The devastation of Indigenous lands means a loss of culture for First Nations in Canada whose spirituality is grounded on the sanctity of Mother Earth. It also means their resources and livelihoods are squandered away, resulting in mass poverty. These processes of extraction produce hazardous waste, leaving the surrounding communities with the lingering health effects. Corporate interests are pursued over community consultation.
"Our number one enemy hasn't change over the last 500 years," says Milton of the Blackfoot Lonefighters Society. "It's called extermination."
Fighting for their rights, fighting for their land
But across the nation many call Canada Natives like Milton are standing up and fighting for their rights.
In Barriere Lake the traditional leadership is struggling to regain their title after a minority faction supported by the government took control in a contested election. Customary Chief Benjamin Nottaway was deposed earlier this year in what he calls, "an administrative coup d'état." Algonquins of Barriere Lake and supporters blockaded a highway late last year to demand that the 1991 trilateral agreement on resource extraction be honoured and that Canada appoint an observer to witness a new leadership selection according to Barriere Lake's Customary Governance Code. Nottaway was arrested and sentenced to 45 days in prison for the peaceful protest.
Across B.C. people have been organizing to block developments for the 2010 Olympic Games for the last five years. While the leaders of the Four Host Nations have signed an agreement with VANOC (the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee), many locals oppose the deal because it means the destruction of ecologically sensitive areas to pave the way for highways; development projects on Native lands; and the social cleansing of the Downtown Eastside as the housing crisis is aggravated.
The Ardoch Algonquin First Nation (AAFN) fight against uranium exploration in their area continues. Although their neighbours, the Algonquins of Ontario and the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation, have recently signed a deal with Frontenac Ventures to allow uranium exploration in Ardoch, AAFN maintain their stance that no uranium drilling should take place in the area around Sharbot Lake.
Ardoch Algonquin leader Bob Lovelace was jailed this past spring for peacefully protesting outside the Robertsville mine. His sentence was eventually dropped when the Court of Appeal decided that Justice Cunningham should have ensured Ontario consulted with the Algonquins before ordering them to end their protest and then jailing them when they continued to demand consultations in defiance of Cunningham's injunction. Frontenac appealed this decision, but earlier this month the Supreme Court dismissed their appeal. "The government will no longer be able to ignore its legal responsibilities while we are jailed for trying to uphold the law. We will continue to resist uranium mining and exploration and we call on the government to finally begin consultations with us so that further conflict and litigation can be avoided," said Lovelace.
In Six Nations they are working with residents in Cayuga, Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph to halt dumping at a landfill that has violated Ministry of Environment regulations numerous times. When a dump truck came in, after about a year of inactivity, to Cayuga's Edward Street Landfill in early December, the only thing that was dumped were five protesters into the nearby detention centre. The blockade set up by supporters effectively turned around the dump truck, stopping it from unloading in Cayuga.
About 24 hours to the north, Grassy Narrows marked the six-year anniversary of their logging blockade on Dec 2, 2008. It is the longest standing blockade in North America.
Downstream from the tar sands, the Fort Chipewyan community also in early in December took the government to court for not consulting them on resource extraction in their community. The government is obliged by law to consult with First Nations before granting leases to resource companies.
Important activist gathering in Winnipeg
This flood of activity has come just a month after grassroots activists at the forefront of the fight for Native rights came together from across the nation to participate in the Defenders of the Land Gathering in Winnipeg from Nov 12 to 14. The meeting was organized with the intention of creating a national network of Indigenous groups that would work outside of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). This marks a historic turning point in the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty.
The timing of the gathering also coincided with the Conservative Party convention occurring at Winnipeg Convention Centre. Participating Indigenous leaders and grassroots activists from Mohawk, Anishinabe, Ojibway, Cree, Dene, Athabasca Chipewyan and Algonquin Nations along with supporters including myself decided to pay Harper a visit at the convention centre, hoping to present him with a letter. But when we got there security would not allow us entrance. Instead, the letter, which called on the Harper government to fulfill their obligations to Canada's First Nations by signing onto the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was handed over to a security guard. Canada is one of only four nations not to sign the declaration.
Michael Welch from Canadians Concerned about Deep Integration spoke at a rally outside the Tory convention organized by the Real Majority Agenda Coalition the following day. "It's often been said that our most important international relationship is with the United States of America. But that is not true. Our most important international relationship is in fact with the Indigenous nations from across the land from coast to coast and when their emissaries come to your convention and they have a list of concerns you don't have police chase them as if they're some kind of a nuisance you come out here and talk to them and show them some respect," said Welch.
Sick of the tar sands
The first day of the Defenders Gathering allowed participants to share with each other the struggles they were facing within their own communities. We heard from Milton who explained how the government commissioning a dam in Alberta divided their community. We heard about the 70 people in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta who have for "unexplainable reasons" developed cancer.
"I don't care if the whole world knows I have cancer as long as the I can get out the voice of our community," said on young woman who was near tears. The tar sands upstream in Fort McMurray are polluting their water and poisoning the fish they eat. Many people in the area around the tar sands are sick and dying. "They're profiting off our deaths," says Lionel Lepine of Fort Chipewyan.
New (white man) Olympic Games, some old colonial story
Ange Sterritt talked about people promoting the "white man games" in B.C. To deal with high traffic during the Olympics the Sea-to-Sky Highway is being increased to four lanes in some parts, destroying the trees and animals in B.C. Sterritt said the more she thought about it, the more she realized it's colonialism that they're really promoting. "The system is set up to create destruction within our people," added Carol Martin from the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.
When Judy DaSilva from Grassy Narrows got up to speak she reiterated that her story is the "same story as everywhere. The pollution. The sickness." She explained that, "When the young woman and man were standing up there talking about cancer, it's the same in Grassy. It's the same in Akwesasne." The land is being hurt and it is killing not only the local wildlife, but it is slowly killing off the people too. But she is hopeful. DaSilva says that connection to the land and to the creator is what will help us to win. "We've got to do it together holding hands." She says she wants to come out of the meeting with a plan to make the government and the corporations "hurt".
Lyle Morrisseau, a representative of the First Peoples National Party, a political party that advocates for Native rights, says we all have struggles and have to unify our efforts. "All these struggles have an impact on Indigenous people, land, water and the environment."
Unity needed on the path ahead
In the discussion on commonalities the idea of unity was put into practice. We see in all these stories jurisdictional disputes with the government and broken agreements; genocidal policies like residential schools have been replaced by an economic genocide whereby money is used to divide people sometimes ending in disputes between band councils and traditional leadership; the common enemy is industry and the environment and humans and the environment are both sick.
However, the unity of people can overcome these common battles. There was a strong sense in the room that the strength of the women and commitment to land would bring us through. I witnessed one woman share her dream with another woman before embracing with a hug in the washroom at the Native Metis Friendship Centre. It was a dream about unity that had come to her following a ceremony in Six Nations with her brothers from North Dakota.
An action plan was created which included an economic strategy, direct action planning, a communications strategy, identifying barriers, strengthening national networks, spiritual foundations and addressing local community needs. Now that everyone is back in their home communities the test of unity will begin and path to the creation of a new world can begin being forged.
Carmelle Wolfson has been supporting Grassy Narrows in their fight to stop logging on their lands since 2005. She spent three months in the summer of 2006 camping out at the Slant Lake Blockade in Grassy, and is currently working on a documentary about the Grassy Narrows solidarity movement.