Idle No More #J11 march in Vancouver

Why we need movements like Idle No More

By Jessica Buffalo
Photos by Stephen Hui

A new wave of racism is gaining momentum as Idle No More activity continues across Canada.
“Reserves are Canada’s spoiled children,” read one counter-protestors’ sign in Edmonton.
“I am Ukrainian. I believe Ukrainians have the right to own and operate casinos. I demand that Harper meet with me to discuss how he is going to fund the casino. I will be starting my hunger strike today. I will restrict my intake to borscht and perogies until he meets with me,” read another. Ignorant remarks such as these have taken over online news websites, demonstrating the need to educate Canada on the vast range of Aboriginal issues that are pertinent to today’s political climate.

Canada entered into 11 numbered treaties with First Nations groups in the pre-confederation era, the first five of which were signed between 1871 and 1875. On top of that, there are also Comprehensive Land Claim (CLC) agreements — modern treaties starting in 1975 that cover issues unaddressed by the initial treaties — and the Vancouver Island Douglas Treaties, signed in the 1850s. In the latter, land was traded for a small amount of money and a large sum of blankets. In their essay Trespassers on the soil, Hamar Foster and Alan Grove point out that neither party understood each other’s language, which calls into question whether the signatory Chiefs understood that they were giving up the land “to the white people forever.” It is generally believed that the Chiefs understood that we are the caretakers of this land (land being an untransferable commodity) and signed the treaties in order to keep the peace.

In return for signing the first five treaties, the Canadian government promised the First Nations land, annual treaty money payments (usually $5 per person, not considering inflation), farming and hunting equipment, and help with building crucial infrastructures. The sixth Treaty, signed in 1876, differed a bit from the others because of the coinciding depletion of the buffalo and the arrival of smallpox. Poundmaker and Big Bear, both Cree Chiefs, initially resisted signing the treaties. However, because the buffalo were disappearing at an astounding rate, they were eventually forced to sign the treaties or face the starvation of their people. It also differed from the previous treaties in that it included a health care provision.

In order to help all of the country’s municipalities, the Canadian government’s Strategic Infrastructure Fund allocated a total of $4.3 billion dollars to all provinces, territories, and some First Nations communities. Cities like Calgary and Edmonton were given $75 million each to maintain their roads, while Vancouver was allocated $450 million for the Canada line. Toronto received $25 million for the Canadian Opera Company, $25 million for the Toronto International Film Festival Centre, and $27 million for the soccer stadium, as well as $350 million for transportation. However, when it came to Aboriginal communities, Nunavut only received $20 million for housing infrastructure, and the First Nations satellite Society for Emergency Services was allocated $7.9 million. There was also the Infrastructure Stimulus Fund, which provided $4 billion to rehabilitate crucial infrastructures such as waste water, water, transit, culture, and community services. So, when communities such as Attawapiskat or Kashechewan declare housing and water crises, they have valid reasons to be upset. Could you imagine Vancouver not having enough funding to produce clean water?

“If you don’t have water then build a well,” read one comment on the CBC’s website following a story on Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike. Can you build a well? I turn on my taps and water comes out; if it doesn’t, then I’m screwed. I possess neither the tools nor the knowledge to build a well because I’m not expected to build a well and neither are these communities.

Counter-movements such as the Assembly of Second Nations against Aboriginal Racism (ANSAAR) are full of anti-aboriginal messages hidden as calls for equality. “End chronic Native dependency and despair and the historic wasting of tax monies in Canada,” calls one petition on their Facebook page. This is one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Aboriginal funding. Many commentators on the ASNAAR page stated that they were “sick of their tax dollars going to support welfare natives.” Canada’s Aboriginal population is approximately 3.8 per cent or 1.2 million people. Canada’s population on welfare is 1,679,800. Of course, not every single aboriginal person is on welfare; even if hypothetically they were, there would still be about 500,000 non-aboriginals that the taxpayer would be taking care of. Welfare and social assistance programs are not just limited to people living in municipalities. If a registered Aboriginal person, living on a reserve, meets the requirements, they are entitled to receive social assistance. What these commentators don’t seem to realize is that most aboriginal people are the “tax-payer” as well. The only way an Aboriginal person bypasses federal and provincial taxes is by working on their reserve, and/or purchasing goods on a reserve. Non-aboriginal people on welfare are the same as aboriginal people on welfare, except that aboriginal people get five dollars more a year in treaty payments. The funding for aboriginal people comes from a trust, where money was derived from land claim settlements, oil and gas revenues, and fine payments. The trust is maintained by the government and is replenished through interest.

I found most of this information online. It is available to everyone. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. If you want to know more about First Nations issues and why grassroots movements such as Idle No More exist, then go to a teach-in. Aboriginal leaders, academics, and native youth all attend these events in order to help people understand the issues behind the movement. Thanks to technology, you can even access them online from sites like spreecast.

Please, stop perpetuating ignorance and racism and get out there and get educated so you can ask the questions that actually matter. As for the Ukrainian who is on a perogie and borscht hunger strike: you might want to come up with a business plan and pitch it to the government for a stimulus infrastructure loan.

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