The federal government of Stephen Harper has decided to change several Canadians laws with Bill C-45, an omnibus bill so thick and so filled with changes that he assumes Canadians will not notice. One group of Canadians has noticed. It is Canadian natives (First Nations is the term they prefer).
Harper has made several changes to Canada’s environmental laws in the past and has continued to simplify the process that oil and gas companies have to go through to build a pipeline from the province of Alberta to the Pacific coast of the province of British Columbia. One of the longstanding opponents to such plans are native reserves and bands that could see pipelines going through their territories. To bypass native bands, Harper is fundamentally altering the governance on reserves through Canada’s Indian Act, allowing individuals to sell their parcel of land or grant access without having to go through their local bands. Therefore, Harper hopes that he can get the Enbridge pipeline done without getting the full consent of major bands. Other changes brought in Bill C-45 are the classification of many internal waterways allowing them to be used commercially and for inland commercial navigation.
While Stephen Harper was the prime minister who offered natives his excuses on behalf of colonial Canadians who abused natives for centuries, forced their kids into Western schools, took them away from their parents and practically dumped most natives and Métis on reserves with little rights and less than full citizenship status in the past, Harper has reversed course with Bill C-45. Bypassing band council threaten the integrity of band structures and power-base. To that end Ontario Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spencer requested a discussion with a representative of the Queen of Canada (possibly Canada’s Governor General) and Prime Minister Harper to discuss the wide ranging changes affecting natives without their consultations, as granted in past treaties. On December 10, 2012, Spencer started a hunger strike until she would meet with the Queen’s representative and the prime minister.
Neither the Governor General nor the prime minister has bothered to meet with Spencer. The movement started by Spencer sports the name #IdleNoMore and a various times, trended in Canada. Natives have amassed much support from Canada’s left, artists, and foreigners. However, there is a group besides the political class that Spencer and the Idle No More movement have failed to appeal to thus far – Canadians. Harper is a politician and will only meet Spencer if polls and voting trends tell him he should. Otherwise, he really doesn’t care about Idle No More. Harper has greater plans in his reinvention of Canada, and he certainly won’t let the chief of a small reserve up North change his plans.
As an elected/representative member of a community Chief Spencer definitely shouldn’t have to beg to meet the prime minister. Her village went through much hell earlier this year and again Harper barely reacted to the plight of the natives in Attawapiskat. This is why I feel Spencer’s hunger strike hurts more to watch because she’ll either die or her doctor will force her off the hunger strike and she will be defeated. How will that help natives’ needs?
There are many problems with the current public relations campaign of Idle No More. One main problem I have with the movement and past native movements is how they neglect to deal with modern Canada casting the debate always in the mould of the white European colonizers from the British isles and France versus the poor natives. But Canada is more than a country with white Europeans and natives. It’s a country filled with Pakistani, Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, Africans, South Americans, people from the Caribbean, and people from the Middle East. Many Europeans from nations that had not been early settlers in Canada also joined. Ukrainians, Russians, Italians, Poles, Portuguese, Greeks, Germans, Scandinavians, and Armenians all contributed to Canada when they immigrated en masse. Natives have never had a narrative that recognized modern Canada or that spoke to that refugee from Afghanistan who wants to be part of the Canadian fabric or the Filipino nurse who works two jobs to send money back home to her family. Where do these newer Canadians fit in the white colonizer /settler narrative? How can natives reach out to these newer Canadians? By not doing so, natives make themselves more irrelevant in the modern fabric of Canada.
It’s my belief that natives need to recast their branding and public relations in Canada because using the old strategies that worked with past politicians and Canadians in the previously just doesn’t work. Part of natives’ usual strategy includes branding themselves as the original Canadians, those whose land was taken or, those who signed honourable treaties that subsequently were broken by white European settlers. Idle No More has gained traction, but much of the communication from individuals involves using guilt, shame, blame. Terms such as colonizers and occupiers are used. This kind of language plays with all the clichés many Canadians arbour about natives.
Many Canadians have a condescending view of natives. We think they either live on reserves or work in construction jobs in cities like Calgary, or own money-making casinos and don’t pay taxes. We remember them for the many roads blockades that have occurred in the last 30 years in various native/non-native conflicts. We often think that their chiefs and internal power structures are corrupted and used by a minority of their bands. We either laugh or find their culture passé or cute, but we don’t understand it. Idle No More reinforces all old clichés many Canadians have about natives.
But there is another way. C-45 is crappy for natives. It takes away scraps of powers using the good old divide and conquer maxim. And it might just work. Chief Spencer is fighting against that. Natives were not asked to sit at the table when these changes were being drafted by Harper’s government. It is a betrayal. Those treaties keep getting diluted forevermore. By arguing over these scraps which don’t even fulfill their needs, natives are handing control to Harper. That’s a mistake because Harper just doesn’t care about them.
Many Canadians just shut their mind when they see or hear about a native grievance. Were the message different, Canadians’ reactions might be less callous. Where are the movements that show the best of native Canadians’ next generation? Where are the showcases of artists, creators, signers, playwrights crafting clever stories and cartoons about their culture and contribution to Canadian culture? Where are the viral videos showing natives re-telling classic Christmas stories embedded with native cue points, showing Harper the wrong of his ways and entertaining Canadians? How about a story where Harper is visited by three spirits of Christmas and made to realize how his stubbornness is affecting natives à la Christmas Carol?
This is how Harper has to be fought. By highlighting the contribution of natives to Canada and showing how wrongheaded policies are affecting the vibrancy of their culture. That message has more legs than the usual blame, shame and guilt that Canadians are trying to avoid. Moreover, Idle No More lacks a proper “I have dream” moment where a great speaker shares with his community and other Canadians the vision he/she has for natives? None of this kind of positive communication is used in Idle No More. Instead, it’s natives pleading and begging with a stubborn and dismissive man to please deign meet their leader, as if it would change anything. Idle No More is not a current topic that has Canadians chatting over the Christmas holidays. Many Canadians know there’s something happening with natives, but it’s nothing top of mind or that they feel involved with as more than remote bystanders.