Idle No More marches. Chiefs and the prime minister at odds over treaties. Liquid diets in teepees on the Ottawa River. It's easy to be confused about all that has happened in the last six weeks among Canada's aboriginal people.
But that's not surprising because the issues at stake are among the most complex and most important our nation faces today. Many of them are the issues Canada has been facing for decades but have never been adequately addressed. Here is a short, by no means exhaustive, primer looking at the movement, treaties and the legislation at the centre of the debate.
IDLE NO MORE
When did it begin?
In November, four women from Saskatchewan held a "teach-in" in Saskatoon to educate people about the government's omnibus budget legislation, Bill C-45, which was introduced a few weeks prior. Additional teach-ins followed in Prince Albert and Regina to raise awareness of the bill.
An Alberta woman then organized an information meeting on the Louis Bull Cree Nation, and turned to Facebook and Twitter to draw attention to the imminent passage of C-45.
Those events slowly grew into additional rallies, protests and flash mobs at shopping malls as the movement gained steam on social media. On Dec. 10, the first National Day of Action took place, and the protests grew to encompass additional pieces of legislation introduced or passed by the government that affect First Nations but which First Nations leaders say they were not consulted about.
The protests and rallies have continued throughout January and another Day of Action is planned for Jan. 28.
Is it an official organization?
Idle No More is official in that it has a website and a Facebook page. But not every rally or protest that labels itself as an Idle No More event is connected to the original founders. The women who started Idle No More do not condone aggressive tactics in protests, and any blockades are certainly not affiliated. However, the movement grew quickly beyond its founders to encompass a general feeling among aboriginals, many of them young people, that it was time to start actively pushing for the change they wanted to see.
What are its objectives?
The Idle No More movement would like the federal government to repeal all legislation that violates treaties, including those that affect environmental regulations, such as the budget-implementation bills C-38 and C-45. It seeks to educate and revitalize aboriginal peoples, empower them and regain sovereignty and independence.
TREATIES: A PRIMER
In almost every way, everything that has happened in the last few months -- the protests, the demands for a meeting with the prime minister and Governor General, the pseudo-hunger strike/liquid diet/fast -- they all come back to one thing: The treaties Canada and First Nations signed more than 100 years ago have still not been fully implemented. But what are treaties and why are they so important? Without promising to be an exhaustive representation, here are some of the most salient points about treaties.
What is a treaty?
n. A formally concluded and ratified agreement between states; the document embodying such an agreement; an agreement between individuals or parties, especially for the purchase of property.
-- Canadian Oxford Paperback Dictionary
In Canada, treaties between the Crown and First Nations were signed so First Nations and European settlers could live side by side in peace, share the land and both prosper. Europeans needed the treaties to have land for new settlers to live on and cultivate. First Nations saw treaties as documents to protect their language and culture during a time when disease was hurting their people and the fur trade was dying as a source of income.
How many treaties are there?
There are dozens of treaties that affect First Nations in almost every province and territory. Treaties were signed both pre- and post-Confederation. Manitoba First Nations are part of seven treaties, signed between 1871 and 1910.
There are also some First Nations in Manitoba, namely the Dakota, who are not part of the treaties but have their own agreements with the Crown.
What do treaties say?
These are not long-winded documents. Treaty One, which covers seven First Nations in southern Manitoba, is only four pages long. It outlines the land the First Nations were ceding to Canada, and the land "Her Majesty the Queen" would set aside for the sole use of the bands in question. In Treaty One, as with most of the Manitoba treaties, it was 160 acres (64 hectares) of land per family of five, or the same proportion for larger or smaller families. Treaty One also pledged Canada would maintain a school on each reserve, that liquor was forbidden on the reserves and that each family of five would receive an annual payment of $15, to be paid in cash or goods such as traps, blankets, cloth or twine. At the signing of the treaty, each reserve was also to get a buggy, a bull, a cow, a boar and a sow, as well as a male and female of each kind of animal raised by farmers. Ploughs and harrows were also to be provided.
Why do we now talk about treaty implementation?
In 2013, there are still outstanding claims for land and other goods not given. Manitoba Treaty Commissioner James Wilson said there were power struggles and problems right from the start. Much of the land wasn't actually set aside for the First Nations as promised, and even the promised goods, such as farm animals and seeds, were withheld.
"These are promises that weren't kept. It's really frustrating because even the government knows they have to do it but they are slow to do anything about it," Wilson said.
Opaskwayak Cree Nation was supposed to get 32,000 acres (13,000 hectares) of land under Treaty Five, but ended up with just half of that, Wilson said.
It meant almost from day one, the spirit and intent of the treaties were breached, and ill will between First Nations and the government grew. It also made it much more difficult for First Nations to prosper, without the amount of land needed for their people or the promised help with farming and other resource-development assistance.
Where does the Indian Act fit in?
The Indian Act was first passed by the Canadian Parliament in 1876. It was being developed at the same time as many of the treaties, but unlike the treaties, which were negotiated with the First Nations, the Indian Act was imposed by the government without consultation. It sets out everything about how First Nations must live, was responsible for setting up residential schools and even allowed municipalities to expropriate parts of reserves whenever they needed land for a highway or a railroad or some similar project.
The Indian Act, therefore, superseded the treaties in many ways, and was a major barrier to implementing the spirit and intent of the treaties. Instead of First Nations people living on their land and prospering, the Indian Act most often prevented that prosperity.
What is happening with treaties now?
During the Jan. 11 meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, Harper agreed to a "high-level dialogue on the treaty relationship and comprehensive claims." The process was to be overseen by his office and the Privy Council Office, which is the bureaucratic side of the PMO. That was "the first time I saw the federal government say they were going to talk about treaty implementation, but people are scrambling to understand what that means," Wilson said.
First Nations leaders, including chiefs in Manitoba, want a "nation-to-nation" discussion about implementing the spirit and intent of the treaties. Nation-to-nation would be from the perspective that both sides at the table are equals. One of Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak's biggest complaints about the Jan. 11 meeting with Harper was that it was not being organized as a nation-to-nation discussion, but a top-down meeting over which the prime minister reigned.
Chief Theresa Spence
The chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario has become one of the faces of the Idle No More movement even though she has nothing to do with it. Spence began her liquid diet Dec. 11 in a bid to get Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to meet with her. Spence ended her protest Thursday. Spence's insistence on a meeting with both Harper and the Governor General stems from the historical fact treaties were authorized by Her Majesty the Queen. Many First Nations leaders -- though not all -- believe since their treaties were with the Crown, the Crown's representative should be at the table.
Queen Elizabeth II rejected that in a letter to a Spence supporter, saying while she was observing the occurrences, First Nations had to take matters up with the government.
The elder from the Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba began fasting Dec. 12, demanding Ottawa repeal parts of its budget-implementation bill that removed environmental regulations, changed fisheries rules and amended the Indian Act, all without consulting First Nations. As with Spence, he ended his protest Thursday.
Chief Derek Nepinak
Elected grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in 2011, Nepinak is a well-respected leader who earlier this month became the face of the chiefs who were opposed to the Jan. 11 meeting with Harper. Nepinak is now overseeing a conversation among Manitoba chiefs and some from Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, about whether to withdraw from or amend their relationship with the Assembly of First Nations.
The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Atleo was the man in the middle earlier this month trying to find peace among the highly emotional and very different viewpoints of chiefs across Canada. He took a medical leave after the Jan. 11 meeting, returning to work Friday. Many eyes will be on him to see whether he continues to work with the prime minister on the plan hammered out at the Jan. 11 meeting, or if he cedes to the viewpoints of chiefs who want that process stopped unless the Governor General is involved.
Idle No More founders
Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean, Jess Gordon, and Nina Wilson. The four women from Saskatchewan's original teach-in about Bill C-45 launched the movement of nationwide protests known as Idle No More.
THE PROBLEM LEGISLATION
There are several pieces of legislation introduced or passed in the last year that have upset First Nations people because of lack of consultation and infringement of their treaty rights.
BILL C-38 AND BILL C-45: The two budget-implementation bills for 2012 amend more than 70 different pieces of legislation. Among the problematic changes for First Nations people are reductions in federal environmental reviews on waterways, changes to the definition of an aboriginal fishery, reductions in protection of fish habitats and amendments to the Indian Act related to leasing reserve property.
S-6: The First Nations Election Act establishes common rules for Indian Act-governed elections on reserves and establishes stricter penalties for election violations. This bill grew out of a proposal from Manitoba's former grand chief, Ron Evans. However many First Nations leaders dislike the fact it can be imposed on bands without their consent.
S-8: The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, passed by the Senate and now in the House of Commons, establishes authority for Ottawa to regulate drinking water on reserves and override band council resolutions about drinking water.
C-27: The First Nations Accountability Act, passed by the House of Commons and now in the Senate, would compel First Nations to make public the salaries of chiefs and councillors as well as the finances of band-owned entities.
C-428: The Act to Amend the Indian Act and to Provide for its Replacement is a private member's bill from First Nations Conservative MP Rob Clarke. It repeals many archaic parts of the Indian Act but was introduced without much consultation with First Nations leaders.