Cold shock of a pre-dawn protest

Michael Johansen
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Somewhere out in the province in some murky courtroom or another, there’s probably a team of Nalcor lawyers trying to convince some judge to have their anti-protest injunction against NunatuKavut leader Todd Russell and other “persons unknown” extended to cover all of Labrador — and maybe even Newfoundland, too.

The scheming no doubt started the minute the company’s work-bound staff hit an Idle No More blockade on the Trans-Labrador Highway. About 30 people, masked against the bitter pre-dawn cold, stopped traffic from three directions for more than two hours. They let most drivers pass right through, but they kept all Nalcor-related vehicles stuck in line, including a truck holding a former minister of Labrador Affairs.

The blockade was organized by NunatuKavut to coincide with hundreds of similar protest actions that were taking place on Jan. 11, the day Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with some of Canada’s First Nation chiefs to discuss the government’s violations of aboriginal treaty rights.

Across Canada, the actions took many forms, as they have from the beginning. Marches, rallies and flashmob round dances sprang up in almost every major city and plenty of smaller towns. Bridges, railways and roads were blocked from coast to coast.

Despite that, the movement (like Occupy before it) is being criticized for lacking a single goal and for essentially being unorganized. This lack of central control, however, has not hampered Idle No More’s ability to execute an effective strategy of both articulating demands and demonstrating what could happen if they are not met.

The marches and rallies have loudly publicized the treaty violations that harm all Canadians, and the blockades prove that when it comes to making the federal government change or abandon its harmful legislation, no one is saying “please” anymore. In this way, Idle No More is showing strength and resolve that must be respected.

Intelligent and innovative police forces in Ontario have done this by co-operating with the movement on its own terms and by not risking the lives of officers and other citizens to force open a railway line for mere economics.

In effect, by openly defying court injunctions requiring the police to end blockades, the police have recognized that while Idle No More is not following normal political channels to express aboriginal national interest, the movement is nevertheless acting within the Rule of Law because it is seeking to uphold Royal guarantees.

The Ottawa meeting was less than a success for both sides; in fact, in some aspects it was a downright failure. Harper had likely hoped it would end Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and all the other protests, but they continued with no hesitation. The chiefs and Idle No More had wanted enforceable commitments from the government to correct the offensive laws, but all they really got was obfuscation and a promise to talk again.

That said, the meeting did do one useful thing: it provided a window into how the prime minister comprehends the situation. Apparently, he doesn’t realize that those involved in Idle No More are convinced that industrial megaprojects do little except enrich faraway financiers by destroying nature and endangering human health — at least that’s what history has taught them.

One of the main points of Idle No More is not just to protect treaty rights for their own sake, but because without them everyone suffers at the hands of powers that seek to steal land and poison the planet. Unfortunately, if the prime minister ever does come to that realization, he won’t likely share it with the public, or even admit it to himself for that matter.

It’s too bad Harper doesn’t have all the people he needs to see him through this growing crisis. That day in Ottawa he could have used an intelligent and dynamic minister with years of experience in native protest and politics at his side, someone who’s been through countless negotiations over these same issues, someone from a native community on the fringes of Canada, someone perhaps who is actually tasked to deal with intergovernmental affairs.

Unfortunately, the prime minister seems to have no one like that in his cabinet. At least, no one like that went with him to this important meeting.

Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Organizations: Trans-Labrador Highway

Geographic location: Labrador, Canada, Ottawa Ontario

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