

Claudia Tomlinson writes for Left Foot Forward on the relatively unknown, but no less unjust, treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada.

Canada is an extremely beautiful country, regularly featuring in lists of the best places in the world to live. Along with Australia, and New Zealand, it is a popular emigration destination for the British people, along with others from around the world.

But it also has an ugly, hidden underbelly, one that you will not see in its promotional videos designed to boost its already booming tourist industry.

The story of indigenous people: the First Nations, the Inuits, and Métis, is one of poverty, unemployment, slum housing, high crime, mental illness, substance misuse (particularly alcohol abuse), and poor educational attainment.

As Chart 1 below shows, only 8 per cent of indigenous people obtain a university degree compared with 23% of non-indigenous people, and 34% of working age adults between 25 and 64 years of age, have not completed a high school diploma, according to the 2006 Canadian Census, Ottawa.

Chart 1:

From the 1880s, the indigenous people of Canada suffered what is commonly regarded as genocide through the deaths of approximately 50,000 First Nations children compulsorily taken from their families and communities and placed in government residential schools.

Those that did not die suffered brutal lives of physical and sexual abuse, under the auspices of the Catholic Church, which sought to impose a curriculum which forbade the speaking of aboriginal languages, or any cultural practice – in other words a forced process of assimilation into mainstream, Eurocentric cultural ideals.

The last of these schools closed in 1996, and following the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, prime minister Stephen Harper, in Parliament, issued an apology to the Aboriginal people.

In December 2012, communicated largely through the social media of blogging, Twitter, and Facebook, the Idle No More campaign was born, and has spread rapidly throughout Canada, with awareness raised in America, Europe, and beyond. Although it was sparked by the passage of legislation in December that will impact the land rights and historical treaties of indigenous peoples, the activism was a very long time in the making.

The Arab uprisings and the Occupy movement appear to have seeped into the consciousness of indigenous Canadians to precipitate this action.

A year ago, Canada was shamed on an international stage when the Red Cross had to step in to bring relief during a humanitarian crisis in the First Nation community of Attawapiskat. Poverty, deprivation, substandard and overcrowded housing, and poor sanitation in Attawapiskat is the story of many reserves in Canada.

Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper promptly accused the reserve management of budgetary mismanagement and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs appointed a third party manager to oversee the reserve’s finances. This was successfully challenged in court by the reserve Chief, Theresa Spence.

Idle No more has been a phenomenally successful campaign of grassroots activism involving demonstrations, flash mobs in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, rail blockades, and drawing the attention of the international media. The centrepiece of the campaign is the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence, started on December 11th, demanding a meeting with Premier Stephen Harper.

Opposition MPs have visited her, and she has been offered and declined a meeting with the incompetent Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, John Duncan.

Academic, lawyer and First Nation activist Pam Palmater, is one of the driving forces behind the media campaign and vows the campaign will continue to grow and escalate until the demands of Idle No More are met; for Stephen Harper, the stakes are high and his stance of refusing to meet face to face with leaders of the campaign, and instead threatening the rule of law, means there are surely turbulent times ahead for Canada, on the road to Indigenous Justice.

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