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Winter fails to slow Idle No More’s momentum

People from Aamjiwnaang First Nation and supporters gather for a meeting with officials as their blockade of the CN St. Clair spur line that began Friday, continues in Sarnia, Ont., Sunday, December 23, 2012.

Dave Chidley/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It may have seemed that a widespread series of first-nations protests carried out under the banner of Idle No More had reached its apex with a demonstration on Parliament Hill late last week.

But more rallies and disruptions over the weekend make it clear that the demands are not going away: Speakers decried the actions of the federal government outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Protesters continued a three-day-old blockade of the CN rail track in Sarnia, Ont. A round-dance flash mob was organized at a mall in Portland, Ore. And, in a tent on an island in the Ottawa River, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat continued a hunger strike to demand that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a representative of the Crown meet with first-nations leaders to discuss the treaty relationship.

People are now predicting that the Idle No More movement will keep building in the new year. Why is that?

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First-nations members say momentum will continue to build as frustrations fuelling the protests have gone unaddressed and stretched across Canada.

Ontario regional chief Stan Beardy said Idle No More is going to affect every Canadian.

"Because of poor housing, high unemployment rate with our young people, high rate of suicide and everything else," he said, "the level of frustration is very, very high with first nations across Canada."

Native leaders and protest organizers are now broadening their efforts. Jess Gordon is one of four women from Saskatchewan who started the campaign with a "teach-in" in November to make fellow first-nations members aware of the looming impacts of a slate of legislation that affects everything from land rights to remuneration paid to chiefs.

Ms. Gordon says she and the movement's other organizers are now helping others hold similar events.

And "from there we would like to build partnerships at the international level as well as within Canada with non-first-nations people," said Ms. Gordon.

Idle No More is only going to get bigger, says Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and university professor who was the runner-up this year in the contest to lead the Assembly of First Nations. "Things are going to continue to escalate until Canada comes to the table," Ms. Palmater said Sunday.

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"When we start accelerating this movement," Mr. Beardy said, "it is going to create a lot of economic uncertainty and that is what is going to affect all of us because I am sure the world is watching what's happening in Canada right now."

Who is driving it?

What started as an initiative of Ms. Gordon and her friends has become a broad and loosely connected network of protests driven largely through social network sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The hashtag #idlenomore is constantly active with new tweets being posted every couple of seconds.

It has seen sustained activity for weeks – it's unusual for any topic in Canadian politics to maintain this momentum.

"I knew and I felt that our people have been needing to speak up for themselves and they just needed a good reason to start," Ms. Gordon said.

Mr. Beardy said there is a perception that Idle No More is being driven by youth, but that is only because they are the ones most adept at using their computers to share their anger and organize these types of events. But it is supported by first-nations members of all ages, he said.

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Why is this happening now?

The touchstone was an omnibus budget bill passed more than a week ago of importance to native people and their communities. It includes a number of environmental changes that critics say will loosen controls on the development of the land and water upon which first nations rely.

Other bills have also caused consternation, including one that would force first nations to make public their financial statements and disclose the remuneration paid to chiefs and councillors.

Meanwhile, there is broad concern that the wealth derived from resources is not being shared as spelled out in the treaty agreements. And the Harper government has cut funding to a number of first-nations organizations.

Some first-nations groups had been afraid to speak out against the government for fear that their money would be cut off, Ms. Palmater said. But now they are going to lose that funding anyway so the fear is gone, she said. "And we are not going to go down without a fight."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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