Idle No More flexes its muscles in day of action: 'We could shut down the country if we really wanted to'

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Idle No More marching to Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Photo: Dylan Penner)

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Idle No More again flexed its muscles across the country yesterday, the third and largest Indigenous day of action since the grassroots movement began one month ago, on International Human Rights Day.

Blockades, round dances and protests sprouted in dozens of cities from coast to coast, bringing Native and non-Native supporters out into the streets to demand a fundamental change in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.

Across from Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several cabinet ministers met with a selection of First Nations leadership as several thousand protested outside the meeting -- a face-to-face discussion demanded by 30-day hunger striking chief Theresa Spence. But the Attawapiskat leader boycotted the meeting, decrying the limited Aboriginal representation and short length.

As crowds closed the streets outside, some angrily confronted Aboriginal leaders who chose to attend the meeting, while other chiefs boycotted what they called a sham. Spence boycotted the meeting with Harper but chose to meet instead with the Queen's representative, Governor General David Johnstone, who represents the Crown's treaty obligations to Indigenous nations.

"Essentially, the chiefs are saying that we could shut down the country if we really wanted to," said Gladys Radek in Ottawa, a Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en activist who has campaigned for years for justice for missing and murdered women, and attended today's rally on Parliament Hill. "[Harper] should be dealing with this as an emergency situation."

"The situations we're talking about -- like missing and murdered women -- are really hitting the bottom of the barrel; this is how it's been for decades. That's why there's so many missing and murdered women; there's a lack of justice, a lack of equality, there's poverty."

Elsewhere, thousands showed up for events in most major Canadian cities. In Montreal, at least a thousand people rallied outside the Palais des Congrès. In Vancouver, hundreds held a round dance and drummed outside City Hall. Outside Truro, Nova Scotia, members of the Millbrook First Nations blocked freight and passenger trains with a vehicle and wood palettes. In Hamilton, Ontario, protesters blocked the sprawling Highway 403 briefly. Overseas, cries of Idle No More were even heard in London, England, on the steps of the Canadian High Commission.

In Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, the four women who founded Idle No More late last year hosted a large, web-streamed meeting to strategize the movement's next steps -- and how to continue confronting federal legislation such as Bill C-45, which they allege would facilitate the surrender of reserve lands and gut waterways protection.

"There is a great power that's emerging once again," Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who boycotted Harper's meeting and had earlier warned of "drums of war" if Spence dies, told CBC News. "The warrior spirit of our people is once again across the land -- it's very strong... At some point the energy and power of our young people will start to spill over the political boundaries we’ve tried to create."

Vancouver activist Krazie Nish, a Gitxsan and Mohawk organizer with the Turtle Island Movement, remembers attending the 1990 armed standoff near Oka, Quebec -- when Canada deployed its army to quell Kanesatake Mohawks trying to prevent the destruction of their cemetery by a golf course.

She said that today's movement is reminiscent of the mass mobilization of Natives coast-to-coast 23 years ago, but activists have learned decades of lessons on fighting for their rights.

"There's been a lot of trial and error between Oka and what Idle No More's doing right now," she said. "They haven't called the army on us, knock on wood."

"A lot of people across Turtle Island have learned from Oka, from Ipperwash and what happened to the late Dudley George, and Caledonia as well. We're slowly learning and getting there. All we have is our drums, drumsticks and our singing; there's nothing threatening about those ... Because it's gained so much momentum so quickly, for sure this is definitely going to be something that everybody is going to remember for a long time. And not just Indigenous people, but non-Indigenous people too ... These are issues affecting everybody."

Prime Minister Harper emerged from yesterday's meeting with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo and a handful of other Native leaders promising to focus on improving the country's relationships with Aboriginal People. But Idle No More activists vowed to continue mobilizing for Indigenous rights and self-determination.

"Depending on what information we find out from today's meeting, that will decide what people do," Krazie Nish said. "We want to regroup, take a breather for a moment, and start planning for the next one."

"I think the next big one will be the port -- we postponed it, but we are definitely going to do it. It brings money flow into most of Western Canada. We're the second biggest port in North America. There's a lot of trade and goods that come through the port; if we're able to block that, that's a few million we're preventing from coming and going through Canada. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a lot more in the works across Turtle Island, because we have a lot of support from our brothers and sisters in the States as well."

Radek described the area around Spence's teepee on Victoria Island, only minutes from Parliament Hill, as crowded and bursting with energy as the protests raged. She cooked and delivered moose and deer meat soup for Spence's helpers on the island yesterday, and agreed that a ratcheting up of action is a likely next step for a movement that has burst forth onto the political scene in only a month, fuelled by online social media and a growing anger at the ongoing oppression of Indigenous People.

"There's really good potential of them going back to their communities and upping the ante to the government to honour the treaties, let alone pull them out from under our feet," Radek said. "[Spence] will wait to see how this meeting turns out, but quite frankly I hope she stops this fast because I think she's better off on this side with us, fighting as a warrior, than going into the spirit world. We need her help with us."


David P. Ball is a writer and photojournalist in Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish land. You can read interviews and more of his work at the Left Coast Post blog here on His website is On Twitter: @davidpball

Photo: Dylan Penner

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