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Kim Newby sings as she stands in a drum circle in Toronto's Yonge and Dundas square as demonstrators show support of the aboriginal movement known as Idle No More and Attawapiskat First Nations Chief Theresa Spence on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)
Kim Newby sings as she stands in a drum circle in Toronto's Yonge and Dundas square as demonstrators show support of the aboriginal movement known as Idle No More and Attawapiskat First Nations Chief Theresa Spence on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

Idle No More protests beyond control of chiefs Add to ...

The Idle No More movement is broadening into a call to shake off apathy, absorbing a range of issues from aboriginal rights and environmental safeguards to the democratic process. And as it swells, organizers are warning first nations leaders that the movement will not be corralled by aboriginal politicians even as the country’s chiefs look to use the protests’ momentum to press Ottawa on treaty rights and improved living standards.

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Hundreds of people gathered Tuesday afternoon in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, many of aboriginal heritage but nearly as many not, joining hands in round dances and lighting candles to honour Chief Theresa Spence, who was on day 22 of her hunger strike demanding Prime Minister Stephen Harper meet with aboriginal leaders.

The gathering attracted aboriginal peoples calling for greater consultation on changes to reservation land management and the Indian Act, but also environmentalists and government critics charging that the federal omnibus budget bill is bypassing vital public debate.

Started by four Saskatchewan women, the grassroots Idle No More movement has gone viral, with supporters across Canada and internationally holding protests, blocking rail lines and launching hunger strikes. While national chiefs support the effort, organizers are resisting any effort to hand over leadership to their elected representatives.

“While we appreciate the leadership’s support of Idle No More, they cannot take the lead on this,” said Sylvia McAdam, one of the founders, who lives on the White Fish Lake reserve in Saskatchewan. “Our voice as a grassroots people is about sovereignty, honouring the treaties, and sustainable, environmentally friendly ways to extract resources.”

Ms. McAdam said the elected chiefs are forced to operate under the Indian Act. “Their voice is restricted,” she said.

The movement’s immediate aim has been to force the Harper government to withdraw Bill C-45, a budget implementation bill that passed in December and includes changes to Species at Risk and Navigable Waters legislation that opponents claim will put resource development ahead of environmental protection.

But organizers are also taking aim at a slate of some 14 pieces of legislation, including some still pending, that they say will diminish their treaty rights and ensure they continue to be left behind in the country’s economic development. And they want acknowledgment from Ottawa that first nations are sovereign and must consent before any development can proceed on their traditional lands.

“I don’t think it’s one issue any more,” said Toronto rallier Krystal Maietta, an Ojibwe of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. She arrived at Dundas Square aiming “to come together as a people – it doesn’t matter what culture – and say we’re taking a stand, and we have a say in what happens in our country. I feel like Prime Minister Harper is not answering to anybody, and he has to, to all of us.”

Though not aboriginal herself, artist and activist Lichelle Lotus came to show solidarity with indigenous peoples over environmental degradation. “I believe they’re protectors, but they’re also the people to get everyone else who lives on the land [to realize] we’re all protectors,” she said.

Teacher Kim Fry, another non-aboriginal, voiced frustration at the Conservative government lumping an array of legislation into one bill for easy passage – a tactic she thinks helped create “a tipping point” for native frustration.

Issues of control are central to the movement.

The Assembly of First Nations is working to take advantage of the protest movement’s success while ensuring the direct action such as blockades do not result in confrontation. Grand Chief Shawn Atleo issued a statement last weekend, endorsing the Idle No More effort but advocating a process that would see the assembly take the lead.

Isadore Day, chief of the Serpent River nation in Ontario, told CTV, “Clearly, a number of chiefs have said it is time to get a consistent, unified message out there about what is really going on and where a leadership role should start to take place here.”

Mr. Day said the primary concern is the health of Chief Spence, who is taking only liquid nourishment. Mr. Harper’s spokesman, Andrew MacDougall, has said Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan is prepared to meet with Chief Spence or the first nations leadership at any time so long as the talks are constructive.

The spreading movement’s direction is uncertain. Idle No More leader Pamela Palmater noted protests have been moving toward increased civil disobedience, though organizers refused to endorse a call to set up blockades at Canada-U.S. borders. Both Mr. Day and Ms. McAdam stressed the importance of peaceful protests, but the chief said the leaders can’t control their people who are growing increasingly weary and frustrated at the grinding poverty that exists among aboriginal Canadians.

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