Jan 172013
Hand holds poster that says "Rights of Nature"
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Provincial premiers might envy their success in deflecting Harper's steamroller.

by Gillian Steward

Since our prime minister is so intent on pushing through ambitious resource development projects, should it be any surprise that his grand vision would boomerang into an explosion of resistance from Aboriginal people?

Does it not occur to him that every time he makes public pronouncements about our resource riches being the path to prosperity, when he invites Chinese investors into the resource sector, that Aboriginal people might feel somewhat resentful?

I suspect it doesn’t occur to him even though his western base is home to thousands of Aboriginal people who are not exactly invisible. They are very much present in Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Kamloops… almost any western town or city, as well as the many reserves outside the cities.

Many of these people are still stuck with miserable living conditions while other people have come in, taken what they wanted, left a mess, and then grown rich.

Of course, the resource wealth he is talking about does not lie underneath Calgary, Toronto or Ottawa. It is much further afield. In many places the oil, minerals, timber and water are on or near land that has been inhabited by various aboriginal groups since before Confederation.

Yet many of these people are still stuck with miserable living conditions while other people have come in, taken what they wanted, left a mess, and then grown rich.

This is not new. But Harper’s grand plans for rapid development of oilsands in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, for pipelines that will cross northern BC so the oil can be delivered to Asia, and his gutting of environmental legislation to protect waterways, certainly rubs salt into old wounds.

This time around aboriginal people are much better prepared to confront a prime minister who doesn’t seem to give a damn about their old wounds. The Idle No More movement that has brought more than a few thousand people to the streets and barricades was started by four women in Saskatchewan where aboriginals and Métis are a force to be reckoned with. By 2015 they will comprise 20 per cent of the population, with half under the age of 21.

By 2015, Aboriginal people will comprise 20 per cent of Saskatechewan’s population, with half under the age of 21.

Doug Cuthand, a long-time aboriginal columnist with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, writes that many of these young people are educated and prepared to take up the cause.

“Not to receive a positive response from the government means growing frustration in Indian Country, coupled with ongoing civil disobedience that could see blocked highways, stalled resource projects and international condemnation.”

Cuthand also points out that over the past 30 years aboriginal groups have been winning court cases in which they demanded recognition of their collective right to consultation, and in some cases compensation, before resource development gets underway on their lands.

“The Harper government and First Nations are on a collision course. The government wants to make Canada a major exporter of natural resources. First Nations, however, are claiming title and want serious consultation and resource revenue sharing,” Cuthand writes.

Success breeds confidence, as Harper saw last week.

This determination — coupled with the resolve of Chief Theresa Spence, who is undergoing the rigors of a hunger strike right in the heart of Ottawa — has created a powerful narrative that moves people like never before.

In the meantime, the federal government and most of the media focus on the divisions in the movement. And to be sure there are divisions. But isn’t that par for the course? Since when are people who are trying to achieve something always united on goals, strategies and tactics?

Does no one remember the US civil rights movement? Martin Luther King is now widely recognized as a national hero. But when he was campaigning for basic rights for US blacks, he was opposed by the Black Panthers and Malcolm X for being too accommodating.

It’s not clear what will eventually come out of the meetings between aboriginal leaders and the prime minister. So far, Harper has said he will devote more personal attention to the Aboriginal affairs file. We’ll see.

Perhaps he could also consider naming a senior cabinet member to that portfolio instead of the usual merry-go-round of junior ministers. Just as Aboriginal people get used to one, he disappears and the learning curve starts all over again.

But one thing is certain. Aboriginal people have succeeded in getting this prime minister’s attention. Many other disgruntled Canadians, including premiers, have tried — only to be ignored as Harper steamrolls ahead with his agenda. Aboriginal people actually brought him to the table and that is quite a feat in itself.

About Gillian Steward

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald.

© Copyright 2013 Gillian Steward, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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