Local aboriginal groups block highways, plan a week of protests

 EDMONTON – Local First Nations say a series of weekend highway blockades mark only the beginning of a protest movement intended to give indigenous people a voice in national affairs.

The Idle No More movement kicked off with rallies across the county and in downtown Edmonton Dec. 10. The Samson Cree temporarily blocked Highway 2A on Dec. 13, handing out literature to protest wide-ranging changes included in the federal Bill C-45 and 13 other pieces of legislation. Driftpile First Nation blocked Highway 2 near Slave Lake on Saturday and Stoney Nakoda First Nation blocked Highway 1 near Morley on Sunday.

Other temporary blockades have been mounted across Canada, and more blockades and round dances are being planned across Alberta this week, including Monday’s dance at the Enoch First Nation reserve southwest of Edmonton.

Bill C-45 delisted many rivers from protection under federal legislation and made changes to the Indian Act without consultation or support from First Nations leaders.

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“It’s time to do something, hear our voices,” said organizer Kyle Peacock Monday. “The drinking water is effected by this Bill C-45. Everyone will be effected, not just First Nations.”

The rallies are also in support of a hunger strike, launched last week, by Northern Ontario Chief Theresa Spence.

“This is a movement. There’s change that has to happen,” said Shannon Houle, one of several volunteer organizers planning another Edmonton rally Friday. “I see these rallies building up to something bigger, and it’s going to be international. … This is just a beginning. It’s spreading and it’s spreading because we’re not saying this is just about us. This is about the whole world. The treaties are what’s going to save people.”

House suggested First Nations people and their supporters can use the treaties to stop federal plans.

This round of protests have been largely organized from the grassroots, starting with a group of Saskatchewan women who held “teach-ins” to spread the word about Bill C-45.

Tanya Kappo, an Edmonton-based aboriginal law student, followed their example and held a teach-in on the Louis Bull First Nation in Hobbema.

It was broadcast on the Hobbema radio station and spread through Twitter with the hashtag #idlenomore. Rallies and blockades have been organized through Facebook, and videos shared through YouTube.

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Houle, a Grade 4 teacher in the Frog Lake First Nation school, said the movement’s website, is getting 8,500 hits a day.

“I can’t even keep up with it,” Houle said.

Kappo said the movement clearly taps into a widespread discontent in the aboriginal community. Little has changed since Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave his apology for residential schools and the First Ministers preconference focused on aboriginal issues last summer, she said.

“All those were empty gestures,” Kappo said. Indigenous people in Canada are frustrated with broken promises and lack of aboriginal participation. “We’re always seeing how unimportant we are in this country.”

Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and runner up in the recent Assembly of First Nations leadership race, said she expects the grassroots protests to get much bigger once established political lobby groups start to lend their help and funding.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to see something bigger than the White Paper,” Palmater said, referring to nationwide protests that forced then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau to back down from a plan to eliminate the Indian Act in 1969.

Rallies across Canada are needed, she said, because the federal Conservatives have introduced 14 pieces of legislation affecting First Nations, including Bill C-45, all without consent, and while cutting funding for advocacy groups.

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Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence started her fast Dec. 10, calling in a widely-distributed statement for a meeting with the Queen and prime minister “to have a meaningful dialogue about restoring the respect of the political and economic relationship with our people.”

Spence has been camping on Victoria Island near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and has pledged to continue her fast until the meeting is held or she dies.

So far, Spence has not heard from Harper. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan offered to meet with her in January, once he returns from vacation.

That offer was “an insult,” said Palmater, who called Spence a warrior. Palmater planned to visit Spence Monday, following in the steps of jingle dress dancers who flew to Ottawa on the dime of Alberta supporters to hold a ceremony to encourage Spence.

Jan O’Driscoll, a spokesman for Duncan, said his department has made efforts to consult with aboriginal leaders. O’Driscoll told The Canadian Press they continue to work on issues like education, clean drinking water and housing.

“While we’ve made significant strides, there is still work to be done,” O’Driscoll said in an email to the Journal. Duncan has not yet been available for comment.