Τhe air was cold, sharp, biting. A medicine man was burning sage in a cleansing ceremony and a sacred fire burned in my peripheral. An elder called forth all the women who knew the Willow Song to come share their voices. In my Torontonian grade school, Canada’s history begins with the so-called discovery of the Americas. The Willow Song, as well as many other Indigenous traditions, was never taught. As the beat of my heart blended with the beat of the drums, I began to understand the immensity of the history I did not know. So I took some notes from the Willow Song: willow trees bend by the force of the wind. They do not break.
Through the smoke of the fire, I could see the slow rush of the Ottawa River and on its noble cliff, Parliament Hill. Samuel de Champlain wrote in his journal on June 14, 1613: “the savages call it Asticou, which means kettle.” The waterfalls that gave the land its name are no longer there. Today, most call this Algonquin territory Victoria Island, home of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. A woman who, through her hunger strike – still ongoing at time of writing – is inspiring thousands of people to march for Indigenous rights in the social movement now known as Idle No More.
The grassroots movement brings to light three main goals: the decolonization of Indigenous peoples by the federal government, the reversal of omnibus Bill C-45, and the union of Indigenous people and their allies in a collective, nationwide movement. Omnibus Bill C-45 amends 64 acts or regulations, including the Indian Act and several acts regulating natural resource extraction. Many of the reforms will allow the federal government to streamline projects and profit from Indigenous territories.
A fellow Daily editor and I arrived on the island the morning of January 11 – one month after Chief Spence began her hunger strike. There was a demonstration planned for that day and buses were already arriving from all over the country with people ready to walk the short distance to Parliament Hill. The Ontarian band chiefs had convened the day before in Ottawa’s Delta hotel to discuss whether or not to negotiate with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This was our second attempt at getting past the camp gates. A media blackout that began the previous Monday had kept journalists like us out. The following day, we came as students instead, without recorder, notebook, or camera. (Thus, I won’t be talking about the demonstration inside the camp.)
Before entering the camp, my colleague and I spent a good ten minutes idling among the parked cars, unsure how to respectfully approach a movement we felt was not ours. A woman wearing traditional indigenous regalia approached us and introduced herself. She laughed with us and chatted amicably about where she was from. “Go make your observations inside,” she said.
A gatekeeper to the camp told us that the media blackout was imposed because of the harm mainstream media had done to the movement. He had been on the island since the first day of Chief Spence’s hunger strike.
Since December 11, Chief Spence has been the face of what has been described as a battle between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government. On January 7, in the thick of the movement, the government leaked an audit of Attawapiskat that had been filed on September 20, 2012. The accounting firm Deloitte emailed Chief Spence and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs stating, “an average of 81 per cent of files did not have adequate supporting documents and over 60 per cent had no documentation of the reason for payment.” The federal government provided approximately $104 million to the Attawapiskat band council between April 1, 2005 and November 30, 2011. There are approximately 3,000 members of the Attawapiskat community. The funding per person annually would amount to little under $6,000 and must provide for education, infrastructure, housing, and administration. According to NDP MP Meghan Leslie’s teach-in last week at Dalhousie University, the federal government spends around $14,000 on a non-Indigenous Canadian to fulfill these needs.
“The mainstream media has been very important to the movement…in particular mainstream media’s poor coverage of the movement,” Howard Ramos, a Dalhousie professor who specializes in Canadian Aboriginal mobilization, told me over the phone. In her column for the National Post, Christie Blatchford referred to Spence’s hunger strike spurring “the inevitable cycle of hideous puffery and horse manure that usually accompanies native protests swirls.” Ramos noted that the average Canadian’s lack of understanding coupled with the confusing message put forth by the press has generated a lot of interest.
Melissa Mollen Dupuis, co-organizer of the Quebec Idle No More chapter, says current coverage in alternative media sources is a drastic change, however, from the reporting on the 1990 Oka Crisis. When the Quebec town of Oka tried to push residential development and build a golf course onto the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, including on an ancestral burial ground, community members and supporters armed themselves and erected a barricade blocking the construction. The protesters were met with the Sûreté du Québec and eventually the military, resulting in a two and a half month standoff. No shots were fired by either side. According to Dupuis, the media “demonized” the indigenous community and people who participated in road blockades. “We’re always told we’re damn savages,” she said. Dupuis sees hope in the reporting from more alternative news sources, particularly supportive media from blogs and Twitter.
“You cannot pass judgment on what you see on television if you cannot even name the 12 nations on which you live,” Dupuis told me with laugh. “[Idle No More] is like a bushfire. The wood was dry and ready to burn.”
As we left the Idle No More rally on that Friday and drove into Montreal, we found another Idle No More demonstration. Some protesters had constructed an immense Kaswentha or Two Row Wampum belt, a representation of the original covenant between the settler Europeans and the Haudenosaunees, the “people of the longhouse.” The Wampum belt is comprised of two rows of purple that run parallel on a bed of white. One row of purple represents the canoes of the Haudenosaunee and the other row represents the ships of the then-coming Europeans, running parallel but not crossing paths.
That was how Kakwiranó:ron Cook explained the Kaswentha to me at the First Peoples’ House of McGill. Cook is the Aboriginal Community Outreach Coordinator and Career Advisor and works across Canada recruiting students to come to McGill. He is my first real teacher on Indigenous issues.
The island of Montreal is known in Mohawk as Tiohtiá:ke or “where the people split or parted ways.” McGill University itself sits on a former Iroquois settlement. The only relic of a former indigenous existence is the Hochelaga Rock by Roddick Gates. I followed Cook around the First Peoples’ House looking at Wampum and distinguishing band councils from traditional councils. Cook’s father is Mohawk and his mother is Dakota. He says to truly understand what needs to change, we must first understand the great diversity of indigenous communities and recognize how people wish to be identified.
Four years ago, McGill began asking students to self-identify as North American Aboriginal, which includes but may not be limited to First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Non-Status, Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian, when applying to the University. Out of 37,000 students at McGill, currently 150 (.04 per cent) of students have self-identified under this category, despite a 45 per cent growth in Canada’s indigenous population between 1996 and 2006.
“You have to wonder, is it because McGill isn’t a friendly place for indigenous students,” said Erin Linklater, a U3 Political Science student. I sat down in the First Peoples’ House with Linklater, a citizen of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Linklater said she couldn’t believe there wasn’t an Indigenous Studies program at McGill when she first got here. “Taking a Canadian politics course here, you’ll have one little chapter on indigenous issues and you won’t talk about indigenous issues ever again in the whole class,” she said.
In an immediate sense, Idle No More is a concerted effort against the federal government’s ongoing colonialism in indigenous communities, and an attempt at nationwide Indigenous solidarity. As protests continue into a second month, the movement may also serve as a wake up call for larger institutions to recognize the plight of Indigenous communities, as well as the Canadian education system’s utter lack of knowledge about them.
In the 2013-2014 academic year, McGill will offer a minor concentration in Indigenous Studies, but Cook feels that it will be a long time until McGill implements a major or establishes an institute similar to those at University of Victoria or the University of British Columbia. Jessica Dolan, a McGill PhD student currently writing her dissertation on Haudenosaunee environmental philosophy, said that part of the solution could be simply having more Indigenous people here. “If an institution encourages more indigenous professors, more Indigenous students, more people in general to be interested in the whole history of North America rather than certain parts of it, then there is going to be a synergistic effect that alters the pedagogical leaning of the University,” she said.
Linklater and Dolan are great comrades and advocates for Indigenous issues. They clarify each other’s sentences and remind each other of points they forgot to make. Linklater was once part of a campaign against Indigenous appropriation around Halloween; Dolan is organizing an Idle No More teach-in as a postgraduate student to be run later this month.
Linklater’s general advice for McGill is to recognize the combined history to make way for a very different shared future. “I think that is a form of respect and I don’t think it would go unnoticed,” she said. When I asked her about whether McGill participates in the ongoing colonial process of Indigenous people in Canada, she replied “there’s one sense in which I might change going to [the] University but there’s [another] sense that I might change the institution by being here.”
Founded by Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, and Sheelah McLean, the Idle No More movement is in its second month and may continue for longer. The movement has found other leaders in Melissa Mollen Dupuis and Widia Lariviere in Quebec. Others continue to utilize social media platforms to keep the Idle No More fire burning. Professor Ramos said to me, “the status quo is not sustainable.”
That morning on Victoria Island, as I stood on my toes to catch sight of Chief Spence, the only thing that cut through the cold were the sounds of song and drum. If the administrators of the federal government were to welcome Indigenous communities – as my colleague and I were welcomed into the camp – this place we call Canada would carve out a different landscape against the scope of vast blue. As we gathered there that morning ready to set out, and a freezing rain seeped through jackets and headdresses alike, the organizer simply said, “our people have been through worse” than the Ottawa winter. People continued to ask each other where they were from, and answer with Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onodaga, Mohawk.
Idle No More is offering an education to the world. It is only the inauguration of a journey we as people can traverse together. The Canadian federal government might be in for a long winter, because as was proclaimed that morning, it has “awoken the spirit of a spiritual people.”