Canada’s first people not idle


By now many readers in the U.S. will be aware of the Idle No More movement, which burst suddenly onto the scene in Canada last November. Since then thousands of First Nations people of all ages, joined by many non-natives, have gathered across the breadth of the country, often in subfreezing conditions, to demonstrate their opposition to aggressive – and regressive – legislation subsequently passed on Dec. 14 by the Canadian parliament without consultation with indigenous nations or their political organizations.

“This bill breaches Canada’s own laws on the fiduciary legal duty to consult and accommodate First Nations,” said Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy.

According to a statement from the Chiefs of Ontario cited in Indian Country Today, Bill C-45 amends the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canada Labor Code. As one example, 99.9 percent of Canada’s innumerable water bodies have just become exempt from environmental review in advance of development.

The government of Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper characterizes the stealth move as a necessary streamlining of the process of economic development for the benefit of “First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples,” as native people are officially referred to in Canada. But to those with an awareness of public policy, or simply a memory of past dealings with the immigrant juggernaut, C-45 accelerates the age-old pattern that subsidizes that wealthy country’s economy at the catastrophic expense of its first inhabitants.

Earlier the plunder was in bison, beaver and gold, with the delivery of heathen souls as an offsetting bonus. Nowadays it’s timber, tar sands that require more energy to process than they yield, and the world’s greatest source of fresh water. (The souls gig remains in play.) Let those nations without similar sin cast the first stone.

Like other aboriginal people who have somehow survived the onslaught of invaders, Canada’s First Nations ironically may represent the Earth’s last best hope against not only ecological but also economic and social collapse. Their conversion to an economic model that regards wholesale environmental devastation as so much creative destruction remains incomplete, even as they struggle to resist a culture of lonely narcissism and institutionalized waste of those things essential to life. Among the many things their tormenters seemingly have yet to grasp, there is this: Indians actually have no desire to be like them.

Had the Europeans not made landfall on the continent, millions of native species, among them Homo sapiens, would not be in existential peril today, other than from whatever toxins wafted across on the ocean breezes.

I can hear the critics now: “Oh, would you rather die young, of some horrible disease?” Well, in light of results now being revealed by improved indices of “gross national happiness” (look it up), I’m not sure the answer to the question is moot.

Not that anyone, let alone Canada’s aboriginal people themselves, will argue that they’re overjoyed with their situation. A 237-page report submitted to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2009 and titled “The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” utilized a Human Development Index rather than gross economic indicators to create international quality of life rankings for both Canada and her southern neighbor.

While the totality of the Canadian population was calculated as eighth highest in the world in terms of life expectancy, education and standard of living, First Nations populations there registered 32nd. In the U.S. the figures were seventh and 30th, respectively. The report went on to offer painful truths about the situation in Canada: As a result of land loss and severe limitations set by the various levels of government on the free use of and continuing benefit from their natural resources, aboriginal people have become increasingly dependent on welfare measures undertaken by the federal or provincial governments.

The same report cited a Harvard University study done in 2005, which revealed a slight uptick in socio-economic conditions for Native Americans between 1990 and 2000. The difference, noted the authors, has been a policy known as self-determination, wherein Indian people exercise their own decision making power over their own lands. It needs pointing out that self-determination was achieved only after many harsh decades of struggle, to be exercised over lands long ago considered worthless by Euro-American policy makers.

Self-determination remains one of the demands of Canadian First Nations today, founded on rights agreed to and guaranteed by two internationally-recognized legal foundations: 1) treaties with the English crown and its successor government and 2) the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by that body in 2007.

Quoting in part the Idle No More blogspot: “INM calls on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water.” And with the speed of social media, countless demonstrations of support continue to sprout around the world, including several right here in New Mexico. A demonstration featuring a mass round dance, emblematic of INM events, will take place at high noon at the state capitol building on Jan. 15. Oh — if you’ve never round danced, don’t worry; it’s easy.

Dave Wheelock is of hardy Finndian stock; his mother’s parents emigrated from Finland and his father was full blood Oneida. In another life Mr. Wheelock directs and coaches collegiate sports. Contact him at