Idle No More rally in Halifax's Grand Parade

There are seldom moments of sheer magic in the world, but one certainly took place on January 11, 2013 in the Grand Parade in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Grand Parade is the political, spiritual, military, and commercial center of the city with City Hall on one side of the square, St Paul’s Anglican Church (the first Anglican diocese in North America) on the other, the Nova Scotia provincial Legislature just east of the square, and the Halifax Citadel — the historical, military fortress — just to the west, and with Halifax’s clock tower looking down on it all. The Grand Parade is the place for democratic speech and action, the former home of the Occupy movement in Halifax, the site of the cenotaph to the fallen of the First and Second World Wars. And so it was a fitting place for hundreds of people to gather to be a part of the Idle No More movement.

The sweet grass burned and the drums called those assembled into songs and dances of welcome, blessing, and commemoration. In a world of consumerism and materialism, people set these aside — as well as differences age, race, ethnicity, and gender — and played music, sang together, and joined hands to encircled the square. The beat of drums is an irresistible one. The heartbeat of our mothers may be the first sound we hear, and our own beating heart marks the perpetual rhythm of our lives. And so the beating drum represents a commonality of all, thus awakening a sense of our other commonalities. Our common humanity. The environment that sustains us all. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the sunlight that illuminates our lives, the food we share that sustains our being.

As a non-aboriginal person who has had the privilege of being invited to participate in native medicine wheels and sweat lodges, of learning from native herbalists and healers, I think that an important lacuna in western society is the failure to give place to rituals, symbols, and practices that unite people and underscore our common and shared humanity. A politics that explicitly embraces, that understands that we are all brothers and sisters with a shared destiny. And not just human beings, but all living sentient creatures that are part of this living orb, together creating its environment and reliant upon its continued health. It’s one thing to say, or write such things — it’s an entirely different one to meet a stranger, play music, and sing with them. To take their hand and dance in a circle. The first is an intellectual abstraction — the second a tangible experiential event. Amongst the many things that Idle No More offers our country, this notion of embarking on a political journey from a common place of humanity and morality is one of the most exciting.

And now the magic.

From the centre of our circle in the Grand Parade emerged Eleanor Michael, a Mi’kmaq of the Indian Book First Nation, a daughter of the late Stephen Michael, a Keptain of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council for 31 years. A powerful, articulate voice, Eleanor Michael brought the political connection of the Idle No More movement to those assembled. No one in Canada — unless they have been living complete isolation — can be unaware of this remarkable movement, launched by four first nations women (Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, and Sheelah Mclean) a scant three months ago in response to the Harper Government’s introduction of Bill C-45, yet another omnibus bill designed (amongst other things) to sweep away almost every vestige of protection that the Canadian environment once enjoyed. Already a potent political force, Idle No More rallies, protests, flash mobs, blockades, and petitions have swept the nation, most emblematically the hunger strike being conducted by Attawapiskat chief Teresa Spence in an attempt to compel the federal government to finally take tangible action to improve the lives and living standards of so many native people who live in desperate conditions on reserves across the country. Only weeks old, this movement has already captured the imagination of many Canadians — native and non-native alike.

This was the message that Eleanor Michael was conveying to the hundreds of people gathered in the Grand Parade — when someone noticed an eagle circling the square. A hush fell on the crowd as this splendid adult bald eagle — a starling sight in the centre of the city — orbited above us. Hanging above the legislature, it turned and flew directly over the great circle of people gathered in the square. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. 

In Mi’kmaq spirituality, the eagle, gitpu, is held in great reverence. It is believed that amongst all of the creatures of the world, the eagle is the only one to have touched the face of the Great Spirit. The appearance of an eagle is a clear indication of the presence of Kisu’lk (the Creator) amongst the people. It was hard to imagine that this dramatic appearance at such a gathering was not an auger of something remarkable. Tears poured down Eleanor Michael’s face as she shared with us the importance of the appearance of spirit creatures, the signs of her own late father’s appearance to her as a deer on the side of the road, a reminder to her of why she had been born a Mi’kmaq and of the role she had to play in the world. Shivers ran up my spine. I saw tears on many faces. It was a moment of unrivalled magic.

And now the politics.

The Harper government likes to deride political issues as being about “process”, which they allege no Canadians are really interested in. The Harper Conservatives further allege that their focus is on “action” (the nature of this “action” is another issue entirely), seemingly neglecting the fact that democracy is itself, first and foremost, a process. A fair, just, equitable, and transparent process whereby citizens can participate and shape the governance of their own country, giving them confidence in it, and legitimacy to it. It’s in the face of the ever-growing lack of justice, equality, and transparency of the Canadian government that the Idle No More movement has emerged onto the political stage. In a scant few weeks of existence, it’s already generated a cornucopia of political discussion. I want to offer only one observation to contribute to this discourse.

A noteworthy aspect of the political focus of chief Teresa Spence and many other native leaders who have joined with her, is the insistence that the Canadian Governor General David Johnson, in addition to the Prime Minister, participate in the discussions with native leaders. This is so because the Governor General, the formal head of the “Crown” in Canada, and representing the British Crown (i.e., the monarchy), is a representative of the sovereign nation with which native groups, as sovereign native nations themselves, undertook treaty rights and obligations. These treaties long precede Canada’s Confederation, and it has been the claim of First Nations that the rights guaranteed to them under these treaties have not been extinguished, neither by the Constitution Act of 1867 (formerly the British North America Act), nor by the Canada Act of 1982 (whereby Canada’s constitution was “repatriated”).  In repatriating the Constitution, they maintain that Canada was obligated to honour the guarantees (embodied in the various treaties that were signed) that Great Britain (as a nation) undertook historically with the native nations that inhabit this country. This was part of the terms that the Canadian government accepted and undertook as part of the repatriation process. As such, Great Britain still has the obligation to ensure that the Canadian government is living up to those obligations as specified by the Canada Act. Hence, the presence of the Governor General as a formal representative of these powers.

This might seem like a whimsical proposition in a country where the Prime Minister (and the massive apparatus of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has gradually usurped both legislative power (the Canadian Parliament) and administrative power (the civil service), and the reserve powers of the Governor General have been reduced to the purely formal and symbolic. The Canadian system of parliamentary democracy is dying the death of a thousand cuts, attacked at every turn by a relentless onslaught spearheaded by the PMO. In Canada executive power rules.

But the Idle No More movement is not willing to take this lying down. If the Harper Government is unwilling to honour its obligations to the environment; to forests, and air, and water, and climate, and fisheries, and waterways, and native people — and hence to all Canadian citizens and all sentient beings — then Idle No More is going to stand up. It’s demanding that the Governor General ensure that the Canadian government honour these obligations. And if not the Canadian Crown, then the British Crown has a duty to ensure that its obligations are, in turn, honoured by the Canadian government.

Where might this lead? I asked this question yesterday of Craig Scott, the NDP MP for Toronto Danforth, the official opposition critic on democratic and parliamentary reform, a former law professor, with a keen understanding of Canadian Constitutional issues. “What if,” I asked, “A native nation were to take the Canadian government to court, arguing (for instance) that Bill C-45 and its massive evisceration of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which has reduced by 99 per cent the number of protected waterways in Canada, contravenes the treaty obligations it signed with the British Crown guaranteeing it clean and navigable waters?” In these days of executive absolutism, it would take a brave Canadian jurist, opined Scott, to rule in favour of such a proposition. Executive power rules.

The depredations of the Harper Conservatives on Canadian constitutional democracy are deeply troubling. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be a very encouraging sign that such attacks have awakened a resistance amongst many constituencies. From the Occupy movement, with its focus on the economic injustice and inequality, to the Québec students strike which addressed wider issues of the affordability of education and student debt. From the environmental groups fighting against the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines — and not only because of the inherent dangers and risks of the enterprises, but also on the basis of the folly of the ever more desperate pursuit of fossil fuels at a time when the climate is changing and the Arctic melting — to the re-energizing of native people, and of native women in particular — to bring their leadership to the fore. Not only for the sake of their own communities, but in service of us all, of the environment and living creatures one and all — and conducted in the spirit of Kisu’lk. If all these movements — and others — join hands and link arms, it will form a human chain that will have the power to transform this country. We can all be Idle No More.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...