Idle No More raises questions about both the past and future of Canada itself. It goes to the reality that we are a nation with a colonial history, and that we have not yet come to grips with that history. And it raises the possibility of a future in which First Nations retake their rightful place in decision-making about their territories, and in which we collectively build a more sustainable future for our children.
Recognition of First Nations’ inherent title and rights, and awareness that Indigenous legal traditions are alive and well is a central tenet of our work at West Coast. So, of course, we support the Idle No More movement, which is putting the issue of the central role of First Nations in Canada squarely before non-Indigenous Canadians, in a way that has not been seen for many years. And in a way that has invited non-Indigenous Canadians to stand in solidarity.
“Protect Mother Earth”
We share the IdleNoMore commitment to fostering a more sustainable future grounded in recognition of the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples, and treaty obligations to them. As the IdleNoMore Mission Statement states:
Idle No More calls on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water. Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth.
Idle No More began as a direct response to Bill C-45, both due to the Omnibus Bill’s amendments to the Indian Act, but also due to its amendments to the Navigable Waters Protection Act (now the “Navigation Protection Act”), which gut legal protection for navigable waters throughout Canada. And there is no doubt that earlier amendments to the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act which compromise Indigenous rights in a variety of ways are part of the back drop of this remarkable movement. A recent statement from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs emphasizes this point:
It is clear, that the weakening of these environmental laws have created greater political unity and grassroots solidarity as more and more people appreciate that once corporate third party interests are granted, those interests are protected at the great expense of the environmental values that we all share and to the great detriment of all future generations.
The courageous actions of Chief Theresa Spence and the many wise voices that have been raised in recent weeks remind us about the true human costs of the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their lands, both historically and through the imposition of unsustainable resource development on their territories against their will. As Grand Chief Stewart Phillip recently noted, without being able to regain control over their share of natural resources, First Nations’ "poverty deepens and intensifies."
Taking a Stand
We are well aware of the power that comes when First Nations take action to enforce their Indigenous laws to protect the lands and waters of their territories. In BC, and beyond, First Nations have been using their own laws to say ‘no’ to plans to build pipelines to transport bitumen from Alberta to the West Coast – through the Save the Fraser Declaration (which recently celebrated its second anniversary) and the Coastal First Nations Declaration. We have written a backgrounder on the legal significance of these two declarations, based in Indigenous Law, Canadian law and international law.
Indeed, there are now a handful of examples in BC where First Nations have been able to leverage their power in the courts and politically to achieve recognition of their laws through mechanisms like government-to-government agreements about land use planning. For example, through the recent Gitanyow Huwilp Recognition and Reconciliation Agreement.
But Idle No More is talking about these opportunities at a national level, and as a direct response to attacks on both First Nations and on Canada’s environment.
In the long run there can be no sustainable development in Canada that does not include First Nations and respect current and future Treaties, and Aboriginal Title and Rights. The laws, traditions and cultures of Indigenous Peoples are too fundamental to our country. It is time for First Nations to take their rightful place, so that together we can build a more sustainable future for our children –one in which we benefit from the leadership and Indigenous knowledge of First Nations.
In an article posted as a resource on the Idle No More website, Jeff Corntassel asks some questions intended to promote thought about what is meant by “being Indigenous” and what an Indigenous resurgence might mean:
By asking “How will your ancestors and future generations recognize you as Indigenous?” I offer a challenge for us to begin re-envisioning and practicing everyday acts of resurgence. Throughout the article, I engage with similar questions posed by the Indigenous peoples in Bolivia: “What’s the example that your community is giving to all the surrounding communities about how to live sustainably with the environment, what are you showing them?”
But if Idle No More asks Indigenous people to ask some searching questions, it is no less demanding for non-Indigenous Canadians. Here are some tough questions to contemplate. Let us know what questions you think Idle No More raises.
- What is the role that Colonialism plays in my life? How have I benefited from Canada’s Colonial history?
- How can I support First Nations as they assert their title and rights?
- How do non-Indigenous Canadians take the first steps towards a place-based, sustainable future that respects Indigenous Rights and Governance?
How we answer these and other questions will help determine where Idle No More, the environmental movement and, indeed, Canada, goes next.
By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer