The Idle No More protest showed that the legitimacy of elected Indian Act chiefs to speak on behalf of First Nations people is irrevocably damaged. The question now is what a new power arrangement will look like.
The trajectory of Aboriginal protests over the past few months followed an uneven course. Some non-Aboriginal Canadians were initially engaged by the spontaneity of the protest events, enjoying the drumming flash mobs in shopping malls and other public spaces. The Idle No More events appeared to be joyful celebrations of culture, involving families and people of all ages, and were more performance than pure political rallies with speeches and “messages.”
But many Canadians grew increasingly perplexed, and decidedly less sympathetic, as other strands of protest developed: hunger strikes and the blockage of roads, rail lines and ferries that aimed at economic disruption. While a slight majority of Canadians continues to support the need for the federal government to improve the living circumstances of Aboriginal peoples, the absence of solutions to the wider problem of the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians bedevils the country. The atmosphere of threats and the complexity leave a trail of despair, the sense of a conflict stuck in stalemate, while the goodwill evaporates.
But the events surrounding the emergence of Idle No More have resulted in one fundamental change: it irrevocably damaged the legitimacy of Indian Act chiefs to speak on behalf of First Nations. And the new leadership, forged in large part by young women with their own grievances from living under the existing power order, represents a different kind of leadership with the creative potential to change the course of history.
In reality, the political legitimacy of the elected Indian Act chiefs has been in serious trouble for a long time within the First Nations community, weakened by divisive battles on membership, voting, financial and governance issues. Those battles left the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), and its ineffectiveness in leading First Nations out of the Indian Act, in a diminished state. The issue is not whether the Act is finished — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think they can use it as a base from which to govern or lead effective change. Any such strategy will be met with escalating protests from the grassroots. The Indian Act and the system it created is toxic (the provisions to force children to residential schools under threat of physical punishment remain in the Act, even if they are in disuse). The Indian Act represents a failed policy that should have ended long ago, especially in the modern era of human rights.
But here is the nub of the problem. If the Indian Act chiefs have been overtaken, who leads? Who speaks for whom? Is there a transition process, or any ratification process, to confirm new political arrangements?
The answer for the time being is no, but this does not mean nothing new will emerge. Political means will have to be found to make the break a strong and clean one, and reconfirm a preference for a negotiated process with some stability. Innovative ideas will need to be considered, including possibly a civil society process of engagement with young people and a meaningful commitment to improving their lives through a rigorous and effective education system that respects their identity and culture.
The alternative is unsustainable. The Prime Minister brought a glint of hope to many with his residential school apology. It held promise that the failed policies that gave us residential schools would end. Five years on, the Indian Act still sits on the books, a testament to a corrosive era that delivered so much harm to Aboriginal people and families. The agenda of Aboriginal issues has not moved forward, and the result of five stalled (some would argue retrograde) years is Idle No More. The Indian Act chiefs have been overtaken by protest they haven’t led and freely join in it, acknowledging they are on a tightrope without a net.
One of the reasons why former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come could easily engage in discussions with the Prime Minister and his executive was that the Cree communities have been out of the Indian Act for so long that it bears little meaning for them other than as a historical artifact. The Cree have been free of the Act’s influence since the 1975 James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement, and a few years ago they concluded a 20-year bilateral agreement with Canada and a 50-year agreement with Quebec.
Coon Come is almost not speaking the same language as the Indian Act chiefs, which may explain why his own tenure as national chief lasted just one term. The vast majority of chiefs are not at all familiar with the distinct kind of relationship with a provincial and federal government that is taken for granted by a generation of leaders of the Cree of Northern Quebec. Even with their political strength, they struggle with operating effective public services, like educating children for success — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think the graduation rate for Cree children is only 10 percent. But the while the larger issues facing the Cree are profound — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think secession and territorial integrity — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think they no longer have to contend with the colonial artifact of the failed Indian Act, which imposes the administrative and reporting requirements of a federal bureaucracy.
Idle no More has irrevocably damaged the legitimacy of Indian Act chiefs to speak on behalf of first nations.
Things could hardly be more different for Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and the chiefs in his home base from British Columbia. Working largely under the 250-year-old Royal Proclamation and without treaties (apart from the few adherents to the Douglas treaties and some Treaty 8 adhesions, there are three modern treaties and there is one federally legislated self-government arrangement), the British Columbia chiefs have seen glacial progress on their issues but enjoy one of the highest levels of public support. Collaboration with the province and hard work on public services has improved the education for First Nations children in BC, with a graduation rate close to 50 percent.
But the BC chiefs find themselves dealing with with an industry of consultants that has mortgaged the participant bands’ possible settlements through unsustainable loans to fund their participation (more than 60 processes are technically underway, but few are functionally promising). Many bands have liabilities they will certainly never repay, which hampers their chances of participating in economic opportunities today. BC First Nations have engaged in more court battles over rights than any other region, with mixed successes. Every court wants to redirect the parties back to the negotiating table. But there is very little progress happening at the table. And the threat of “extinguishment” of rights effectively reinforces the arrangements of Indian Act politics.
Many Canadians prefer Atleo’s conciliatory approach, but Idle No More has made it clear it is not interested in preserving personalities or endorsing his positions. Even Atleo seems to realize that the only contribution the AFN can make is to bring about the transition away from the Indian Act and the AFN as we have known it, effectively leading itself out of existence.
The Idle No More leaders were loath to endorse violence as a means to any end. Young, educated First Nations women who were among its leaders are struggling to raise children and support families. They are hardly going to lead a violent movement nor yield their voices to the advice and direction aimed at them from the Indian Act dynasty.
This is one of the most encouraging aspects of the protests. At event after event, in malls, streets and elsewhere within Idle No More, there are mothers and grandmothers, children and youth. These caregivers have been left with the lion’s share of building a future — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think for themselves and their communities — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think out of such deep economic and social difficulties. Many have faced tough life experiences. The younger women have struggled to find support for post-secondary education, and they have raised children without the comforts of child support (there is no enforcement of child maintenance on reserves, and matrimonial property rights are essentially unenforceable).
In the absence of a responsive government family policy, with no properly functioning education or child welfare system or any serious investment in helping women and grandparents raise families dealing with intergenerational trauma and abuse, we should recognize how much the women have achieved. And the women know well how many did not and will not make it unless things change. Just mention the missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women and you will see a steely determination to prevent a future generation of vulnerable citizens from being inhumanely treated.
The Indian Act system has provided no recognition of the need to reconcile these women’s caregiving responsibilities with their broader potential as citizens and participants in the labour force. Many bands resisted allowing women whose Indian status was restored by the courts to return to the community. They starved these women of resources for additional housing and tried to deny them the right to vote in band elections. (Chiefs put the blame on the federal government for not providing enough resources to respond to a surging rise in membership after the 1985 amendments to the Indian Act.) Distrust of local band government has required women and their children (male and female) to battle in their communities and in court for what is rightfully theirs — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think participation in the band, and a fair share of programs and resources.
The burden these younger women have assumed is significant, and they do not accept a jackboot political approach or the expectation of blind loyalty from their leaders. Many more First Nations women than men are working to complete their education. They are striving to improve their life circumstances, seeking to protect and confirm their cultural identity and transmit it to their children — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think almost against all odds. These caregivers don’t like what they see as horsetrading over control of resources, worried that deals could be struck to reallocate the resources or to allow more of the swindles and unfair processes that the Indian Act has permitted since colonial days.
Idle No More arose with scant planning — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think using social media and tapping into the deep sense of unfairness and the political abandonment of their voice felt by educated Aboriginal women. It has resonated with many others, including men, and generations young and old, because it speaks a bitter truth about Canada — it most certainly is finished and so too are those who think it has failed to deliver on human rights and equal opportunity for Aboriginal peoples.
Young, educated first nations women are hardly going to lead a violent movement or yield to advice from the Indian Act dynasty.
This brings us back to the key point about the Indian Act. Why hasn’t it changed or transitioned into a more meaningful government regime designed to be effective or responsive to the needs of First Nations citizens, especially those in crisis? I reflect back on the failed constitutional renewal process that followed the conclusion of the Charlottetown Accord. This accord offered a transition process out of the Indian Act to a new arrangement that preferred an obligation for a negotiated settlement but clearly recognized a legally enforceable and existing inherent right of self-government, as well as a fiscal arrangement to support that transition. Those provisions, and the protocols that supported them, would have represented a new path forward, but it was quickly put to rest when constitutional reform politics was shut down.
Some First Nations women had deep suspicions about the Charlottetown Accord at the time and felt they were mistreated when the Native Women’s Association of Canada was not represented at the discussion table. They worried self-government might not address issues such as caregiving support and equality, or redress their grievances about their treatment at the hands of band leadership. They were right to be worried. Twenty years later there is still no improvement in meaningful government services or policies to make care-giving and raising children easier than it was then.
I’m not advocating a new constitutional round. The constitutional discussions ended because of the unworkable amending formula and a lack of public appetite for them. The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended a nonconstitutional reconciliation approach with a negotiated process for change. Its recommendations have merit and deserve thoughtful consideration, but it too has been ignored, either because of the scope of change required or a lack of political will at the national level. Crucial issues about the scale and viability of First Nations communities and economies require a broad and pragmatic discussion in an appropriate political forum.
So where does that leave us? The Prime Minister and his government do not appear to have suffered any major setback in popular opinion from Idle No More and other protests. But not even the most Machiavellian of strategists can be sanguine about the uncertainty that now characterizes the relationship between Aboriginal leaders and their grassroots. We are in uncertain terrain and a state of stasis, and the system that maintained it can no longer be counted on to keep the peace. The failed policy of the Indian Act era has run its course, and no one can make a deal without the support of the people.
The glimmer of hope lies with the women. They understand that solutions lie in forging relationships that respect the rights of all and that address the social and economic issues that blight the lives of so many of our most vulnerable. With Idle No More, they have shown they are prepared to make noise. Canadians would be unwise to think the drumming and celebratory atmosphere of Idle No More has no substance or will soon subside. Aboriginal politics will never be the same.