There is no denying that the Idle No More movement has taken on a life of its own, and in the process, has lost some clarity along the way — if it indeed ever had clarity.
The movement started, according to the National Post, as a series of teach-ins on a small Saskatchewan reserve, though it has since ballooned into a national movement that is now receiving international attention.
As such, it has faced significant growing pains as the founders of the movement earlier this week distanced themselves from native chiefs who claim to be acting on behalf of the campaign. This, even as activists called for an escalation of action and blockades of border crossings “to show the government that we are willing to escalate this to a point where we shut down the country.”
That kind of radical thinking will not help the situation, especially when a large segment of the Canadian public — and not just federal politicians — see this movement, rightly or wrongly, as an overreaction by First Nations chiefs to the fact that the Conservative government is taking action to make significant changes to the Indian Act.
It has been suggested that the focus of the Idle No More movement originated through opposition to bill C-45, the government’s budget implementation bill, which will make changes to environmental laws and the Indian Act.
Among the Indian Act changes is a provision that would allow aboriginal people to sell or lease their land to non-native people and businesses through a majority community vote. Among treaty First Nations, the fear at the grassroots level seems to be that this legislation would give chiefs and councils the ability to sell land out from under the band membership, and would also possibly violate treaty rights.
It’s the government’s stance that making it easy for bands to sell or lease reserve land would be an economic benefit for these communities, though to our mind government officials have not sufficiently made that argument to rank and file First Nation members.
The Tories are also attempting to create the First Nations Education Act, which would force reserve schools to have a regular reporting system, provide dispensation for kids who fall behind and provide a way to discipline teachers.
At the same time, and at the urging of groups such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the government has declared that all band salaries for chief and council be made public.
These changes have raised the ire of First Nations groups who claim that the government is imposing its will on Canadian aboriginals without sufficient consolation.
Nothing comes of nothing, so we believe there is some truth to that assertion. Had the Conservative government shown a little more nuance in its dealings with groups like the Assembly of First Nations and individual aboriginal organizations, Idle No More may never have existed. Indeed, by moving forward somewhat unilaterally on legislative changes, our federal leaders have hurt their own cause — one that we believe to be just in this case.
Already, through a government spokesman, the Harper government has signaled to First Nations that he expects “the rule of law to be unheld.” While we happen to agree with keeping the rule of law, this was a clumsy way of addressing the situation.
We aren’t suggesting Harper to give in to every demand exacted by aboriginal leadership, or even meet with Attawapiskat’s hunger striking chief, Theresa Spence. But it does mean every effort needs to be made to reach out to that leadership when major changes are in the offing.
The Indian Act cannot remain as it stands. It is a flawed piece of legislation that has damaged relations between Canada and First Nations for generations. The Harper government already made a large show of apologizing for the residential school debacle and promised a new way forward for aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.
Unfortunately, the new ways look far too much like the old way.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 4, 2013