a, Opinion

Why Idle No More is good for Canada

It is easy for some to give in to a knee-jerk response to the Idle No More movement and regard it as a petty squabble over access to federal funds, or to look at Chief Theresa Spence’s four-week ‘hunger strike’ of water and fish broth, and see no hunger strike at all.

Right or wrong, this focus misses the point. Idle No More has grievances beyond the realms of funding, many of which are reasonable. The movement suffers from a marketing problem, namely a terrible spokesperson in First Nations Chief Theresa Spence. Although charges of corruption and embezzlement in the Attawapiskat First Nations community she leads have not been proven. Nevertheless, Spence’s fiscal management of her community to economic catastrophe, despite annual federal grants of more than $15 million, makes the entire movement vulnerable to ad-hominem attacks.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s omnibus Bill C-45 is the root of these protests. In his typically authoritarian manner, Harper has melded together a number of policy proposals into one behemoth piece of legislation. This has discredited media scrutiny of the unsavory aspects of the bill, and has restrained the ability of Conservative Party backbenchers to vote with their conscience. MPs against policies that would deteriorate environmental protections, for example, may vote for them if they are bundled with legislation that would benefit their own constituencies.

Lorraine Land, partner at OKT Barristers and Solicitors and a specialist in environmental and Aboriginal law, has made a list of the aspects of Bill C-45, along with other current Canadian legislative proposals, which negatively affect Indigenous peoples. While some of these points are tenuous, it is undeniable that Harper’s policies will have a negative effect on the environment.

Bill C-45 itself has scrapped environmental assessments required for the construction of infrastructure projects on bodies of water for the vast majority of Canada’s lakes and rivers, opening them up to potentially harmful practices. Bill C-38, another Harper omnibus bill, proposes a wider range of detrimental changes to environmental policy. These include increasing the ease with which Canadian companies can dump waste into the ocean and decreasing protections for a number of endangered species. An exhaustive list can be found on the website of the Green Party of Canada.

Environmental protection is highly important for most Indigenous peoples, whose histories and cultures tend to emphasize a spiritual connection to nature. Idle No More goes beyond environmental grievances, however, and centers on the sense of being left out by the government from decisions important to those affected. Bill C-428, for example, another recently proposed piece of federal legislation, has made fundamental changes to the Indian Act of 1876 with little to no consultation with the Indigenous peoples. When they speak about feeling overlooked or invisible, they are being absolutely sincere.

Many may argue that Canada’s Indigenous peoples, often seen as government-reliant, do not deserve a bargaining position equal to that of Ottawa. This may be a fair point, but Harper’s actions have a pattern to them. His attempt to run roughshod over Indigenous opinion in matters directly impacting them fits right in with his two prorogations of Parliament, his consistent suppression of scientific research, and his funding cuts to public organizations that dissent from the Conservative Party orthodoxy.

Changes to Canada’s environmental regulations may turn out to be necessary for its economic growth. All members of society tacitly accept the need for some trade-off between preserving the environment and attaining economic growth—even Canada’s Indigenous peoples. There is an increasing number of First Nations who agree to share in the profits of ventures that exploit the natural resources of their reserves, a trend that began with the Fort McMurray First Nation in northern Alberta.

The Idle No More protests, however, will force greater scrutiny in the changes proposed by the Conservative Party of Canada and will spark a public debate on the extent to which we are willing to accept those trade-offs. It is certainly refreshing to see Canada’s Indigenous peoples stand up and provide a roadblock both figuratively and very literally to Harper’s authoritarian style of governance.

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  1. Pingback: Why Idle No More Is Good for Canada | cedricsmithblog

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