One of the co-founders of the Idle No More movement said the only thing she provided the people of Birdtail Sioux First Nation prior to a controversial vote on the construction of a new railway spur in the community was information.
At a speaking engagement last night at the Brandon Friendship Centre, Nina Wilson, one of four women who launched the Idle No More movement, said she was invited to Birdtail to speak to band members about the possible "devastating effects" on the land in the proposed project if it moved forward.
"My intention wasn’t to go there and derail anything," Wilson said. "My intention was to provide intensive education on the issues that people are facing and I provided some information on the resource exploitation that is happening."
Wilson, who set up shop in the local church, led community meetings about the potential ramifications of the development.
She said she informed the people that the information they were getting from then Chief Ken Chalmers was inaccurate and that most of the reserve land would be gobbled up by multinational companies.
"I asked where people are going to live if all there land is going to be up for lease," Wilson said.
The Birdtail business plan called for the construction of a two-kilometre stretch of track running along parcelled sections of reserve land — about 1,884 acres total — that would have been leased out to corporate partners. The spur could have been used to transport goods such as crude, cereals and building materials, moving the products to unserviced markets east, west, north and south of the reserve.
The deal would have had huge financial repercussions for the tiny aboriginal community, which is located about 130 km west of Brandon, as several corporations were lining up to get in on the potential economic benefits. Discussions had already been opened with oil corporations to construct a terminal at the site in order to take advantage of Manitoba’s growing energy sector.
However, in order for the plan to move forward, the land needed redesignation, which required a majority vote in the community.
In the past, reserves needed a majority vote from a majority of eligible voters in order to change land designations, but with the passing of federal Bill C-45 earlier this year, the Conservative government changed the Indian Act so that a simple majority ‘Yes’ from the voters who showed up was all that is necessary.
After the day-long vote on March 24, 121 Birdtail residents voted against the land designation change, while 62 voted in favour of the plan.
Wilson said there were discrepancies in what people heard the deal was and what was in the actual contract.
"The people made the choice they wanted to make and they needed the appropriate information. And why is that not happening?"
"We need to slow down and figure things out," she said. "There needs to be intensive research done. We have a lot to worry about when it comes to toxicity, pollution, the land designation and the way protections have been reduced to almost nothing."
The vote had political consequences for Chalmers as well, as three days later he was ousted from office by a similar number of votes, losing 128 to 59 to Nelson Bunn, with four others gathering votes.
"It wasn’t like I planned to go there to ruin anyone’s campaign or anything like that," Wilson said.
In an interview recently with the Sun, Chalmers said his campaign hinged on the spur and bringing economic development to the reserve.
"We’ve lost our ability to do business with our land in our community. We’re not open for business," Chalmers said. "We cannot open any kind of business on our community without designation."
The no vote makes it likely any company looking to do business with the reserve will now view the community as having an unstable business climate.
"My priority was economic development and the training of young people that wanted to work," Chalmers said. "Maybe I misunderstood because every time I went to a band meeting I kept hearing people saying ‘We need jobs,’ and ‘When are going to get the oil wells going?’ We got all of it going and the next thing you know ‘oil is dirty,’ so I was quite confused when the people voted no."
"I’m always optimistic, but right now it’s a devastating blow for the future of our people and our children."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 17, 2013