“People say we don’t know what we want. We know what we want!,” said Alma Brooks, a long-time indigenous activist and elder from St. Mary’s First Nation, to a crowd of about 200 gathered at an Idle No More noon hour rally at Fredericton MP Keith Ashfield’s office on Jan. 11th.
Ashfield, who is also the Fisheries Minister, did not meet with the Idle No More demonstrators. In an interview earlier that day with CBC’s Harry Forestall, Ashfield said that, “Bill C-45 is something that’s necessary to move our country forward. There’s some positive changes for First Nations as well when it comes to their own land and the way they are allowed to lease their properties.”
Brooks, a woman who says she cannot remember a time when she was idle, remarked, “We signed peace and friendship treaties. We have never surrendered an inch of our land.”
Federal Omnibus Bill C-45 has sparked hundreds of Idle No More grassroots protest actions across the country including here in New Brunswick, the territory of the Wabanaki.
Critics of the 400-paged bill say it is part of Harper’s dirty fossil fuel development agenda and that it violates Aboriginal treaties and rights, makes life harder for people forced to depend on Employment Insurance and destroys 30 years of progress on legislation that protects the environment. The Bill was approved by the Senate on Dec. 14th in a 50-27 vote.
Started by Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon and Sheelah McLean, four indigenous women in the province of Saskatchewan, last October, Idle No More has inspired both mass mobilizations and small actions in solidarity across the world in places like New Zealand, the Middle East, New York City, London and Spain.
Sikniktuk Mi’kmaq Rights Coalition members blocked CN trains from transporting goods on the Highway 126 Railway in Adamsville, between Moncton and Miramichi, on January 4th.
The planned weekend long blockade was cut short when CN filed a court injunction to have it removed. The location was chosen because it is a historical trading post where Mi’kmaq people bartered their handmade baskets for goods with local settlers.
Gary Jo Augustine with Sikniktuk Mi’kmaq Rights Coalition said, “Our goal is to abolish Bill C-45 and to stop additional proposed Bills that directly affect us.”
Brian Francis, also with the Coalition, noted, “The Treaties are agreements that cannot be altered or broken by one side of the two Nations. The spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to the land and resources.”
“First Nations have experienced a history of colonization which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources, unequal funding for educational and housing services, and residential schooling,” added Francis.
The Idle No More movement got a boost of attention and support when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence started a hunger strike on Parliament Hill on Dec. 11th. Chief Spence’s hunger strike was aimed at highlighting the dire problems in First Nations communities and at getting a nation-to-nation meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
A week after Chief Spence started her hunger strike, Mi’kmaq Sundance Leader Joseph Jean Sock from Elsipogtog and other indigenous leaders joined her in fasting. A number of Maliseet and Mi’kmaq people from New Brunswick made the trek to Ottawa to spend time with Chief Spence. Chief Spence ended her hunger strike on Jan. 24th.
Idle No More actions in New Brunswick have also included marches across Centennial Bridge in Miramichi and Westmorland Bridge in Fredericton, road blockades and traffic slowdowns across the province, a demonstration in front of the N.B. Legislature in December, lively marches and rallies in downtown Moncton and at St. Thomas University, rallies at MP’s offices across the province on Jan. 11th, teach-ins and flash mobs and round dances with songs and drumming in busy shopping malls and markets in Fredericton and Moncton.
Not only are joyful tears and strengthened resolve of many long-time indigenous and non-indigenous activists found at Idle No More actions but also are many energetic youth who in some cases are organizing their first political action through the use of social media.
Thom Nash, a St. Thomas University student who joined other Aboriginal university students in organizing an Idle No More march to St. Thomas University on Jan. 24th, said he was proud of the turnout, the unity between different bands and the support received from people at the university and in the wider Fredericton community. “People are starting to wake up and realize what is happening to our country. Now, they are willing to join us and we will fight together for the rights of generations to come,” said Nash who is from St. Mary’s First Nation but grew up off reserve.
The movement shows no signs of slowing down or going away anytime soon. Idle No More participants, who are braving minus 30 degree temperatures to publicly show their opposition, say they won’t stop until they have stopped Bill C-45.
Tracy Glynn is on the board of the NB Media Co-op.