Last week Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose to welcome some Chinese pandas to the country, instead of six aboriginal teenagers known as the Nishiyuu walkers to Parliament Hill. If you weren’t keeping track of the story, they’re the group of Cree youth that literally walked 1,600 km to Ottawa from their remote community, called Whapmagoostui on Hudson Bay, to raise awareness about the problems facing Canada’s First Nations. Opposition MP’s did the smart PR move and met with the walkers, while Harper added his panda appearance to another episode in the awkward love story between Canada and China. Although the new Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt met with the Nishiyuu walkers, critics noticed the PM’s absence as an example of his misplaced priorities: the economy versus critical social issues.
The journey of the Nishiyuu walkers, achieved partly under the banner of Idle No More, underlines the demographic shift and lasting popularity of the protest, four months since its inception. What began with a few women protesting the omnibus bill C-45—to incorporating (for better or worse) the hunger strike of the ever controversial Chief Spence into a national protest movement—has gained enough momentum to last into April.
Idle No More is alive and well, as spokesperson Pam Palmater says, with new demonstrations planned within the coming months. For example, in an offshoot of the movement Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has vowed to stop the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipeline “one way or another” through unspecified actions this summer. More importantly, if the six young Crees, led by teenager David Kawapit are any indication, Idle No More is resonating with aboriginal youth—a group that’s both struggling with unemployment and growing faster than any demographic group in Canada.
In an attempt to address the issue, the Conservatives put forward a controversial plan in their latest budget to link income assistance with skills training for aboriginal youth—an unprecedented move intended to provide more aboriginals with work opportunities. The policy has galvanized the same voices of dissent within the Assembly of First Nations back in January that opposed national chief Sean Atleo’s talks with Harper. Derek Nepinak, a Manitoba chief and the ever-aggressive rebel to Atleo, said it was “nothing short of coercion and racialized policy implementation,”but his position may be political gamesmanship as he positions himself as a combative alternative to Atleo’s more diplomatic leadership. Even so, the new budget plan is a scattershot of incentives for First Nations that offers no immediate improvements tofunding of education on reserves, a much sought after policy change the Conservatives have generally ignored, except to promise a new First Nation Education Act by 2014.
The youth factor in the movement also potentially guarantees the lasting effects of Idle No More and ensuring it isn’t the flash in the pan Conservative strategists hoped for. Last Monday, the Nishiyuu walkers’ speeches circled similar themes: aboriginal youth want the same opportunities as other young Canadians and to shed some of the endemic problems facing their communities. It was to me, one of the clearest and most lasting messages to date coming from the movement, because that sort of rhetoric has tangible links to easily recognizable policy inequalities: on reserves aboriginal youth receive a quarter of the funding for primary school educations as the rest of Canadians. While it may not be the first time someone has identified the disparity, for a group of aboriginal youth to do it themselves at a national venue signals a growing awareness across the country that things palpably need to change.
Interestingly, Chief Spence, a woman who’s described as notorious, inspirational, or literally a Nelson Mandela incarnate, depending on who you talk to, was the original basis for the Nishiyuu walkers’ journey. They saw her as an inspiration, proof alone of Idle No More’s vast and effective reach. Whether it’s a disjointed Occupy repeat or not, even if Idle No More flames out in the coming months young people on reserves across Canada have seen the potential for organized demonstrations and the impact of Chief Spence. That may motivate new generations of aboriginals asserting their rights as one of Canada’s largest voting blocks and important economic cohorts, another reason the economy obsessed Conservatives should take note.
Currently there are almost half a million aboriginal people under the age of 20. If Idle No More does anything, it should awaken Canada to the demographic reality of our society and its unawareness to people like the six young Crees who marched to Ottawa. They’re likely a major part of the future of our country as boomers die off, retire and leave vast gaps in our workforce that will critically need to be filled. Yet without any tangible lines of discourse between protesting aboriginals and the PMO’s office, Harper’s policies will continue to be viewed as paternalistic and divisive, regardless of their effectiveness, causing continued alienation on reserves.
If Harper’s Conservatives really intend to make First Nations people a budgetary priority or stop the momentum of Idle No More in its tracks, he’ll need to do the unthinkable: stop focusing on cats, shitty fighter jets, or pandas and take a trip to Whapmagoostui.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @BMakuch
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