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Why the 'Idle No More' Movement Is Our Best Chance for Clean Land and Water

In an urgent pursuit for environmental justice and basic human rights, First Nations gather across North America under the banner of Idle No More.
 
 
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As Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence enters her fourth week of a hunger strike outside the Canadian parliament building, thousands of protesters voice their support in Los Angeles, London, Minneapolis, and New York City. Spence and the protesters of the Idle No More movement are drawing attention to deplorable conditions in native communities and the recent passage of Bill C-45, which sidesteps most Canadian environmental laws.

Put it this way: Before the passage of Bill C-45, 2.6 million rivers, lakes, and a good portion of Canada’s three ocean shorelines were protected under the Navigable Waters Act. Now, only eighty-seven are protected. That’s just the beginning of the problem, which seems not to have drawn much attention from the general public.

"Flash mob" protests with traditional dancing and drumming have erupted in dozens of shopping malls across North America, marches and highway blockades by aboriginal groups and supporters have emerged across Canada and as far away as New Zealand and the Middle East. This weekend, hundreds of native people and their supporters held a flash mob round dance, with hand drums and singing, at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, again as a part of the Idle No More protest movement. This quickly emerging wave of native activism on environmental and human rights issues has spread like a wildfire across the continent.

Prime Minister Harper’s push for tar sands and mining
 

A group of natives from Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, Ontario, pitched a pickup truck across the tracks of a Canadian National Railway spur and blocked train traffic Friday in support of the Idle No More protest in Ottawa. The blockade began just after Boxing Day, that famed Canadian holiday, and has continued.

The Aamjiwnaang blockade is one of hundreds. A center of controversy is the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would cost $6 billion and bring tar sands from Alberta to the Pacific. The pipeline will cross over 40 native nations, all of whom have expressed opposition. The legislative changes could expedite approval of this and many other projects—all of which are in aboriginal territories.

That is sort of passé, particularly if you are a native person. And particularly if you are Chief Theresa Spence. Spence is the leader of Attawapiskat First Nation—a very remote Cree community from James Bay, Ontario, which is at the bottom of Hudson Bay. The community’s 1,549 on-reserve residents (a third of whom are under the age of 19) have weathered quite a bit, including the fur trade, residential schools, a status as non-treaty Indians, and limited access to modern conveniences such as toilets and electricity. This is a bit commonplace in the far north, but it has become exacerbated in the past five years.“Idle No More” is Canadian for “That’s enough BS, we’re coming out to stop you,” or something like that. Canada often touts a sort of “better than thou” human rights position in the international arena and has, for instance, a rather small military, so it’s not likely to launch any pre-emptive strikes against known or unknown adversaries, and has often sought to appear as a good guy, more so than its southern neighbor. More than a few American expatriates moved to Canada during the Vietnam war, and stayed there, thinking it was a pretty good deal.

Enter DeBeers, the largest diamond mining enterprise in the world. The company moved into northern Ontario in 2006. The Victor Mine reached commercial production in 2008 and was voted “Mine of the Year” by the readers of the international trade publication, Mining Magazine. The company states that it is “committed to sustainable development in local communities.” But this is where the first world meets the third world in the north, as Canadian MP Bob Rae discovered last year on his tour of the destitute conditions in the village. Infrastructure in the subarctic is in short supply. There is no road into the village eight months of the year; during the other four months, during freeze up, there’s an ice road. A diamond mine needs a lot of infrastructure. And that has to be shipped in, so the trucks launch out of Moosonee, Ontario. Then, they build a better road. The problem is that the road won’t work when the climate changes, and already stretched infrastructure gets tapped out.

 
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