dinsdag 11 december 2012


Photo taken from HuffingtonPost Canada
In Canada, the natives are restless. In the likely case you haven’t heard, last Monday, thousands of people, mostly of First Nations descent, protested in more than a dozen major cities throughout Canada. The so-called Idle No More protests were aimed against changes in laws that would, in the protesters’ view, fundamentally affect their way of life. The Idle No More protests did not make the big international news services, and what’s more, it hardly made the mainstream Canadian news.

So what?

On the face of it, this is nothing out of the ordinary: citizens use their democratic rights to protest, and people protest all the time. Yet if we look at the bigger picture of what’s happening in Canada, a spontaneous and widespread protest of First Nations people becomes more interesting. We’re talking oil, land, and water here, with First Nations right in the middle.

With the massive exploitation of the tar sands taking off in Alberta, Canada has been transforming into a major oil producing nation, thereby also transforming relations between the First Nations, who live on top of the tar sands, and the federal government. Canada’s government, led by the Conservative Stephen Harper, is introducing a package of measures which includes changes to laws that will expedite access to tar sands, and transport of oil and gas through Canada. The laws will facilitate enormous expansion of the tar sands oil production and hugely impact on the lives of First Nations.

In this light, First nations protests throughout Canada, aiming to stop precisely that which lies at the heart of the Conservative governments’ policies, deserve more attention they have been receiving. Add to that the fact that Monday's protests were organized by Idle No More, an organization which did not even exist a few weeks ago, an indication of the frustrations of many people, whether they are First Nations or not.

So what exactly has been going on?

Alberta’s Bonanza: Tar Sands
Many non-Canadians will have only vague notions of the so-called tar sands (or oil sands) that have been discovered, and which are now being exploited, in Canada’s province of Alberta. The reserves are huge, and the amount of money that can be made –potentially- in an otherwise economically unproductive region is enormous. The Economist wrote that the reserves are worth 15.7 trillion dollars (!), astronomical amounts by any standards.
Taken from Wikipedia

Extracting the oil from the tar sands is cumbersome and rather messy. I won’t bother you with the details (but check here and here), but getting the oil out often means stripping the land of trees and top soil, and even if this is not done, the other methods are also messy and energy intensive. The environmental impact, regardless of the specific method used to get oil out of the sand, is huge.

When the oil has been extracted, it needs to be transported through pipelines, which are uniformly unpopular, and which invariably run over First Nations land. A prime example is the protest against a proposed pipeline running from Alberta to Kitimat, on the British Columbian coast, the Enbridge pipeline. Protests against tar sands development and construction of pipelines abound, and not just from First Nations.

Bill C-45
With the amounts of money involved, it is hard to imagine that Canada’s First Nations, which account for less than four per cent of the population, and their supporters, can stop the development of the tar sands. On the contrary, Canada’s government has been taking steps to fundamentally alter its relationship with the First Nations, which would make it much easier to gain access to land and navigable rivers, in other words, to get to the tar sands and then move the oil to America. The First Nations, which had hitherto been on the mental and geographical margins of Canada, have now been catapulted centre stage, where they are getting in the way of economic development that the government so desires. Hence, Harper's steps to change the government's relationship with the First Nations are likely to be followed by more changes.

Bill C-45 is a so-called omnibus bill or budget implementation bill, in which over 40 pieces of legislation are amended. Think of changes in labour laws, and pay raises for judges. Some changes directly impact on the First Nations, such as changes to the navigable waters protection act, which would remove government oversight from many lakes and rivers in Canada. This would benefit the construction of the Enbridge pipeline, and also make it possible to mine for oil in and around rivers.

Understandably, First Nations in general don’t appreciate these proposals and the fact that they were not consulted doesn't help either. For months, chiefs have derided the government’s unilateralism, which basically sidelined the First Nations. First Nations National Chief, Shawn Atleo, put it like this: “Those changes, as within the Fisheries Act Revisions and the Navigation Protection Act, potentially compromise key aspects of the Crown - First Nation relationship and may serve to further create uncertainty.” In short, many First Nations (and non-First Nations) see the bill as a direct attack on the status and way of life of the First Nations.

The Chiefs’ protests had no influence on the government. They were quite literally ignored and turned away. When on December 4th a group consisting of dozens (!) of First Nations chiefs tried to get into the House of Commons in Ottawa, in order to note their protest against the Bill C-45, they were refused entry. Or, as the Globe and Mail put it, they tried to “storm Parliament Hill”. Check these videos out for yourself:

There was no violence, and no arrests were made. Globe and Mail’s framing of the chiefs as “storming” Parliament Hill was grossly inappropriate. The chiefs’ protests and being turned away at Parliament Hill were featured widely on tv throughout Canada, angering many. It perhaps served to galvanize people into action, and boosted appeal to organizations such as Idle No More.

Idle No More: Grassroots Protest

On a grassroots level, things were already abrew before the chiefs were turned away. Several protest actions had already taken place in the past months. See for example the First Nations Strategic Bulletin, a widely circulated bulletin, in which Russel Diabo explains in detail why the Bill should not be passed. Leo Baskatawang, for example, in his March4Justice, walked great distances through Canada, dragging a copy of the Indian Act behind him (he went through twelve copies in total), trying to raise awareness.

Modern social media such as twitter and Facebook play a crucial role in organizing protest. Never more so than for Idle No More. According to their own website, worried by the upcoming vote (a “legislative attack”), four women decided it was time to act. They started organizing information meetings, which then spread like prairie fire, resulting in Monday’s protests in all over Canada.

Idle No More marches were held in major cities throughout Canada. In a few hours time, the #Idlenomore hashtag became trending topic in Canada. The thousands of protesters, were mostly of First Nations descent. Many banners carried slogans that mentioned Canadian Prime Minister Harper in less than complimentary ways. However the protests were entirely peaceful.

What makes Idle No More special, apart from its extraordinary success, is its grassroots nature. The origins of the initiative do not lie with established powers-that-be in First Nationsland, although once the train got going, Chiefs and larger organizations jumped on board. What’s more, it was the snub to the leadership that undoubtedly contributed to the willingness to participate in Idle No More marches.

The Idle No More marches were a resounding success, although the Bill C-45 passed through parliament. The development of the tar sands will not go uncontested. Harper beware. We can expect more actions from the increasingly restless natives.

Written Tuesday, December 11, 15:00 Ottawa time (EST)

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