Stephen Harper stayed on the sidelines as Idle No More swept Canada from coast-to-coast-to-coast. He has now agreed to meet with a delegation of First Nation chiefs, including Theresa Spence, the Attawapiskat chief who is on a fast. In speaking of the relationship with First Nations, Harper waxed eloquent: "The Government of Canada and First Nations have an enduring historic relationship based on mutual respect, friendship and support... The Government of Canada is committed to strengthening this relationship."
Really? When did this halcyon period of "mutual respect, friendship and support" break out exactly and did it involve the people at large or just a select few? A more reality based assessment paints a different picture. Since the Tories ditched the Kelowna Accord that aimed to close the poverty gap between Indigenous peoples and Canadians, the situation has become more dire in some communities. Underfunding has led to severe hardship, especially as it impacts basic needs and services - water, housing and education.
Stats reveal a disturbing picture. Indigenous peoples make up 4 per-cent of Canada's population, but 20 per-cent of the prison population. Life expectancy for Indigenous people is 8 to 20 years less than for non-Aboriginal Canadians. Some communities have high rates of diabetes, tuberculosis and infant mortality. Despite these and other health challenges Health Canada funding to the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) has been cut. People are less of a priority for this government than fighter jets, mega-prisons, and oil.
Dr Pamela Palmater has referred to "Prime Minister Harper’s aggressive 'assimilatory' legislative plan meant to break up our communities and assimilate First Nations peoples."
In the article Harper's manifesto: Erasing Canada's Indigenous Communities Palmater talks about the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples who were stigmatized as "savages" and "heathens" - subjected to attacks on their culture, identity and persons:
The fact that early governments sent small-pox infested blankets to Indigenous communities knowing it would nearly wipe them all out, is a historical fact. These were not the actions of a few bad apples, or something that happened in the stone age. This has been acknowledged as modern "biological warfare" by publications in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The scalping laws in Nova Scotia were deliberate acts of murder which decimated the Mi'kmaw Nation population by almost 80 per cent. The forced surgical sterilization of Indigenous women against their will, and often without their knowledge or consent, destroyed Indigenous peoples in a very physical way.
The government and church-run residential schools knowingly created conditions that led to the mass deaths of the Indigenous children who attended -- upwards of 40 per cent never made it out alive. Incredibly, not only did government officials know that Indigenous children were dying and even "acknowledged" the high rates of deaths and their causes, but this was part of the overall objective.
The term "assimilation" is a polite way to describe the destruction of the life and culture of a people. More graphic terms such as "elimination" or "genocide" offend people who are uncomfortable with loaded terms. But when lives and communities are undermined it strips away dignity, a sense of value and connectedness.
The word genocide is most often taken to mean mass murder, but it can also refer to less direct methods. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who was known for his work on genocide, included the following in his definition - "... a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups."
In Canada there is a rosy version of Indigenous/settler-state relations that is more about myth than reality. The truth is a lot darker. Harper has made the ludicrous claim that Canada 'has no history of colonialism.' Canada's Supreme Court doesn't share his conviction. In 2012 it stated that in the sentencing of Aboriginal offenders there must be the recognition of - "the history of colonialism, displacement, and residential schools..."
Harper's cynical assault on First Nations treaty and resource rights in numerous amendments and laws adopted without meaningful negotiation is in plain violation of treaty obligations and basic democratic procedure.
Amendments in C-45 include multiple changes to land provisions in the Indian Act. There are also sweeping changes to environmental laws in the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and Hazardous Materials Information Review Act. The consequences of these changes bode ill for rights, for the environment and will impact not only Indigenous peoples but Canadians as a whole. It is yet one more example of the fascistic inclinations of the Harper government in its determination to drive its priorities even if it does involve riding roughshod over democracy and rights.
Idle No More is a non-violent movement. It is looking for and demanding serious change. Depending on the moves by the state there could well be a swing toward greater militancy, particularly in the form of economic disruption. In many ways we are approaching a crossroads in this country. It is no longer just about deal making at the upper end, but about grassroots issues central to the lives of Indigenous peoples and their supporters.