SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 166 March 2013

Canada’s First Nations mobilise

A new movement of Canada’s First Nations is mounting resistance to the Conservative government. Taking up crucial issues such as poverty on reserves and land rights, it also challenges the neoliberal policies which threaten environmental destruction in pursuit of energy industry profits. SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE (CWI Canada), reports.

THE IDLE NO MORE movement of First Nations is potentially the biggest challenge to prime minister Stephen Harper’s right-wing agenda since his Conservative Party won a majority government in May 2011. Idle No More was started by four women in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in November 2012. Its first national day of action was on 10 December. Since then, there have been hundreds of rallies and demonstrations in every city and many smaller communities across all of Canada. The protests have also blocked border crossings to the US and railway lines for several hours, with warnings of more to come. Because of the legal and strategic position of First Nations, although they are only 3% of the population, they have the potential to seriously derail Harper’s plans.

The relation between the settler governments of Canada and the First Peoples, here before the colonisation by European rulers, has always been difficult and often harmful to the indigenous peoples. The first two military actions of the Canadian government were in 1870 and 1885 against the Métis and First Nations on the prairies.

The First Nations in many parts of Canada signed agreements, ‘treaties’, with the government of Canada or the British crown before confederation in 1867. In these treaties, they gave up most of their lands to the settlers and lost many rights to follow migrating animals and fish in their traditional ways. In return, the First Nations were granted minor concessions, such as entitlement to some financial benefits and, in certain cases, some off-reserve hunting and fishing rights. They retained a small portion of their former lands, held in common ownership (called a reserve), and they had the right to some decision-making on the reserve. This limited control was often undermined and changed by the government and its representatives.

Although they lost most of their lands, unlike many oppressed and minority groups around the world, the First Nations still retained some land, albeit with limits on their control. This gives them a space to organise and a base for their identity and defence. Control of territory is vital to a nation. Also, importantly, the treaties recognised the First Nation as an entity to be negotiated with by the crown or the government of Canada.

Status and repression

THE INDIAN ACT, first passed in 1876, created the concept of ‘status Indians’, the definition of which restricted the number of people of First Nations descent who were entitled to some benefits in compensation for giving up their lands. In addition, there are non-status Indians and Métis who, although of aboriginal descent, have no rights under the Indian Act. Today, there are nearly 900,000 status Indians, over 400,000 Métis and at least 200,000 non-status Indians. There have been and continue to be struggles and court cases about the definitions and rights of Métis and non-status Indians. Recently, after 13 years of court battles, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are Indians and so are entitled to similar rights. The Harper government is appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.

In recent years there have been several land agreements which, though differing from earlier treaties, have settled claims with some land and resources being granted to the control of aboriginal people. These include the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, finalised in 1978, the establishment of the territory of Nunavut in the Arctic for Inuit people in 1999, and the Nisga’a settlement of 2000 in British Columbia. There are still many outstanding, unsettled land claims.

The British and then Canadian rulers have, in various ways, carried out systematic attempts to destroy First Nations as distinct peoples by destroying their means of living, through murder, smallpox, missionaries, residential schools, banning cultural events and undermining their languages. The Indian Act and its amendments attacked the aboriginal people’s languages and banned their traditional cultural and religious activities. The Potlatch ceremonies, common to many First Nations, were declared illegal. To undermine any resistance, First Nations were barred from forming political organisations and First Nation leaders were jailed for trying to organise.

Aboriginal children (both First Nations and Inuit) were required to attend schools which were conducted in an alien culture. Many were removed from their families and societies and forced to attend residential boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their native language, with severe punishment if they were caught uttering a single word. The schools were mostly run by religious organisations which imposed various forms of Christianity on the children. Many children were maltreated, some were forcibly sterilised, and physical and sexual abuse was widespread. Children died in these schools, with estimates ranging from a few thousand to 50,000. The number is unknown because no one ever counted!

The aim of these policies was to ‘assimilate’ the First Nations, wiping them out as a separate group in Canadian society. As late as 1969, the Canadian government proposed to abolish the Indian Act and, with it, any unique status for First Nations in Canadian society. However, the opposition to this proposal was so great it was never implemented.

In spite of all the attacks of the colonial governments the First Nations survived and, in recent decades, they have begun to reverse their long decline. The Potlatches were allowed after 1951, and the residential schools declined from the 1960s, with the last one closing in 1996. First Nations have worked to retain their surviving languages, and revived and developed their cultures to accommodate the changed world they live in. They have asserted their rights to have a say over their lives and communities and to be part of shaping Canadian policies. Their population has recovered from the decimation which reduced their total population to less than 120,000 in 1921. Now they are the fastest growing section of the population of Canadian residents and half of all First Nations are under the age of 25 years.

The Conservatives’ agenda

IN 2006, HARPER famously stated: "You won’t recognise Canada when I’m through with it". And he has been working to deliver on that. He has weakened environmental protection, forced workers in dispute back to work, cut taxes for the corporations and much more.

The Conservatives are abandoning manufacturing – Canada has lost over 500,000 manufacturing jobs in a decade. They are also undermining jobs in the public services, the not-for-profit sector and retail. Harper dreams of an economy based on resource extraction and export. This is where the Conservatives see profits – especially if the workers are low-paid, temporary, foreign workers, without legal rights, as is proposed for a new coal mine in northern British Columbia.

Many of the minerals, oil, coal and gas that companies want to exploit lie under, or access to them passes through, land covered by treaties or land claims. So, central to expanding resource extraction is the gutting of environmental regulations and overcoming the barriers of the First Nations’ treaty rights and land claims. The Conservatives would also like to see First Nations assimilated, with no unique status in Canada, reserve land privatised and, therefore, broken up and sold off. Attacking the ownership and control of land is central to destroying the First Nations.

Harper’s strategy has been to continue the long-established divide-and-rule between status and non-status, on and off reserve, First Nations and Métis, and between the different nations. He has also worked to cut deals with the more compliant leaders to open up their lands for resource extraction. The emergence of Idle No More threatens Harper’s agenda for dealing with First Nations.

Attawapiskat and Chief Theresa Spence

ATTAWAPISKAT IS A First Nation centred on a reserve in the far north of Ontario with a population of about 1,800 people. It is only accessible by an ice road in winter and boat or airplane in summer. It has nearly 90% unemployment. The cost of freight means that everything there is very expensive; it costs $250,000 to build a house. The chief, Theresa Spence, made national news in November 2011 when she declared a state of emergency, as many houses lacked heating and families were sleeping in storage sheds, shacks or run-down trailers, often with no running water, while the temperature outside went as low as -40° Celsius.

Chief Spence demanded that the federal government provide resources to deal with the problems. The Conservatives’ response was to criticise the Band council and impose a third-party manager, a private consultant, who was paid $1,300 per day from the council’s funds, to take over running the community. Since then, they have sent in an auditor of the council’s books to further divert attention from their own failures. Attawapiskat illustrates the contrast between the wealth of resources being extracted and the poverty of many First Nations’ communities. Just 90 kilometres from the community is the DeBeer’s Victor diamond mine, which produces 600,000 carats-worth of diamonds per year.

On 11 December 2012, Chief Theresa Spence started a hunger strike, only taking liquids, to demand that Harper and the governor general (the queen’s representative in Canada – as many treaties were signed with the crown before the government of Canada was established), meet with First Nations’ leaders "because the treaty’s been violated [for] so many years and it’s time for the prime minister to honour the treaties and respect our leaders". She ended her fast on 24 January 2013, with a Declaration of Commitment signed by the two main opposition parties and the Assembly of First Nations.

Idle No More

IN A FEW months, Idle No More grew from a handful of people to a movement that is rocking Canadian politics, showing the huge anger in the First Nations’ communities. The initial demands were around Bill C-45, which the Conservatives claim is about implementing the budget they pushed through parliament without any real debate. However, the bill amends over 60 laws and attacks many previous gains of the Canadian people, such as on pensions.

It changes the Indian Act so it will be easier to lease reserve land, even if most of the people on the reserve oppose it. The bill further undermines the environmental assessment processes, removing 99% of all of Canada’s waterways from protection from construction, such as a pipeline or powerline. Before C-45 was passed, over two million lakes and over 8,500 rivers were protected. Now, only 97 lakes and 62 rivers are protected.

The movement also flows from a host of other long-simmering issues. Reserves are some of the poorest places in Canada. Around 40% do not have clean, safe running water. There are many battles over resource development. First Nations in British Columbia are overwhelmingly opposed to the plans to build three pipelines for oil, bitumen and natural gas across the province, which will bring little or no economic benefits and the guarantee of environmental pollution. While some communities have had certain benefits from resource extraction, many more are suffering, such as at Fort Chipewyan downstream of the Alberta tar sands.

A key demand of Idle No More is that there are nation-to-nation relations between the First Nations and the Canadian government, something the Conservatives will do everything to resist as it challenges their entire agenda. Initially, Harper totally ignored Idle No More and Chief Spence’s hunger strike, as he thought he had enough First Nations’ leaders he could cut deals with. He dismissed this movement from below, as many capitalist leaders often do because they judge movements by their official leaders.

As Idle No More’s support grew, it pushed many chiefs to be more militant and demand change. The movement has opened up disagreements within the First Nations over strategy but, overall, is pushing more determined action to the front. Under the growing pressure, Harper was forced to agree to meet the First Nations’ Chiefs. However, a substantial number refused to attend as they saw it as a talking shop. The Manitoba Chiefs said: "Unfortunately, the prime minister has been very dictatorial and unrelenting in his position to control and set the agenda for this meeting". So far they are right. Harper has not moved on anything, he has just offered more talks.

Idle No More is a grassroots movement. With half of all First Nations under the age of 25, the movement is youthful and energetic. It has also united status Indians across the country with non-status and Métis. There is a mood of anger and determination. Grand Chief Gordon Peters of Ontario said that aboriginal protesters will block major roads and rail lines in Ontario if their demands are not met. Derek Nepinak, Manitoba Grand Chief, said Idle No More has enough people to "bring the Canadian economy to its knees. It can stop Harper’s resource development plan and his billion-dollar plan to develop resources in our ancestral territories. We have the warriors that are standing up now that are willing to go that far. So we’re not here to make requests. We’re here to demand attention and to demand an end to 140 years of colonial rule".

Following the meeting with Harper and the ending of Chief Spence’s fast, Idle No More is going through a time of pause, debate and reflection. However, none of the issues have been resolved and the anger remains, so it is most likely that there will be a new burst of activity, probably more militant, in the near future.

Wider struggle

NO DOUBT THE young people of Idle No More have taken inspiration from Occupy and the Quebec students’ victory. They, in turn, are inspiring many other Canadians to fight back against the Conservatives. Idle No More has gained widespread support from non-Aboriginal Canadians, who have been welcomed on the rallies, and there have been union banners on some demos. As well as non-Aboriginal Canadians attending the rallies, they should encourage their organisations, especially unions and environmental groups, to support the movement. The solidarity of non-Aboriginals is important to help the struggle and to show that many Canadians are opposed to the mistreatment of First Nations, and that we all have a common interest in defeating the Harper government.

Idle No More demands fundamental changes in the relation between the Canadian state and First Nations. However, as it is unlikely that Harper and the Conservatives will agree to such change, a growing number of Idle No More activists are realising that this government has to go.

Socialist Alternative Canada, supports Idle No More. We recognise that a long-term solution requires replacing the present colonial state that serves the interests of capitalism. This state will always seek to exploit First Nations, workers and the environment to generate profits for the minority. We want a government that abides by and respects treaties and resource rights. We support the right to self-determination and self-government for all aboriginal peoples. Canada should become a voluntary socialist association, including First Nations, Nunavut, Quebec and the different regions of Canada where English is the main language.


Aboriginal: The descendants of the original inhabitants of North America. The Canadian constitution recognises three groups of aboriginal people: Indians, Métis and Inuit.

Status Indian: A person who is registered as an Indian under the Indian Act.

Non-status Indian: A First Nations person who is not registered as an Indian under the Indian Act.

Inuit: Aboriginal people in Northern Canada with a distinct culture and technologies from other aboriginals in Canada (formerly called Eskimo). Around 50,000 Inuit live in Canada. They also live in Greenland and Alaska.

Métis: People of mixed First Nation and European ancestry who identify themselves as Métis.

First Nation: Although First Nation has no legal definition, it is widely used to replace the word ‘Indian’, which is seen as derogatory and incorrect. It is used to describe their community and their organisation. ‘First Nations peoples’ applies to those referred to in the Indian Act as both ‘status Indians’ and ‘non-status Indians’.

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