New Internationalist

Idle No More and Britain’s colonial present

Idle No More protest banner
There has been widespread protest in support of Idle No More Marygkosta, under a CC License.

‘Perceptible sounds of native drums and songs have been reverberating through shopping malls, streets, university campuses and on the steps of legislative buildings.’

On 27 January 2013, Canadian academic and lawyer Dr Brenna Bhandar spoke these words to supporters of the Idle No More movement gathered at the Bishopsgate Institute in East London.

Also listening was co-founder of the First Nation-led movement, Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum. Although she spoke softly, first in her own language of the Nehiyaw (Cree) nation, and then in English, it was clear that this woman had arrived in Britain with not only a story, but a mandate from Idle No More, for the British Crown and its citizens.

McAdam is one of four women who came together in late 2012 to oppose the omnibus Bill C-45 to be passed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Opposition swelled from the province of Saskatchewan, across North America, to become the globally recognized Idle No More movement.

Although McAdam maintains that she is ‘not an activist’, the massive legislative changes, particularly in relation to land and water rights, scared her enough to raise her voice in opposition to the gradual ‘extermination of [her] people and [her] people’s lands.’

With plastic chairs arranged in concentric circles for an audience of about 75, Bhandar, who now lives in Britain, provided some context behind the treaties made between First Nations people and British colonizers in the 18th century, and the land, self-government and human rights they are presumed to protect. Bhandar sought to explain how even the most progressive legal doctrines are rooted in an assertion of colonial sovereignty and therefore are at odds with indigenous self-determination.

From the perspective of many First Nations people, their treaties are with the British Crown, although the Canadian government took on the responsibilities with the repatriation of the constitution in 1982. McAdam followed Dr Bhandar’s points by saying: ‘I am here to let London know that the constitution was repatriated on the basis that Canada would honour the Crown’s responsibilities and I am telling you, they are not... If anything, they are outright attacking indigenous people on every level.’

What is special about these treaties, however, is that they have no time limit, and as Bhandar summarized, the issue at hand is one of morality: the court vowed to act in the best interests of First Nations to prevent Indians from being exploited. The treaties were made long before the Canadian government structure was in place and Dr Bhandar stressed last weekend: ‘From an international perspective it is necessary to query, as many First Nations have done, the continued assertion of Canadian crown sovereignty.’

Although technically the Queen’s representative can dissolve Parliament, according to constitutional convention this is impossible. I spoke to a Canadian law student in London who told me, ‘The crown has no real power in Canada, that’s the first thing we learn in public law classes.’ If the British Crown is in Canada in name only, then Sylvia and her people are right in asking: who honours the treaties and, more importantly, who honours their human rights?

A report recently released by Amnesty International criticized the Canadian government, saying: ‘By every measure, be it respect for treaty and land rights, levels of poverty, average life spans, violence against women and girls, dramatically disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration or access to government services such as housing, healthcare, education, water and child protection, Indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis.’ 

Unemployment and poverty are five times that of non-aboriginal communities. The suicide rate is six times higher, more than a third live in homes that do not meet basic needs of acceptability, and First Nations people can expect to live a decade less than others Canadians.

As McAdam drew her London presentation to a close, she came to rest on a photo of five people in an expansive field: ‘In May and June, I left school to work. You see those fields? They are out in the open, beside highways. There are cars driving by watching indigenous children working in the fields. It was a policy.’ The sugar beet policy was a programme enacted by the Canadian government, through the Indian Affairs branch, when there was a labour shortage of European immigrant workers in the 1950s.

Although Stephen Harper has apologized on behalf of the government for what First Nations had suffered over the past centuries, none of his policies since seem to have positively benefited the well-being of Aboriginals. They are increasingly detrimental, and if a persistent deference of Aboriginal rights as based on original treaties they made with the British Crown continues, it will not only eliminate First Nations culture, land and people, but it will destroy Canadian land and contribute significantly to the degeneration of the global climate.

Perhaps Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum, and Idle No More did not come to London to ask the Queen to save them literally, but to proclaim that not every crisis is happening in a war-torn landscape or site of military riots. The indigenous people of Canada are still in crisis: a crisis that began with European colonization.

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