Idling While Canada Burns: lessons we can learn from First Nations

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Idle No More flash mob and stick game/bone game at Park Royal in West Vancouver on December 23, photo by Mique’l Icesis Dangeli.

This article originally appeared on the Georgia Straightwebsite.

During last summer’s heat wave, a big delivery truck pulled up in front of the construction site across the street from my house. It stood idling for at least 15 minutes before I ventured outside and headed over to the cab where the driver and his friend were playing their music very loud. “Can you please turn off your engine?” I asked politely when they finally rolled down the window. “There’s a law against idling in Vancouver.” The driver’s anger shot up. “There’s a law against everything in Vancouver!” he retorted. Obviously, he had to drive a long way to deliver his load and it hadn’t been a good day. I chose my words carefully. “They’ve decided to ask people not to idle because of climate change. You know, leaving a better world for our grandchildren.” The look on his face could have sunk a ship. No one had spoken to this guy about his grandchildren, at least not recently. He turned off his motor. I said thank you and walked away.

The First Nations concept of seven generations–of leaving the world as good, or better, than you found it for the children to come–is an old one. It was well entrenched in their society when Frenchman Jacques Cartier landed in what is now Quebec in 1535. It’s been almost five centuries since then and now over 30 million people live in Kanata–a Huron-Iroquois word for “village”. While on the surface Canada looks like a successful First World nation, underneath this veneer there are many inconvenient truths. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin didn’t mince words when he said, “We have never admitted to ourselves that we were, and still are, a colonial power.” In a recent interview, Martin also made the point that, as Postmedia News puts it, “Canada is starving its First Nations of the funding they need for proper health care and education and, even today, is fixated on assimilating aboriginals into a culture that is not theirs.” He also argued that the “Harper government is making serious mistakes by scaling back environmental protection,” according to that article.

The colonial world view that landed on Canada’s shore centuries ago has been highly destructive for both the natural environment and the resident First Nations, who had lived in a remarkably sustainable fashion up to that time. The predominant view that “man is the center of the world”, which replaced this, has since then recklessly clear-cut much of the natural capital endowment–forests, coal, oil and gas, minerals, fish, and countless other animal species. It has fouled air, water, and soil, and these destructive forces show no signs of slowing down. After the First Nations offered knowledge to the original settlers so they could survive on the land, the dominant classes in the new settler society, who profited from the exploitation of these resources, proceeded to marginalize and assimilate these indigenous people and blot out their rich and valuable culture. And, as Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie says, “it’s still going on here today”. The recent passing of Bill C-45 by the Conservative government of Canada, which is seen as further eroding First Nations rights, is just the latest insult in a long line of ill-considered and unconscionable enactments.

The label “Idle No More” describes a grassroots movement which has risen up in the past few weeks. It has been supported by thousands of First Nations people, along with many of their fellow Canadians, to protest present-day government policies. They will no longer stand idly by as everything that they believe in is once again threatened. Enough is enough! At the same time, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has been on a hunger strike since December 11 to call attention to her people’s issues, and mainstream media has taken a long time to respond positively to her actions.

Idle No More protesters are also very concerned with the recent, outrageous gutting of environmental protection. First, the omnibus Bill C-38 passed in June and, among other things, weakened the power of the Canadian Fisheries Act, a 144-year-old piece of legislation designed to protect fish habitat. This bill also vastly diminished the powers of environmental protection and assessment which have been slowly building since Confederation. The federal government then cut staff at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. With the passing of Bill C-45 in December, the 130-year-old Navigable Waters Protection Act that protects the majority of Canada’s water systems has been shrunk to a shadow of its former self. And at the same time Canada now has the dubious honour of being the first country in the world to withdraw from the 1997 Kyoto Accord on climate change.

After Bills C-38 and C-45 passed in Parliament, many Canadians continued on with their regular lives. But others, especially First Nations people, took notice that these bills intend on further degrading the foundation of environmental stewardship and indigenous rights in this country. The present-day government of Canada is acting as if the existing laws which provide protection for the rights of fish, water, and First Nations are completely expendable. That is because these safeguards get in the way of their obsession with continued “economic” growth–essentially the further destruction of more of our natural capital endowment for the sake of short-term, present-day financial gains.

The Harper government’s official response to Idle No More and Chief Spence’s hunger strike has been that they are already working to address aboriginal concerns. Julie Vaux, a spokesperson for Harper, cited the “historic gathering of the Crown and First Nations this past January”. She added, “Since then, the government has been working with First Nations leadership to make progress in several areas, most notably education and infrastructure on reserve.”

But what kind of “progress” have they achieved if Bill C-45 is universally seen by First Nations as further degrading their rights? This strongly suggests that the underlying intention of this government is to continue as a “colonial power”. It appears they want to keep pacifying and marginalizing aboriginal people so they will not get in the way of continued resource development. But not all Canadians support this “industrial economic growth at all costs” objective. Watch these protests grow bigger and stronger as more people recognize the unfairness and absurdity of what the government is attempting to achieve.

The word “idle” is a fitting label for the outrage that spawned this movement. In “fossil fuel-speak”, idling represents everything that is obscene about humankind’s historically voracious and presently expanding fossil fuel consumption. Idling is sitting in a vehicle running your engine because you need your air conditioning in summer, heat in winter, or you’re just too lazy to turn it off regardless of how much it poisons the air. Too many people still drive their cars thoughtlessly and consume as if they are modern day “emperors”–as Andrew Nikiforuk describes them in his new book about the tragedy of excess fossil fuel consumption, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. We are using up as much energy to support our shopping addictions or getting in our car and fetching takeout for dinner as historical monarchs did with the muscle power of a host of slaves.

The Conservative government’s continued undying support for fossil fuel production and the expansion of its gargantuan and intrusive infrastructure is killing our beautiful planet and ruining it for future generations. But this is the primary force that drives them–their belief in an outdated model for a human economy which they think Canadians need and want. Paul Martin envisions an alternate route. He says: “The first thing that we have to do is put a price on carbon. Because that’s a real cost and it has to be involved in every aspect of public policy, certainly every decision a government or the private sector takes.”

Thank you, First Nations of Canada for gathering to rise up against evil forces of relentless industrial expansion. Thank you for inviting us to your peaceful protests where there are friendly people singing, drumming, and dancing and sharing wise words. Thank you for showing us, as you have so many times in the past, what community and environmental stewardship looks like. We’re supporting you all the way!

Celia Brauer is a writer and
visual artist working in Vancouver and the cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society.
Photos by Mique’l Icesis Dangeli, who is from the Tsimshian First Nations and a
PhD candidate at UBC.

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