'Idle' protests point to change in the air
By: John Kennair
| Posted: Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013 06:00 am
Over the last few weeks, the media has expended a lot of time and attention to the Idle No More movement, and in this matter, the movement has served its purpose: to bring attention to the growing tensions between First Nations people and the government of Canada. Little has been mentioned, however, as to what is the issue.
Maybe this is the case because Idle No More is not focused upon one issue, but many. Or because there is more than one voice speaking up, and more than just one leader. Or maybe, because, as with all social movements, it is not truly organized, as one would see with interest groups, like the Assembly of First Nations. While media may choose to focus on an issue for superficial reasons, there is more to this story than meets the camera lens.
With the Royal Proclamation of 1763, when France ceded Quebec to England, First Nation people who had embraced Christianity were to be treated as equals. Soon after the War of 1812, however, the British government reversed this way of thinking, and this was the position we inherited in 1867. The government of Canada took a paternalistic position when it came to First Nations people.
Of course, under legislation and the treaty system, there were benefits accrued by them, but little or no rights. These were only attainable if they were to abandon these treaty rights. In 1960, under the ideas put forth by John Diefenbaker, however, First Nation peoples were enfranchised. They received the right to vote. They were not, however, treated as equals under Canadian law until after the Drybones case (1972) in which they won those rights before the courts. So, one could argue that First Nation people have had a long battle already within Canada, as they have fought hard for recognition and rights.
But is this all that Idle No More is about – rights? After Trudeau repatriated the Constitution in 1982, the First Nations peoples sought self-governance within Canada. The Constitution Act, 1867 (the old BNA Act) only recognizes two sovereign governments within Canada – the federal and the provincial governments. But First Nations people were looking to shake off the paternalistic ideals of the old Canada, to much political resistance. This is because it would erode some of the powers of provinces, in which all reservations are physically located. For 30 years this “discussion” has ensued, and countless court battles have slowly garnered more rights and powers for First Nations people. But it has taken time.
The stumbling block, it would seem now, is whether First Nations people are ready for and capable of self-governance. And this may have been the reason for the recent ad hominem attack on Chief Teresa Spence – to show mismanagement of a reserve. However, it echoes the status quo – an ideal of the old paternalistic society. A Calvinistic ideal that father – or in this case, the prime minister – knows best.
It also reflects a power struggle over the control of resources – resources that Canada needs to maintain its current economic model. If the governments lose absolute control of these resources, will they still be able to fulfil their promises to us?
So, the real message behind Idle No More is really that change is coming. A change that, ironically, most Canadians would accept. If we embrace this change, we can all move forward. First Nations people may stumble at first in their new roles, but it could just be the beginning or a stronger Canada.
Change is unsettling, especially to those in power, but can we really afford not to?
John Kennair is an international consultant and doctor of laws who lives in St. Albert.