Coinciding with Stephen Harper’s meeting with members of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa on Friday (January 11), over 400 people gathered in downtown Edmonton to show their support for grassroots Indigenous movement, Idle No More.
While the movement does stand in solidarity with the cause of Attawapiskat Chief Teresa Spence, Idle No More addresses larger systemic problems within the Canadian government. The movement retaliates against any legislation that undermines treaty rights and compromises the protection of land and water. As many Canadians now recognize, the key sites of contention, omnibus budget bills C-38 and C-45, strategically lift environmental protection from a vast number of Canadian lakes and rivers. Less well known are the significant alterations to the Indian Act, alterations made without Aboriginal consultation. As of December 14, 2012, selling off band reserve lands and purchasing Aboriginal consent has become significantly easier. Obviously, such changes have major implications for all Canadians. Here in Alberta, the growing influence of corporate interest over governmental legislation is perhaps the most pressing issue that these omnibus bills represent.
While Bill C-38 put Canadian water systems at risk by repealing the environmental assessment act in the spring of 2012, Bill C-45 made further changes to previous bills and laws affecting most Canadians in various ways. One change includes an amendment to the legislative process of leasing band reserve land. Since Bill C-45 passed in December, Aboriginal reserves no longer require a double majority to lease land to non-Aboriginal businesses or corporations. Regardless of the number of people attending a given band meeting held to discuss land designation, the majority of voters present can see a decision through. Although this change might help to accelerate economic and infrastructural development of band reserves seeking to increase revenue, in the context of Canada’s colonial history, this amendment of the Indian Act is disconcerting for many.
Perhaps the most obvious concern for participants of the Idle No More movement is the fact that the Federal government has made these changes to the Indian Act without Aboriginal consultation. This is, of course, not the first time Canada has taken such measures. Starting in the latter half of the 19th century, the post-Confederate Canadian government has made a series of amendments to the Indian Act, including the imposition of the electoral band system within Aboriginal communities. While these changes were presented as a means of facilitating democratic progress, such amendments actually undermined the authority of traditional Aboriginal political systems. Under the guise of democratization, the Canadian government repeatedly revised Aboriginal treaty rights in an ongoing process of cultural assimilation. The most recent change to the Indian Act—a change that erodes the constitutional treaty rights of Aboriginal people—is evidence that the Canadian Federal government has failed to overcome this persistent colonial logic.
Like Canada’s governments of the 19th century, Harper’s Conservatives have manufactured Aboriginal consent to suit their own agenda. Bill C-45 makes it possible to lease designated band reserve land without the support of a majority of eligible voters. This means that a few representatives of a band can sanction a project that threatens to put entire community’s health and livelihood at risk—such as a pipeline that will travel beneath lakes and rivers, or an oil extraction project that will devastate surrounding ecosystems. It has become clear for many advocates of Idle No More that this change in legislation will only help speed up the process of leasing land from and signing equity deals with Aboriginal band reserves, drawn-out processes that have frustrated many oil companies here in Alberta. The Conservative government’s decision to prioritize corporate concerns over public concerns is perhaps unsurprising; but such high stakes are unsettling for most environmentally conscious Canadians.
During the rally on Friday (January 11), Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan Nation made a provocative promise to shut down access to the oilsands if Ottawa does not address concerns raised by Idle No More. “I can promise you,” said Adam, “that Highway 63 to the oilsands plants will be shut down if things don’t change for the better.” Adam’s promise addresses one issue at the heart of the Idle No More movement in Alberta. Corporate influence over Federal legislation needs to be critically interrogated by Albertans in order to expose the unjust manufacturing of Aboriginal consent.
Cynthia Spring is a writer living in Edmonton.
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