Pam Palmater — the runner-up to Sean Atleo in last summer's Assembly of First Nations' election — says that the Idle No More protest is only going to get bigger thanks to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s "aggressive 'assimilatory'" agenda.
In an email exchange with Yahoo! Canada News on Wednesday, the Mi'kmaq lawyer and Chair of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University gave us her take about what the Idle No More movement was all about and where this is all going.
She also offered her opinion as to why Chief Theresa Spence — who is currently on a hunger strike in order to meet with Harper — would reject to an audience with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and Aboriginal Senator Patrick Brazeau, both of whom requested meetings over the Christmas break.
Here are some of the excerpts from our email exchange:
Y! Canada News: Idle No More started as a protest against the Tories' latest omnibus budget bill. It seems to have morphed into something much bigger. Has it? What is it all about now?
Palmater: Idle No More was against Bill C-45 and all of the legislation being imposed on First Nations without their knowledge and consent. This amounts to about 14 pieces of legislation in total that directly impact First Nations rights, interests, lands, waters, governments and communities in a wide variety of ways.
In general, Idle No More was opposition to the immediate threat before us – Prime Minister Harper’s aggressive 'assimilatory' legislative plan meant to break up our communities and assimilate First Nations peoples. It also was opposition to the substantial funding cuts to our political and advocacy organizations and communities that were designed to silence our voices when the legislation was brought into fruition.
But there is a bigger dimension to this as well – there has to be a fundamental shift in the relationship between Canada and First Nations that recognizes our sovereignty and jurisdiction over our own lives and one which respects the Nation to Nation relationship which stems from our treaties.
A treaty promise was made that both treaty partners would enjoy the wealth and prosperity of our lands. So far only Canada has benefited from our lands and resources, while many of our First Nations live in multiple, over-lapping crises like youth suicides, poor health, over-representation in child and family services and prisons, hundreds of murdered and missing Indigenous women, deaths in police custody...
Canadians need to realize that we are their last best hope at saving the lands, waters, plants, animals and resources for future generations because our Aboriginal and treaty rights are constitutionally protected.
We have the power to stop Harper’s destruction of our farmable lands and clean waters. We are not just doing this for us, we are doing this for all of our future generations because if we can’t use the lands or drink the waters, Canadians won’t be able to either.
Y! Canada News: Are you surprised at how big this has gotten?
Palmater: I am not surprised at all because we have been working on this at the grassroots level for a very long time. You’ll notice there have been more and more protests at pipelines, tar sands and other environmentally destructive projects that cross Indigenous territories.
Well, we have been watching all government activities – from resource development to legislative and policy changes to what’s happening on the international scene. We take that information and try our best to keep First Nations leaders and grassroots citizens informed about what is happening, what the impacts could be and what to do about it.
This grassroots movement is a reaction to the imminent threat before us (legislation, funding cuts and aggressive resource development) and taking action. I believe this movement will continue to get bigger as we reach more and more communities about the impacts of Harper’s plans.
Y! Canada News: Over the last few days, Chief Spence has turned away requests to meet by the Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and Senator Patrick Brazeau. Why do you think she did that?
Palmater: I do not officially speak for Chief Spence, so you would have to ask for her personal position directly, but my analysis is that the reason for her hunger strike was also to oppose the legislation and funding cuts, but more significantly, to demand a change in the relationship that would implement our treaties – which she explained in her press release would start with a Nation to Nation meeting between Canada (the Prime Minister), the treaty signatory (Governor-General, a representative of the Queen) and First Nation Leaders.
A Nation to Nation meeting is NOT, in my opinion, a meeting with federal bureaucrats and political organizations – neither of which have anything to do with treaties.
Based on the facts to date, Chief Spence has never refused a meeting with Minister Duncan, Minister Duncan has refused to go and visit her. He knows where she is, everyone does! Chiefs, grassroots people, actors, Members of Parliament, and the media have all been to visit her on Victoria Island. He could have gone to see her any time. He chooses not to and instead tries contacting her band which she is not there, or makes public calls when she does not have a TV in her teepee. These are all performances, not any real effort.
I think just about every First Nation in Canada would understand why Chief Spence would refuse to meet with Senator Brazeau. Most First Nations consider him to be a “traitor” – many have argued that he used his position as former President of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples to very publicly condemn First Nations and win favour with the Conservatives and then got Senate seat for his efforts.
Many feel that he has used his Senate seat to actively work against First Nations and publicly disrespect the First Nations leaders and experts that appear before Senate to testify. Specifically to Chief Spence, Brazeau has been publicly critical of her hunger strike, saying she is setting a bad example and thus I am not surprised at all if her security refused to let him in.
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