by Dr Steve Hewitt
Over the last few weeks, unprecedented indigenous protest has erupted across Canada involving thousands of people. Roads and railway lines have been blocked; protest marches have occurred in a number of Canadian cities; sit-ins have been a regular feature at Canadian universities; and one chief, Theresa Spence, launched a high profile and controversial hunger strike in an effort to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston, the latter representing Queen Elizabeth as Canadian head of state.
Many of the protests have been organized under the banner of a movement called Idle No More, which a group of indigenous women began in Saskatchewan in November 2012. The movement, particularly popular among indigenous youth, has used social media to spread the word with Idle No More chapters appearing even outside of Canada; one in the United Kingdom conducted protests outside the Canadian High Commission on Trafalgar Square on 18 January.
The target for the anger is the Conservative government of Stephen Harper and what many indigenous people see as efforts to both undermine and not live up to existing treaty rights. Although in theory part of the tradition of British-style Tory governments in Canada, Harper in reality emerged from a western Canadian right-wing populist protest movement called the Reform Party that electorally decimated traditional Conservatives in western Canada beginning in the 1990s. Eventually, the parties merged although in reality the Reform Party dominated with an American-style conservatism virtually eliminating traditional British-style conservatism in the process.
One of the key intellectual fathers of this new movement is a political scientist, Tom Flanagan, an-American born professor at the University of Calgary. Flanagan has a long record of challenging the rights of First Nations, including in his 2000 book First Nations? Second Thoughts. Indeed, some ACS students may remember reading a piece by Flanagan in Introduction to Canadian Studies that puts forward similar arguments as the book. Essentially, Flanagan advocates neo-liberal solutions to the problems of indigenous people through greater integration (what critics would call assimilation) into the capitalist economy including by encouraging individual property rights on communally owned reserves. He expanded on the importance of private property as a solution to the problems of indigenous people in a 2008 co-authored book, Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights. Although an academic, Flanagan has in the past had strong ties to the current Conservative Party and Stephen Harper. He managed, for instance, Harper’s successful party leadership campaign in 2003 and the party’s national election campaign in 2004.
What indigenous protesters have objected to are bills or elements in bills that the Harper government have introduced since gaining a majority government in the 2011 election. Idle No More has identified the following bills as having either an impact on indigenous people without them having been consulted or as being a direct threat to indigenous sovereignty:
- Bill C-38 (Budget Omnibus Bill #1)
- Bill C-45 (Budget Omnibus Bill #2)
- Bill C-27 First Nations Financial Transparency Act
- Bill S-2 Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Right Act
- Bill S-6 First Nations Elections Act
- Bill S-8 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations
- Bill C-428 Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act
- Bill S-207 An Act to amend the Interpretation Act
- Bill S-212 First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill
- “First Nations” Private Ownership Act
Several of the bills are large pieces of legislation that don’t directly focus on indigenous people but which contain elements that may affect them. Bill C-45, for example, affects navigable waterways, some of which flow through the land of indigenous people. Other pieces of legislation, however, are specifically directed against indigenous people. A Flanaganesque proposed property ownership bill would introduce indigenous-owned private property on communal reserves. Some critics see the proposed legislation as a Canadian version of the Dawes Act that the United States government introduced in the late 19th century in an effort to assimilate indigenous people through individual land ownership . While not succeeding at that, it did lead to the loss of indigenous land. Between 1887 when the Dawes Act was introduced and 1934 when the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended it, indigenous owned land dropped from 560,000 square kilometres to 190,000 square kilometres.
The approach of the Harper government combined with the anger of indigenous people after centuries of mistreatment, such as the Indian Act, residential schools, the theft of land and natural resources without compensation, and general racism, means there is the strong potential for the protests to escalate further. Although arguably not as a bad in historical terms as the way indigenous people have been treated in Australia and the United States, too often non-indigenous Canadians have relied on these comparisons as a convenient way of avoiding acknowledging Canada’s own mistreatment of indigenous people, both in the past and present. Canadians should be grateful that indigenous people have chosen peaceful means to articulate lengthy and legitimate grievances. Their protests need to be met by listening instead of dictating and by making credible efforts to correct historical and on-going injustices.
Dr Steve Hewitt is a senior lecturer in American and Canadian Studies.