Yesterday morning, I attended another rally for the Idle No More indigenous resistance movement. I was immediately welcomed and treated as a part of the community. I brought my shaman drum, and I struck it with love and respect in my heart. I listened to the mythology, histories, and traditions the Coast Salish speakers shared, and I am going to do my best to respectfully share this, because it’s important knowledge. I am also going to share some more about what Idle No More means, as it’s been imparted to me (and everyone else in attendance) by some of those very same people who so generously shared their culture with us all. But first, about the name of this post: it came from a sign one speaker pointed out, that said “When sleeping women wake, mountains move.” It is in solidarity with the women moving those mountains now, that I am fasting today.
Idle No More was started by four women over the course of multiple meetings about Bill C-45. In the words of one of the speakers, you would need a crane just to pick this omnibus bill up. There are so many pieces of legislation contained in its pages that it is overwhelming, and no attempt to paraphrase it briefly will be even close to complete. Bill C-45 strips protection from thousands of water ways all across the country, meaning that land developers no longer need to provide proof that their proposals will not contaminate the water. What that means is someone can, say, propose a pipeline, and not have to prove how they are going to prevent oil and tarsands from permanently poisoning lakes, rivers, and streams — unless those happen to be one of the few hundred remaining protected water ways (of what once was in the millions). Bill C-45 also strips away the rights of First Nations communities to be consulted at all on the matter of their reserve lands, which can be sold out from underneath them without their consent, consultation, or prior knowledge. This isn’t just in violation of the Crown treaties. It’s also in violation of the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms.
As these decision are being made without the consent or consultation of First Nations, whom are directly effected by these decisions, both the very proposal of Bill C-45, and the two salient points within it that I have just described, are in violation of their collective charter rights and therefore unconstitutional. Idle No More is an indigenous resistance movement enacting full-blown indigenous law across the country, in protest of this bill. But it is also so very much more than that.
On December 9th, the Chief of the Attawapiskat reserve began a hunger strike to demand that the Prime Minister, Governor General, and the appointed leader for the Assembly of First Nations of Ontario sit down and have a meeting with her in which she planned to demand the fulfillment of Crown treaties for her people. Her name is Theresa Spence, and she is on day 15 of her hunger strike. You may remember the name of her community because it made world-wide news when it declared a state of emergency a year ago, and no one answered. Then the Prime Minister blamed her for the community’s hazardously contaminated water, lack of housing, and schools that are falling apart, among other problems. He finally sent some portable trailers to replace the blanket-tents some Attiwapiskat community members were piling into by the dozens, and patted himself on the back for a job well done. But a year later, and as Winter settles in again in the Northern Manitoba community with a De Beers diamond mine in its back yard (taking precious resources from their lands without paying them so much as a dime share of the profits) the people of Attiwapiskat are still suffering, and Spence is showing the entire country what a true leader is made of: selflessness.
Meanwhile, Harper ignores her repeated declarations of being willing to stay just down the hill from Canadian Parliament until her dying breath, if that’s what it takes to be heard. Harper is also ignoring communities who have sworn to start beating their war drums if she dies.
And yet, Bill C-45 and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike are just the tip of the ice berg. Below the surface lies a mountainous block of ice that is going to sink the entire country as we know it. I’m referring to the Canadian government’s interference with treaties between the Crown and First Nations. These treaties, which began being drafted and implemented in 1701, outlined a deal between the Crown and First Nations. Here’s the extremely brief version: the Crown can take this land over here, as long as it promises to respectfully consult First Nations before developing it, and promises to pay 40% of whatever profits are gained from its development to the First Nations; and the First Nations can have that land (i.e., reserves) over there and there, as well as hunting and fishing rights, healthcare, and education.
Only it didn’t work out that way. The Crown more or less took as much land as it pleased and absconded with all the money (the First Nations share of which was used to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, in part with Chinese slave labour). The Crown has yet to fulfill its promises of healthcare and education, RCMP are deservedly reputed for interfering with hunting and fishing when the Canadian government isn’t wiping out all the fish and fauna through corporate development without the consultation or consent of First Nations (even on their own unceded ancestral territories). And those reserves? Well, before C-45, smallpox, mass graves, and forcible displacement took care of a lot of that. Then there were the residential schools (and RCMP abducting children on a massive scale, to dump them into these extremely abusive cultural brain-washing “schools”), forced sterilization, and legislation explicitly intending to “kill the Indian within” for the express purpose of culturally assimilating indigenous peoples (i.e., The Indian Act). Indigenous people in “KKKanada” got royally fucked over, and they’ve had enough. They fought for Settlers’ right to exist here in the war of 1812, and now they want Settlers to return the favour as they demand the fulfillment of treaties for the first time in the history of this country. We are all treaty people here.
A Mohawk woman declared at the rally on December 21st that this land was called Kanata (Kah-NAA-tah) before the formation of the colony now formally recognized as Canada. She said it meant “clean land”. Coast Salish speakers told stories yesterday of games they used to play as children, such as one in which the winner was the person who successfully removed all indications of their presence where they had just been. The goal was to restore the land to the state it was in before they spent any amount of time there. This was a part of their cultural tradition as protectors of the land, and they continue this tradition to this very day, even in downtown Vancouver, by asking everyone to remove even tiny traces of trash they find before everyone leaves. They also traditionally treat strangers who arrive on their lands as though they were family members — unless those strangers arrive perpetrating violence and aggression upon them. As Captain Vancouver’s ships arrived peacefully through Point Grey, the Coast Salish people welcomed everyone on board by sharing their food, clothing, and shelter with them. In fact, this is more or less how all European Settlers were treated, from 1492 onward, and how all Settlers continue to be treated by First Nations to this very day.
The Coast Salish may or may not have known at the time just how much this would cost them in the 18th century. How violent this superficially peaceful interaction really was. The population of 14,000 Tsleil-Waututh (“People of the Inlet”) were reduced to just 13 by smallpox. 40,000 Musqueam were reduced to just under 1,000 and were pushed out of their 126 villages across the Lower Mainland; forced off their reserve lands while their ancestors were being buried in hundreds of mass graves by the advancing Canadian government. And so the story goes, all across the ancestral territories of Canada’s First Peoples. But the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish, and many, many other First Nations are still here, and still telling their histories, and still defending their lands and all the life that they share it with (including Settlers). And you wouldn’t know a thing about it unless you talked to them. The Canadian government, which is responsible for designing public education, isn’t talking.
Coast Salish Traditions
An elder shared with us all today that the Coast Salish people wear bracelets as a reminder to harm nothing, earrings as a reminder to not listen to gossip, and labrets as a reminder to speak only when spoken to. Suddenly my earliest compulsions to stretch my earlobes finally had a context I’ve never had before. As I don’t know from where the urge came to me, given that I didn’t even know people did that at the time (and no one I had contact with, even for a fleeting moment in public, was doing this), this seems like the answer I’ve been seeking for half my life. Though the idea to stretch my ears came to me in my time living in the ancestral territories of a completely different culture, and though the Coast Salish also don’t stretch their ears, it just makes sense. Like the end of a sentence I’ve been trying to write while a key word is on the tip of my tongue and I just can’t remember it. This compulsion didn’t arise within me from my upbringing, nor from my culture (i.e., the Westernized, Catholic/Anglican, white-supremacist, capitalist, classist dominant culture that quietly characterizes all of Canada). It came from the Earth. Incidentally, I’ve also pierced my lower lip four times (the last time being a self-directed attempt at a labret) since arriving in Coast Salish territory.
A Coast Salish speaker also shared the mythology that inspires one of their songs, which serves as a reminder to respect everyone’s contributions to the community. He told the story of a family whose sons would hunt for deer, and whose daughter chased the deer off the mountain and out of the woods. Only the brothers didn’t regard their sister’s contribution to the hunt with respect. So one day, she told them that the next time would be the last time she did it for them. She told them that she would appear as a wolf and they would never see her again. And just as she had told them, she appeared as a wolf on the next hunt, chasing the deer off the mountain and into the woods. She stopped at the bottom of the mountain, then turned back to the woods and was never seen again. The first half of the song is about her grief, as she expresses how sad it makes her feel that she is not respected by her brothers. The tempo of the second half of the song doubles, as she has now transformed into the wolf. It was shortly after relating this story, that another Coast Salish speaker said that their songs are essentially prayers to their ancestors, whose blood and bones are the land, to honour their memories and the wisdom they left behind.
The Right To Exist
As it currently stands, the Canadian government does not recognize the collective rights of First Nations — even the right to exist. Neither does the Crown, or it would have declared war on Canada a long time ago, for interfering with the fulfillment of its treaties with the First Peoples. Neither the Crown nor the Canadian government recognize the right of the First Peoples to maintain their cultural traditions and pass on their languages and traditions to their children. The Indian Act is explicitly designed to strip away those rights from First Nations communities, one person at a time and in every generation, until no First Nations remain who have those rights. It also so severely micro-manages the day-to-day life of every status indigenous person living on reserves across the country, that its obligations are an invasive burden upon those communities, often preventing or outright strictly forbidding traditional ways of expressing and sharing culture with other communities. The punishment for these “transgressions” against the Indian Act is often but not always jail time. Yet the Indian Act also gives indigenous people legal status as First Nations, which in turn entitles them to treaty rights, charter rights specifically appointed to Aboriginal people collectively, and other rights gained through land claim deals with the Canadian government. It cannot simply be put through the shredder, 150 years after its creation.
Idle No More is a command to all Settler allies of indigenous people to wake up and stop being idle. It is a war cry to the Canadian government and all Settlers not willing to ally themselves with indigenous peoples, declaring full-blown indigenous law across the colony until the treaties are fulfilled — that this war cry is largely being followed with massive scale non-violent demonstrations is neither an indicator nor a guarantee that everyone will continue to ask as nicely or peacefully as possible for an end to the genocide against indigenous peoples across all of Turtle Island. There are a lot of righteously angry radical grassroots indigenous warriors who are not satisfied with pacifist tactics while fighting for their lives (though this also does not mean that any or all of them condone acts of violence in any direction; it simply means they aren’t going to be pacifists in this fight). Indigenous communities (including the radicals) want peaceful relations with the Canadian government and all Settlers living on their lands. The time for the 8th Fire has arrived, and the time is now for all people to unite as one peaceful nation living in a radical democracy that counts all the air, waters, land, flora, and fauna as members of that democracy. It’s time to start protecting the life that can’t speak for itself, instead of exploiting it for profit because we can’t hear its voice.
Join the Idle No More movement. Learn the histories and traditions of the lands you stand on — not just of the colony that occupies it. Stand up and defend those traditions, and the land itself.