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Come too far to turn back now

When I was in Chicago, I was (deservedly) upbraided by a member of the audience for referring to the #IdleNoMore aboriginal sovereignty movement in the past tense. Of course this movement is still ongoing, just as it was before the advent of the hashtag and the dramatic public demonstrations that accompanied it. The latest federal budget, announcing that benefits for First Nations youth (but not youth in other places) would be tied specifically to a Workfare program (with an enforcement budget that is larger than the budget for actual benefits), suggests that despite the statements of intention to co-operate, the Harper government has no interest in treating Aboriginal Canadians as anything other than inconvenient wards of the state who are in need of instruction in fiscal discipline (yes, the ironies abound).

And so, the revolution will go on, and an opportunity to change the toxic paternalism of the nation of Canada to the people it has colonized has been squandered.

Yesterday marked another dramatic milestone:

A group of young people from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Que., has arrived at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, ending a 1,600-kilometre trek meant to bring attention to aboriginal issues. Six youths and a guide left Whapmagoostui in January to snowshoe and walk to Ottawa in support of the Idle No More movement. They called the trek “The Journey of Nishiyuu,” which means “The Journey of the People” in Cree.

The group now numbers nearly 400, according to volunteers and Gatineau police, after other children and youth from Cree and Algonquin communities joined them along the way. Thousands of people joined them on Monday afternoon at Parliament Hill as their journey came to an end.

To the credit of the government (kind of), the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs was present to greet them and met with them once they arrived. I say ‘kind of’, because the existence of the AANDC is, itself, a product of the colonial legacy that the walk is attempting to  protest. Minister Valcourt has zero power to effect any change, has no experience in Aboriginal issues, and is a living symbol of the fact that Canada treats its Aboriginal people as though they are all one group to be handled by one office.

The Prime Minister, incidentally, was too busy personally greeting two panda cubs that were on loan from China. As the head of government (rather than the head of state), there is absolutely no reason why his presence was needed there, but since he fancies himself as the President of Canada it is no surprise that he chose to participate in a photo op rather than do his actual job.

Karl Nerenberg has a bit of history to put yesterday’s events into perspective:

On the way, they picked up hundreds of supporters — from Chisasibi, Waswanipi, Missitissini and other communities in Cree country, and further south from Algonquin communities such as Kitigan Zibi near Maniwaki, Quebec. By the time they got to Parliament Hill their numbers had swollen to thousands, from all over, especially from Quebec and eastern Ontario.

It was fitting that the Quebec James Bay Cree should be in the vanguard on this day. During the 1990s, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recognized that there were many elements in the James Bay Agreement of 1973 that could form part of a model for a new relationship between Canada, the provinces and the First Nations peoples. The James Bay Agreement recognizes a measure of First Nations’ claim to the natural resources on their traditional territory. It awards the Cree and Inuit a permanent royalty on the wealth produced by hydro electric exploitation.

Of course Canada quickly retreated from its promises and found new and innovative ways to justify maintaining its colonial behaviour – stealing land, bullying those who lived on that land, and then becoming progressively more outraged that Aboriginal people weren’t grateful for all the generosity they had received from their oppressors. The blame falls fairly heavily on the successive governments of Canada – Liberal and Conservative alike – but there’s still plenty left over for the people of Canada, most of whom (myself included) allowed themselves to be lulled into complacency by a smug sense of superiority borne of a refusal to examine their (our) own history, and how our ongoing behaviour continued a shameful legacy.

It is also worth reflecting on the way in which the Nishiyuu walk follows in the footsteps of the Freedom Rides and marches from Selma to Montgomery – meaningful milestones in the battle for black civil rights in the United States. Marchers and riders, black and white, put their bodies on the line to demonstrate their opposition to a system that unfairly deprives non-white people from being treated as full citizens and human beings. Their mere existence, the physical reality of dissent, was enough to provoke state-directed violence, shocking those who passively tolerated white supremacy out of their complacency and into sympathetic action.

To the credit of my country and my generation, the peaceful Nishiyuu marchers were not met with police violence, but it is the violence inherent in the system that motivated the walk in the first place: the historical violence, the economic violence, the violence of neglect by a country that is too ignorant of its past and arrogantly certain of its moral rectitude to live up to its promises. And, like the marchers in the United States, this will be only the first of many such demonstrations until equality and justice are achieved. I forgot to take this into account when I spoke in Chicago – the Nishiyuu have made sure that I won’t forget again.

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