The big sign on Parliament Hill read “Honour Your Word.”

It was the message of the Nishiyuu walkers to the politicians inside.

Honour the words of your treaties, which say First Nations people have the right to live on the land “as long as the rivers flow.”

Honour the words of your constitution that says Aboriginal peoples have an “inherent right” to self government.

Honour the words of the 1763 Royal Proclamation which reserved existing Aboriginal lands for the “several Nations or Tribes of Indians” and required all non-Aboriginal persons living on these lands to “remove themselves forthwith.”

The Nishiyuu walkers had covered over 1500 kilometers, from Whapmagoostui at the mouth of the Great Whale River, on the border of the Cree and Inuit lands, in Quebec’s James Bay Treaty area.

They were a small number, at first, travelling through the bush where there are no roads.

On the way, they picked up hundreds of supporters — from Chisasibi, Waswanipi, Missitissini and other communities in Cree country, and further south from Algonquin communities such as Kitigan Zibi near Maniwaki, Quebec.

By the time they got to Parliament Hill their numbers had swollen to thousands, from all over, especially from Quebec and eastern Ontario.

James Bay Treaty: an example ‘white’ Canada won’t repeat

It was fitting that the Quebec James Bay Cree should be in the vanguard on this day.

During the 1990s, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recognized that there were many elements in the James Bay Agreement of 1973 that could form part of a model for a new relationship between Canada, the provinces and the First Nations peoples.

The James Bay Agreement recognizes a measure of First Nations’ claim to the natural resources on their traditional territory. It awards the Cree and Inuit a permanent royalty on the wealth produced by hydro electric exploitation.

It also makes place for land-based activities — vital to the spiritual needs of the people and a healthy food source — and provides for the integration of hunting, fishing and trapping with the wage economy.

Cree and Ojibway on the Ontario side of James and Hudson’s Bays are subject to the dysfunctional federal Aboriginal Affairs education funding arrangements, arrangements the Auditor General found  seriously lacking. The Quebec Cree, by contrast, have their own school board, which works in conjunction with the Quebec Education Ministry. The Cree School Board boasts a high school graduation rate of over 60 per cent, far higher than on the Ontario side.

When editorialists, commentators and politicians say the Idle No More and Nishiyuu movements have “no program” they should go back to the Royal Commission and do some homework.

All First Nations people are demanding, today, is respect for their rights as peoples.

If Canada wants to pursue massive resource exploitation, conceived and executed in haste — maybe not such a great idea for a lot of reasons —  it should not have the right to run roughshod over the rights of the people who occupy the lands where the resources are found.

Too often, in the past, the Aboriginal peoples have been treated as an inconvenience by both provincial and federal governments and by mining, forestry and transport companies.

A signal court case made that unabashedly neo-colonial approach impossible for the development of the massive hydro power of the James Bay Treaty area in Quebec (which is much bigger than the James Bay basin itself).

The 1973 agreement is hardly perfect, but “white” Canada has been pulling away from even that level of recognition ever since.

As long ago as the early 1980s, federal Justice Department officials would tell you privately that there would be “no more James Bays.” That agreement was too expensive, they said, and gave too much to “the natives.”

Instead, these days, we have the Harper government removing any federal oversight role that might mitigate the damage to First Nations lands wrought by massive resource projects. Such oversight could, at least, give Aboriginal groups a minimal voice, before the earth-movers and tractors arrive.

The Prime Minister made his view clear when he said that “natural resources belong to the provinces,” end of story.

‘We have been very shy’

On Monday, on Parliament Hill, the talk was not of the details of policies or treaties.

It was a time to give thanks to the elders, to all of the supporters along the way, and to everyone gathered — including Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence — and to praise the “spirit of unity.”

One speaker said: “We have been very isolated; we have been very shy. But we are speaking out now, and we are Idle No More.”

The youngest marcher to speak was only eleven. She described how she pleaded with her parents to let her go. She wanted to march in support of all those missing and murdered Aboriginal women, she said.

The Prime Minister was in Toronto on this day, hugging pandas given to Canada by Harper’s new best-friends-forever, the Chinese.

On First Nations business, his government was not entirely idle, however.

While the marchers were gathering, the Prime Minister’s office issued a news release that said: “Harper Government Opens Door to Greater First Nations Control Over Lands and Resources.”

There followed a paean to the government’s “property rights on reserve” agenda.

On-reserve property rights does not mean control of natural resources

There is nothing inherently wrong with the property rights agenda.

But it is a niche initiative that would allow some reserves, mostly in economically developed areas, to  profit from their on-reserve lands. It would not do much for remote and isolated communities, where many First Nations’ people live.

And access to property rights is only one, relatively small piece of the puzzle — a little part of the solution to massive economic underdevelopment on First Nations reserves. It is no panacea.

As well, the news release’s reference to “lands and resources” is deceptive. The only lands in question are those actually on reserve.

The “greater control” the government talks about allows only “commercialization” of those lands.

And there is no question, whetsoever, in this Harper government initiative of Aboriginal ownership of sub-surface natural resources, or even partnership in resource development on traditional First Nations lands.

However, as Idle No More keeps trying to teach the government, the treaties did not say that First Nations people should be limited to postage stamp size reserves. The First Nations chiefs who signed those treaties certainly had no such understanding.

A number of key court cases have affirmed the broader notion of some measure of Aboriginal title to land and resources that extend way beyond the borders of the government-imposed reserves. 

This is especially true for remote, resource-rich regions, where frequently there is virtually no “white settler” population. (That last point is important, if only to lay to rest the canard about ‘having to give downtown Toronto back to the Indians.’)

When asked if he was disturbed by the government’s reaction to their long march, Theoren Awashish, who joined the journey at Wasanipi, near Chibougamou, Quebec, said no. He was simply “happy we are getting the message out.”

It was worth the long days of walking in minus 40 weather, he said.

Will the day ever come when the Prime Minister considers the extraordinary efforts of these young people to be at least as important as cuddly panda bears?

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...