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. Continue reading