- by Beth Ditzel
The title of this article derives from the first line of the Canadian national anthem: ‘O Canada, Our home and native land’. From what I’ve learnt from my classes at the University of Ottawa, and the “Idle No More” movement that is currently sweeping the country, it that this ‘Native land’ is not ours, but theirs; the Indigenous peoples. Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is situated on unceded Algonquin territory; land that was never given by the Natives to the government. So what is “Idle No More”? In November 2012, in reaction to the proposed Bill C-45 that many claim violates treaty rights given to First Nations peoples, #idlenomore appeared on twitter, and has not disappeared since. It is the name given to the grassroots movement that has united First Nations, Metis, Inuit and non-Aboriginals in protest against Bill C-45, as well as demanding recognition of the importance of Aboriginal cultural heritage and the protection of Canada’s natural environment. The movement gained significant public attention after Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation started a hunger strike, demanding a meeting Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Governor General.
Studying at uOttawa has given me a unique perspective on these events; being located in the centre of the country’s capital gives the students a front row seat to every political event, and the university itself has a major Aboriginal studies programme. One of my classes is taught by both a Huron elder and a Mohawk elder, and the Latin American History class I take is taught by Marcelo Saavedra-Vargas, of the Quechua-Aymara people of Bolivia, who began our first class with a traditional welcoming ceremony. These classes have made the other students and myself more aware of the attempts to eradicate any indication of Native significance in Canada in modern society. In 2012, the old $20 bill was scrapped and out with went the Government’s only recognition of indigenous culture, replacing the Aboriginal ‘Spirit of Haida Gwaii’ image with a Canadian War Memorial. This year, Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization, containing incredible examples of Native art, will change its name and focus to the Museum of History; making its Aboriginal contents precisely what the majority of the Western world see them to be; history.
However, “Idle No More” hasn’t stopped trending, and Canadian Aboriginals have gained support from their counterparts as far away as Australia. I attended two rallies in the previous weeks; the first of which ‘occupied’ a building on campus with a traditional ‘rounddance’ and the second involved thousands converging on Parliament Hill to bring the issue to the front lawn of the Canadian government. Even as I write this, hiding from a blizzard and -30 conditions, there are dozens walking past the window holding Mohawk flags, returning from today’s march on Parliament. Although this week Chief Spence’s hunger strike finished after 6 weeks, the movement is far from over. I remember a first year Canadian studies essay question asking ‘Have Aboriginals gained a voice within society?’, and only know do I think that I can begin to understand that question. After 520 years of injustice and subjugation since European arrival, and a modern era of the horrors of the residential schools, forgotten treaties and poverty stricken reserves, 2013 could finally be the year in which their voices will be heard, and hopefully, they will be heard loudly.