Today's plans for cross-country blockades to disrupt Canada's economy and infrastructure are revealing tensions within both the Idle No More movement and aboriginal leadership in the country, sparking debate over what tactics are appropriate in the quest for Native self-determination and who gets to police that line.
After more than a month of protests, hunger strikes, social media–organized flash mobs, round dances and teach-ins—and in the wake of Friday's meeting between national aboriginal leadership and Prime Minister Stephen Harper—the sincerity of Harper's pledge to focus on First Nations issues is being discussed heatedly among activists from coast to coast.
Also under discussion is what to do about it. There are those who want to continue action, in line with Chief Theresa Spence’s ongoing fast—which continues despite the January 11 meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and 20 chiefs, including the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. And there are those who think the goal of getting Harper to the table was met, and are willing to see what happens before conducting more action. At the root of the debate is whether the meeting was too little, too late, and whether it even signifies that Harper is finally taking aboriginal concerns seriously, which many doubt.
“The best way First Nations and other Canadians can express their disappointment with federal indifference is to translate their concerns into action,” said Patrick Madahbee, Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation, in a statement on January 15. “Harper may have pulled the wool over some people’s eyes last week in Ottawa, but Chief Theresa Spence is still fasting for justice. We call on other Canadians to be understanding and supportive of our efforts in the days ahead to demonstrate to members of the Harper caucus that they were not elected to ignore the will of the people.”
Civil disobedience activities are planned for January 16 across the country.
“This is a day of action,” proclaimed a poster for railway blockades planned for January 16 on Gitxsan territory in British Columbia. “We will blockade the CN Rail to show that we are answering the call to all First Nations across Canada to oppose the bills that will affect the sacred waters and traditional territories of our Nation and future generations.”
Another prominent railway blockade, of both CN and CP's major cross-Canada routes, has been announced by former Roseau River First Nation chief Terrance Nelson in Manitoba.
Other highway and rail line disruptions have been announced in several other provinces, including Highway 401 near Windsor, Ontario; the Ambassador Bridge, North America's busiest border crossing, between Ontario and Michigan; the Trans-Canada highway near Nipigon, Ontario; and New Brunswick's Centennial Bridge.
But the direct action plans were questioned by one of Idle No More's founding women in Saskatchewan.
For former Neskonlith band chief Arthur Manuel, chairman of the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, an indigenous rights advocacy organization, direct action such as blockades are an important tool in resisting the loss of Native rights. His British Columbia community has itself seen such protests over ski resorts and mining.
“What the government's trying to do is force indigenous people into extinguishing their rights through these comprehensive land claims and self-government agreements—to relinquish those treaty and aboriginal rights,” he told ICTMN. “These actions say, No, we're not going to do that.”
On January 15, Manuel released a letter sharply critical of the AFN, which he alleged has been attempted to prevent economic disruption and “limit the scope of Idle No More (INM) actions” that have escalated with the rising tide of Native activism. Like Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and several other leaders, Manuel opposed the AFN's participation in talks with Harper, agreed to in the wake of Chief Theresa Spence's nearly 40-day fast, as lacking substance or success.
“They've ridden the coattails of Theresa Spence and Idle No More,” Manuel said of the national First Nations leadership. “They agreed to negotiate process with the government; that's standard opportunist kind of activity. The people are not going to benefit at all. It's not going to change anything.”
Another of Idle No More's founding organizers in Saskatchewan, Sheelah McLean, said direct action such as blockades are sometimes necessary, but only as a last resort.
“There are indigenous groups historically that have used blockades very strategically, with the help of elders, advisors and ceremony,” she said. “Our vision was for education and building consciousness with Canadians to stop the bills. We do want to support peaceful actions, and we do feel that people hitting the streets in the thousands does have a huge impact. There's pressure to our Members of Parliament to actually represent citizens as they're paid to do. We believe this is the most powerful weapon, and what we'll continue to use.”
The blockades come a day after Ontario's top police officer admitted that such actions could have a powerful disruptive effect on the entire country's economy, but said police are reluctant to intervene if it could escalate tensions.
“First Nations have the ability to paralyze this country by shutting down travel and trade routes,” said Chris Lewis, commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, in a video statement on January 15. “It is a difficult situation no matter how we view or address it.”
With some organizers of Idle No More, aides to Chief Theresa Spence, and Assembly of First Nations leaders chiming in with varying opinions of protest tactics over the past month, McLean admits that internally policing protesters simply isn't feasible with such a movement.
“To think that any one group or person could possibly police a movement this large is ludicrous to me,” she told ICTMN. “People do have a lot of autonomy in how they enact the vision. But the vision of education and building community is really key to the movement. That's what so many people were originally excited about, and why it has resonated with so many people—because there's a truth to the idea that we are supposed to have a nation-to-nation relationship.”
Manuel worries that the participation of AFN in government negotiations will isolate more militant grassroots indigenous people and the Idle No More movement alike, particularly if laws are broken as in blockades.
“The real ugly part of what they're trying to do by getting the AFN to collaborate with them through consultations about process is they are setting up the activists to be arrested and attacked by the police,” he told ICTMN. “They're going to say that the 'reasonable' leaders like [Atleo] have agreed to consult with us; the INM is therefore no longer needed, and we're going to use the RCMP to crush it. It's really down to a crossroads right now. Indigenous people need to realize that the next level of the fight is going to be whether or not INM can maintain its credibility in view of the fact that the AFN has agreed to collaborate on consultations.”
But as some leaders criticize blockades as unnecessarily alienating non-Natives as well as established leadership such as the AFN itself, Manuel explained that ultimately it must be up to each individual community to determine its best course of action in the fight for their rights, and there are risks with both approaches.
“I understand what they're saying with blockades,” he said. “Sometimes people need to be very cognizant about whether or not they're taking two steps back and one step forward. It's the same kind of caution I'm telling people who are trying to negotiate at every twist and turn, when the government's totally stubborn and obstinate: Be careful there. But indigenous people taking action need to be careful too.”