Commentary on Idle No More movement (December 2012)

We must stand against omnibus changes to indigenous rights.

Canadians should take notice of the movement that has emerged from indigenous communities over the past few weeks.

What began as a protest against the Conservatives’ omnibus Bill C-45 in a few towns in Western Canada has grown into something much larger. Its slogan, splashed across social media, is “Idle No More”. The message is clear: indigenous peoples are not content with the condition of life on reserve, not content with the lack of progress in land claims and treaty-making, not content with being governed within the institutional prison that is the Indian Act and, above all, not content to wait any longer for the federal government to do something about it.

Indigenous peoples across the country are rallying around Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who has launched a hunger strike to protest the treatment of her people. Her experience is emblematic of the indigenous experience. Her community is desperately poor and shockingly under-serviced. She has had to seek redress within the bounds of the existing relationship between the federal government and First Nations — which must rank amongst the least effective governmental structures in the western world.

Accountability is at the centre of this issue.  Canadians cannot figure out why we have failed so badly at addressing social and economic challenges we’ve known about for so long. The problems are deeply rooted and cannot be properly addressed within the Indian Act, which makes chiefs accountable to the federal government, rather than their constituents. There is not an easy or small solution. We need to get serious here.

The worst thing for accountability is to do what the Conservatives have done, packaging loads of different measures into single omnibus bills.  First Nations are protesting Bill C-45 because of controversial and unilateral changes to environmental regulations, land and resource management, and to the Indian Act itself. There is so much going on inside the bill that it is virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to figure out just what, exactly, it does. Of course, that is precisely the point.

We should all stand with First Nations to demand immediate solutions to the challenges they face. We should also demand, together, a more fair, rational, and accountable system. Opposing the omnibus bills is a good place to start. But we need to do much more.  We need a serious, sustained dialogue between the federal government and indigenous communities. Together, we need to find practical and immediate ways for communities to take control, and finally end the shameful living conditions and compromised futures of so many of their people.