By Michael Woods, Postmedia News
OTTAWA —Indigenous rights activists are aiming to “increase tension” this summer to oppose the Harper government’s agenda, which they say ignores aboriginal rights and weakens environmental protections.
Friday, National Aboriginal Day, marks the launch of the so-called “Sovereignty Summer” in which the grassroots indigenous Idle No More movement says it will band together with other activist groups to plan “non-violent direct action” across the country.
“The point is to increase tension,” said Sheelah McLean, one of Idle No More’s four co-founders. “To raise awareness and increase tension between people who are wanting to assert their rights and people who are unjustly forgetting about the rights of indigenous peoples.”
At play are many of the same issues that helped galvanize the indigenous movement in December and January when protests reached their peak: matters such as implementing historic treaty rights, the federal government’s changes to environmental protections, and consultation with aboriginals regarding resource development on their traditional lands.
“The one thing that’s going to stop this resource hyper-extraction is the rights of indigenous Canadians, and Canadians have to stand behind them,” McLean said. “Pressure on the government is essential.”
Idle No More grew in reaction to Conservative omnibus legislation that, opponents say, infringed on indigenous rights and weakened environmental protections. It helped lead to a meeting in January between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders, but many aboriginal leaders and activists have lamented a lack of progress since then.
Now, Idle No More has joined with Defenders of the Land, a group of indigenous activists formed in 2008. McLean said it was a natural fit: much of Idle No More activity has taken place in urban areas, but Defenders of the Land works mostly in remote areas.
Organizers say “non-violent direct action” will cover a wide spectrum, and individual communities will decide what it means. But it could include banner drops, camping, rallies, round dances – and even blockades. Whatever the methods, McLean says tension will continue to escalate if the government ignores aboriginal issues.
“The government is counting on settler Canadians not understanding these issues,” McLean said. “What we’re hoping is to focus on these issues by any means possible to educate people on why they need to stand behind indigenous communities to protect the land.”
Andrea Richer, spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, said the government is “always prepared to work with those First Nations, and other partners, who want to achieve results.”
“Canadians have a right to peaceful protest, but much more can be accomplished by working together,” Richer said. “While we may not always agree on the way forward, we do agree that it is critical we demonstrate concrete movement on some of the key issues like education, skills and training and economic development.”
Sovereignty Summer national campaigner Clayton Thomas-Muller said there will be “major actions” in mid-July and early August, but declined to provide details. He said the end of the summer would feature “mass mobilization” in urban centres across the country.
Protests will highlight various land-based struggles: Thomas-Muller said there are “dozens and dozens that are potential powder kegs” including proposed pipeline paths, disputes with provincial governments, and proposed hydroelectric and uranium mining expansions.
The groups have listed six demands which include repealing provisions of Bill C-45, the government’s omnibus budget bill that made changes to the Navigable Waters Act; recognition of Aboriginal title and rights; respecting indigenous rights to free, prior and informed consent on matters that may affect them; honouring historic treaties; and launching a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
“Our goal is to … bring this government to a place where they have no choice but to act,” Thomas-Muller said. “What we’re talking about is stopping the ability of Canada to operate as business as usual until the government addresses these six core things.
“It’s ‘go’ time. These are life and death situations, and there needs to be real political will taken to respond to them.”
Friday’s National Aboriginal Day features events across the country that will celebrate aboriginal history and culture. Opposition leader Tom Mulcair, for example, will join a march in solidarity with First Nations starting on Victoria Island near Parliament Hill, the site of Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence’s January protest liquid diet, and ending in a speech on the Hill.