Canada: ‘Idle No More’

First Nations challenge Harper government’s resource exploitation

The Idle No More movement of First Nations (Canada’s indigenous people) is the biggest challenge to Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s right-wing agenda since he won a majority government in May 2011. Idle No More was started by four women in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in November 2012, with the first National Day of Action on 10 December. Just over a month later, there have been hundreds of rallies and demonstrations in every city and many smaller communities across Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the U.S. border to the North West Territories. The protests have also blocked border crossings to the U.S. and railway lines for several hours, with warnings of more to come. Because of the legal and strategic position of First Nations, although they are only 3% of the population, they have the potential to seriously derail Harper’s plans.

First Peoples and Canada

The relation between the settler governments of Canada and the First Peoples (who were in what became Canada before the colonization by European rulers), has always been difficult, if not harmful for the indigenous peoples. It has also not always been easy for the settler capitalist government of Canada. After all, the first two military actions of new Canadian government were in 1870 and 1885 against the Métis and First Nations on the prairies.

In many parts of Canada the First Nations signed agreements, or ‘treaties’, with the government of Canada or the British Crown before confederation in 1867. In these treaties the First Nations gave up most of their lands to the settlers and lost many rights to follow migrating animals and to fish in their traditional ways. In return the First Nations were granted some minor concessions, such as entitlement to some financial benefits and, in some cases, some off-reserve hunting and fishing rights. They retained a small portion of their former lands, held in common ownership (called a reserve) and they had the right to some decision-making on the reserve. This control was often undermined and changed by the government and its representatives.

Although they lost most of their lands, unlike many oppressed and minority groups around the world, the First Nations still had some land that was theirs, albeit with limits on their control. This gives them a space to organise and a base for their identity and defence. Control of territory is vital to a nation. Also importantly the treaties recognised the First Nation as an entity to be negotiated with by the Crown or government of Canada.

The Indian Act (first version passed in 1876) created the concept of ‘status Indians’, the definition of which restricted the number of people of First Nations descent that were entitled to some benefits in compensations for giving up their lands. In addition, there are non-status Indians and Métis who, although of aboriginal descent, have no rights under the Indian Act. Today there are nearly 900,000 status Indians, over 400,000 Métis and at least 200,000 non-status Indians. There have been and continue to be struggles and court cases about the definitions and rights of Métis and non-status Indians.

In recent years, there have been several new land agreements which, though differing from earlier treaties, have settled a land claim with some land and resources being granted to the control of Aboriginal people. These include the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, finalized in 1978, establishment of the territory of Nunavut in the Arctic for Inuit people in 1999, and the Nisga’a settlement of 2000 in British Colombia. There are also many outstanding, unsettled land claims.

The British and then Canadian rulers have, in various ways over the years, carried out systematic attempts to destroy First Nations as distinct peoples in Canada, by destroying their means of living, murder, smallpox, missionaries, residential schools, banning cultural events and undermining their languages. The Indian Act and its amendments attacked the Aboriginal people’s languages and banned their traditional cultural and religious activities. The Potlatch ceremonies, common to many First Nations, were declared illegal. To undermine any resistance, First Nations were barred from forming political organizations and under these rules First Nation leaders were jailed for trying to organize.

Aboriginal children (both First Nations and Inuit) were required to attend schools which were conducted in an alien culture. Many were removed from their families and societies and forced to attend residential, boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their native language, with severe punishment if they were caught uttering a single word. The schools were mostly run by religious organizations which imposed various forms of Christianity on the children. Many children were mistreated, some were forced-sterilised, and physical and sexual abuses were widespread. Children died in these schools; with estimates ranging from a few thousand to 50,000 – but the number is unknown because no one ever counted!

The aim of these policies was to ‘assimilate’ the First Nations, wiping them out as a separate group in Canadian society. As late as 1969, the Canadian government proposed to abolish the Indian Act and with it any unique status for First Nations in Canadian society. However, the opposition to this proposal was so great, it was never implemented.

In spite of all the attacks of the colonial governments, the First Nations survived and in recent decades the First Nations have begun to reverse their long decline. The potlatches were allowed after 1951; the residential schools declined from the 1960s with the last one closing in 1996. First Nations have worked to retain their surviving languages and revived and developed their cultures to accommodate the changed world they live in. They have asserted their rights to have a say over their lives and communities and to be part of shaping Canadian policies. Their population has recovered from the decimation which reduced their total population to less than 120,000 in 1921. Now they are the fasting growing section of the population of Canadian residents, and half of all First Nations are under the age of 25 years.

Conservatives’ agenda

In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper famously stated, “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it,” and he has been working to deliver that promise since getting a majority in the House of Commons. He has weakened environmental protections, forced workers in disputes back to work, cut taxes for the corporations and much more.

The Conservatives here are abandoning manufacturing – Canada has lost over 500,000 manufacturing jobs in a decade. They are also undermining jobs in the public services, the not-for-profit sector and retail. Former British Prime Minister Thatcher dreamed of an economy based on the finance sector; Harper dreams of an economy based on resource extraction and export. This is where they see profits – especially if the workers are low paid, temporary foreign workers without legal rights (as is proposed for a new coal mine in northern BC). Many of the minerals, oil, coal and gas that companies want to exploit lie under (or access to the resources passes through) land covered by treaties or land claims. Central to expanding resource extraction is the gutting of environmental regulations and overcoming the barriers of the First Nations’ treaty rights.

The Conservatives also would like to eventually see First Nations assimilated, with no unique status in Canada, and reserve land privatised and eventually broken up and sold off. Attacking the ownership and control of their land is central to destroying the First Nations.

Harper’s strategy has been to continue the long-established divide-and-rule between status and non-status, on-and off-reserve, First Nations and Métis, and between the different nations. He has also worked to cut deals with the more compliant leaders to open up their lands for resource extraction. Idle No More, however, has thrown in a big wrench in Harper‘s agenda for dealing with First Nations.

Attawapiskat and Chief Theresa Spence

Attawapiskat is a First Nation centred on a reserve in the far north of Ontario with a population on the reserve of about 1,800 people, with nearly 90% unemployment, which is only accessible by an ice road in winter and boat or airplane in summer. The cost of freight means everything there is very expensive. For example, it costs $250,000 to build a house. The Chief, Theresa Spence, made national news when in November 2011 she declared a state of emergency, as many houses lacked heating and families were sleeping in storage sheds, shacks or run-down trailers, often with no running water, while the temperature outside went as low as -40 Celsius.

Chief Spence demanded the federal government provide resources to deal with the problems. The Conservative’s response was to criticise the Band council and impose a third party manager, a private consultant, who was paid $1,300 per day from the council’s funds, to take over running the community. Since then, the federal government have sent in an auditor to inspect the council’s books to further divert attention from their own failures.

Attawapiskat illustrates the contrast between the wealth of resources being extracted and the poverty of many First Nations’ communities. Just 90 kilometres from the community is the DeBeer’s Victor diamond mine, which produces 600,000 carats worth of diamonds per year.

On December 11, 2012, Chief Theresa Spence started a hunger strike, only taking liquids, to demand that Stephen Harper and the Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Canada (as many treaties were signed with the Crown before the government of Canada was established) meet with First Nations’ leaders “because the treaty’s been violated [for] so many years and it’s time for the Prime Minister to honour the treaties and respect our leaders.”

Idle No More

In less than two months, Idle No More has gone from a few people to a movement that is rocking Canadian politics. This support has revealed the huge anger in the First Nations communities.

The initial demands were around Bill C-45, the Conservatives’ Omnibus bill, which they claim is about budget implementation which they pushed through Parliament using their majority, without any real debate. However the Bill amends over 60 laws and attacks many previous gains of the Canadian people, such as on pensions. The Bill changes the Indian Act so it will be easier to lease reserve land, even if most of the people on the reserve oppose it. The Bill also further weakens environmental laws in Canada further undermining the environmental assessment processes and removing 99% of all of Canada’s waterways from protection from construction, such as a pipeline or power line. Before C-45 was passed, over 2 million lakes and over 8,500 rivers were protected, now only 97 lakes and 62 rivers are protected.

The movement also flows from a host of other long-simmering issues. Reserves are some of the poorest places in Canada. Around 40% of reserves do not have clean safe running water. There are many battles over resource development. First Nations in BC are overwhelmingly opposed to the plans to build three pipelines for oil, bitumen and natural gas across the province, which will bring little or no economic benefits and the guarantee of environmental pollution. While some communities have had some benefits from resource extraction, many more are suffering, such as at Fort Chipewyan downstream of the Alberta Tar Sands.

The Idle No More movement has grown, and its demands have become focused. A key demand is that there are nation-to-nation relations between the First Nations and the Canadian government – something the Conservatives will do everything to resist as it challenges their entire agenda.

Initially, Harper totally ignored the Idle No More movement and Chief Spence’s hunger strike, as he thought he had enough First Nations leaders that he could cut deals with. He dismissed these movements from below, as many capitalist leaders often do as they judge movements by their official leaders.

However as Idle No More grew in support across the country, this pushed many chiefs to be more militant and demand change. The movement has opened up disagreements within the First Nations over strategy, but overall it is pushing more determined action. Under the growing pressure from Idle No More, Harper was forced to agree to meet the First Nations chiefs. However, a substantial number of chiefs refused to attend as they saw it as a talking shop; as the Manitoba chiefs said, “Unfortunately, the prime minister has been very dictatorial and unrelenting in his position to control and set the agenda for this meeting." So far, they are right. Harper has not moved on anything; he has just offered more talks.

Idle No More is a movement from the grassroots; it is not chiefs but ordinary First Nations. With half of all First Nations under the age of 25, the movement is youthful and energetic. It has also united status Indians across the country with non-status and Métis.

There is a mood of anger and determination among First Nations. Grand Chief Gordon Peters of Ontario said that aboriginal protesters will block major roads and rail lines in Ontario, if their demands are not met. Derek Nepinak, Manitoba Grand Chief, said Idle No More has enough people to "bring the Canadian economy to its knees. It can stop Prime Minister Harper’s resource development plan and his billion-dollar plan to develop resources in our ancestral territories. We have the warriors that are standing up now that are willing to go that far. So we’re not here to make requests. We’re here to demand attention and to demand an end to 140 years of colonial rule.”

No doubt, the young people of Idle No More have taken inspiration from Occupy and the Quebec students’ victory. They, in turn, are inspiring many other Canadians to fight back against the Conservatives.

What socialists say

Idle No More has gained widespread support from non-Aboriginal Canadians, who have been welcomed on the rallies, and on some demonstrations there have been union banners. As well as non-Native Canadians attending the rallies, they should encourage their organizations, especially unions and environmental groups, to also support the movement. The solidarity of non-Aboriginals is important to help the struggle and to show that many Canadians are opposed to the mistreatment of First Nations. First Nations, union members, environmentalists and others all have a common interest in defeating the Harper government.

Idle No More demands fundamental changes in the relation between the Canadian state and First Nations. However it is unlikely Harper and the Conservatives will agree to such change. While pushing this government, a growing number of Idle No More activists are realizing that Harper and his government have to go.

Socialist Alternative – Canada supports Idle No More. We recognize that a long-term solution requires replacing the present colonial state that serves the interest of capitalism. This state will always seek to exploit First Nations, workers and the environment to generate profits for the minority. We want a government that abides by and respects treaties and resource rights. We support the right to self-determination and self-government for all Aboriginal peoples. Canada should become a voluntary socialist association of the Canadas – including First Nations, Inuit and Quebec, as well as the majority in English speaking Canada.


• Aboriginal: The descendants of the original inhabitants of North America. The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal people — Indians, Métis and Inuit.

• Status Indian: A person who is registered as an Indian under the Indian Act.

• Non-Status Indian: An Indian person who is not registered as an Indian under the Indian Act.

• Inuit: Aboriginal people in Northern Canada, with a distinct culture and technologies from other Aboriginals in Canada (formerly called ‘Eskimo’)

• Métis: People of mixed First Nation and European ancestry who identify themselves as Métis,

• First Nation: Although First Nation has no legal definition, it is widely used to replace the word "Indian", which is seen as derogatory and incorrect. It is used to describe their community and their organization. "First Nations peoples" refers to the both Status and non-Status.

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January 2013