The Journey of Nishiyuu arrives in Ottawa today — the completion of an epic journey of Indigenous youth that started in the community of Whapmagoostui on Hudson Bay in northern Quebec. 

Hundreds of supporters, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, will be on hand today in Ottawa to greet them. Members of the labour movement and other civil society groups will be there to show their support. Some Members of Parliament, from opposition parties, will be there when the group arrives on Parliament Hill shortly after 1p.m. EST today. 

rabble.ca‘s parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg will be there on the Hill to report on this historic event. 

Stephen Harper, meanwhile, will be in Toronto, rolling out the right carpet for two pandas arriving on loan to Canadian zoos from China. 

In other words, on this historic day where Indigenous issues should have the full attention of the national media and politicians, Harper has skipped town, in order to preside over the carefully scripted culmination of his “panda diplomacy” with the government of China. 

CTV had live coverage reporting on the pandas’ arrival in Toronto this morning:

Two giant pandas will receive a welcome fit for foreign dignitaries when they touch down at Toronto Pearson airport Monday morning.

Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen will be among the guests greeting five-year-old Er Shun, a female panda, and four-year-old Da Mao, a male. They are expected to arrive in Toronto at approximately 10:30 a.m.

China’s ambassador to Canada Zhang Junsai, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and a concert band from an Ottawa-area high school will also be on hand for the pandas’ arrival.

Harper’s decision to spend today with Rob Ford and the pandas in Toronto is, to my mind, perfectly fitting. It amounts to snubbing the Nishiyuu youth — by being out of town and by putting the media focus elsewhere. But what else could we have expected, given the Conservative government’s stance on Indigenous issues and their general response to Idle No More?

Reporter Mike De Souza, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, revealed over the weekend the lenghts to which Harper went in his all out pursuit of “panda diplomacy.” Documents obtained by De Souza show that this has been a personal priority for the prime minister, with the announcement of the $10 million panda loan apparently exhaustingly negotiated with government officials in China.  

For relations with a superpower hungry for Canadian exports, Harper was willing and able to go half way around the world to secure a cuddly photo-op. For relations with the First Nations of this land we now call Canada, Harper wouldn’t budge from Ottawa.

Harper, it’s worth remembering, never visited Attawapiskat, even after that community’s dire housing crisis drew worldwide headlines. Attawapiskat became a symbol, but it was always just one of many remote First Nations communities in crisis because of the continuing impact and practice of colonialism, the history of which Harper has brazenly denied in the past. 

Seen in the context of a stubborn government in Ottawa refusing to go and see First Nations’ and truly respond to their concerns, the Journey of Nishiyuu — along with Idle No More in general — makes perfect sense. It’s an expression of defiance and dignity. And it’s a remarkable expression of determination. 

The length of the Journey of Nishiyuu reminds us of the vastness of this country we inhabit. And it should remind us all of whose land it was, and of whose land it is.

As Cathryn Atkinson wrote earlier this month: “whether they get the attention from the media or officialdom is one thing, what needs to be understood is that two things will arrive together in Ottawa… One will be a group of Indigenous teens on a quest for themselves and the other is an idea of justice and autonomy that I believe can no longer be repressed.” 

So forget “panda diplomacy.” The real political disucssion in this country today should be about the Journey of Nishiyuu. We all owe these youth, who have trekked over 1,500km, that much and more. 

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe is a writer in Vancouver, B.C. He served as rabble.ca's editor from 2012 to 2013 and from 2008 to 2009.