Saturday, January 19, 2013

We Should ALL be Idle No more

{The following column was  originally written for the February Anahim-Nimpo Lake Messenger--MC}

Are "Idle No More" protestors complaining too much?   Cariboo-Prince George  Conservative MP Dick Harris certainly seem to think so,  calling the movement a "cash cow" for the aboriginal industry and lacking in gratitude for all of the wonderful things the Conservatives have done for First Nations since taking office.

Could Harris be right?  No, it seems to me that he could not be.   Idle No More, as its name suggests, is not about demanding more hand-outs, or dragging out the Treaty process forever, or perpetuating the status quo for the financial benefit of lawyers, consultants, or existing band chiefs. It is, in part, a protest  precisely against that state of affairs.   Deliberately or not, Harris seems to have confused a genuine grassroots movement that has spread like wildfire with a glacier-like Treaty process that has been occupied by special interests.  It is not hard to spot the difference, even if you have a government that doesn’t want you to.

Consider how the movement got started.  Last October, four women in Saskatchewan -- Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams and Nina Wilsonfeld – became concerned about Bill C-45,  the Conservative government’s  Omnibus Budget Bill, which had just been introduced in Ottawa.  They   began exchanging emails about how the bill might erode indigenous rights.  And they were right to be concerned: it was wrong to de-regulate the protection of all smaller navigable waterways without greater parliamentary and public debate and scrutiny, by simply sticking it in an ostensible budget implementation  bill.    
Furthermore, Freedom of Information requests have since revealed that corporate oil and gas interests got their requests to "streamline" environmental regulations fast-tracked.  Now, that might count as a special interest using the government as a “cash cow”!   And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Natives were already agitated by the way that the Federal government selected the Gateway pipeline route preferred by Enbridge and its Chinese clients and customers, and then hypocritically denigrated the groups opposed to it as being backed by "foreigners".   We should have had a far more wide-ranging discussion of at least half a dozen options for transporting tar sands oil, before holding hearings on Northern Gateway route to Kitimat. And without all of the ridiculous hypocrisy.

Nor can I agree with  Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo MP Cathy McLeod 's comment that Idle No More's opposition to C-45 is "misguided" because amendments are  merely about enabling economic development for bands, not eroding their control over land.  In the first place, the amendment that makes it easier to lease reserve land to private interests on the basis of a single majority vote at a meeting (and not with permission of a majoirty of band members as was the case previously) is intensely controversial; much of the literature suggests that band democracy should move towards consensus, not away from it, or that education levels and voting procedures should be improved before moving in the direction of greater alienation or development of land. In the second place, the amendments to the Navigable Waters Act  and the Environmental Assessment Act to make it easier to build pipelines and power lines across all but the largest rivers and lakes remove an important source of political leverage for First Nations people and environmentalists, who also recognize that large bodies of water ultimately depend upon many smaller bodies of water for their existence.  In the third place, the federal government has historically had both an important role as an environmental counterweight to provincial and corporate interests and as the level of government which has a special fiduciary obligation to First Nations. As a political scientist who studies and teaches about some of these subjects for a living, I have to conclude that these moves are deeply problematic, and merit much more detailed discussion in separate bills with their own separate parliamentary committees and studies.  They are fundamentally not about implementing last year's budget!

It is great that Harper government issued an historic apology to First Nations for the residential schools in 2008.  But that does not excuse the cavalier fashion in which native interests have been treated whenever they conflict with the government’s economic priorities.  Like the  F-35 fiasco, the determination to close the Onsite clinic and build more prisons regardless of either expert or public opinion; the breath-taking “any treaty is a good treaty” rush to sign trade deals, the Prorogation crisis, the unilateral cap on health spending, and the omnibus budgets themselves, the C-45 amendments are an example of Stephen Harper’s  general downgrading of  democracy and proceduralism  in policy-making.  I for one find the prime minister’s whole approach to be a step in the wrong direction.  The First Nations do not protest too much; the rest of us protest too little.

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