Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rising aboriginal frustration palpable

Show of anger at Commons looks likely to be repeated

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OTTAWA -- As far as First Nations are concerned, it is fitting that Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada had approved the Chinese takeover of two Canadian oil companies from the room on Parliament Hill known as the Aboriginal People's Committee Room.

It was just another sign the natural resources First Nations should be benefiting from were being sold off under their noses without their input.

Just days earlier, Chief Patrick Madahbee of the Anishinabek Nation Grand Council was among a group of chiefs who tried to force their way into the House of Commons to be heard, angry that the government appeared to be uninterested in listening to or working with First Nations.

Madahbee said last January Harper spent a day listening to First Nations leaders and worked on resetting the relationship between the Crown and indigenous people. That same night, Harper left for Davos, Switzerland, where he delivered a major speech about his plans for the coming years, with a priority focus on selling oil and gas to Asia and pursuing additional trade with Europe and India.

"Immediately, the prime minister jetted off to sell our resources off to the world. He's been constantly doing that," said Madahbee.

For First Nations leaders, the latest international trade deals are another sign of being left out of a deal that could help raise their people out of poverty.

And the anger that has been simmering under the surface for years is boiling over like the early signs of a volcano.

Last week's skirmish outside the Commons only lasted about 30 seconds and was far from out of control, but it is unlikely to be the last event of its kind.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak as good as said so a few hours after it happened.

"This may not be the last time we do this," he said.

The chiefs are backed by a growing grassroots movement that is largely led by young aboriginals who are demanding more for their future.

Hashtags such as #idlenomore and #nativewinter were gaining in popularity on Twitter last week. "It's going to be a long cold #nativewinter" wrote Curtis Dickie, one of many people who posted to the nativewinter hashtag on Twitter last week.

Some are comparing it to the beginnings of the Arab Spring in the Middle East.

A national day of action is planned today, with a rally at the Manitoba legislature this afternoon.

The issues facing First Nations people are many -- high rates of violence against women, education struggles, poverty, addiction and a lack of proper housing among them.

But what First Nations people want and need, which could help address many of those other issues, is to have a chance to do exactly what numerous commenters on the Free Press website demand. A chance to do things for themselves.

But when the natural resources on aboriginal lands reap economic benefits for everyone but First Nations, there is a problem.

"We have zero per cent of the revenues from the natural resources that are developed on our ancestral lands," Nepinak said Friday, at a press conference.

Zero per cent.

The roadblocks are huge when First Nations try to take steps towards an economic prosperity. Take the Kapyong Barracks, for example. Seen by the government as a tract of land with immense value, they sidestepped First Nations to sell it and have the government's Crown corporation land redeveloper take it over. First Nations wanted a chance to buy that land, or some of it, to establish businesses and reap the profits of developing it themselves.

But the government simply ignored them.

Now the whole battle is in court and judges are asked to sort out whether First Nations should have been offered first crack. Meanwhile, nobody benefits. In fact, Ottawa is spending millions to maintain it while it's empty.

The arguments about the land that was taken over are centuries old. But like it or not, treaties signed with First Nations are more than pieces of paper that can be cast aside when there is a good deal to be done with someone else. Decisions about resource development, environmental regulations, housing, fishing, you name it, all must be viewed through the treaty lens.

The courts have repeatedly sided with First Nations when that doesn't happen.

The #nativewinter may not turn into an uprising like the Arab Spring. But chiefs are noticing the unrest in their communities is higher than it has been in a while.

The government, and all Canadians, would do well to take notice.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2012 A8


Updated on Monday, December 10, 2012 at 6:50 AM CST: Adds art.

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