The rally was small, as rallies go — at least it seemed so at the time.
Friends of the Grand River/Mistashipu, one of many groups opposed to hydroelectric dams at Muskrat Falls, called for a gathering at Labrador MP Peter Penashue’s constituency office on Dec. 10 to show solidarity with an obscure movement called Idle No More. Less than a dozen showed up.
The rally coincided with 10 other events taking place across the country.
In Happy Valley-Goose Bay the demonstration lasted for an hour, with no lunchtime traffic inconvenienced. It started with the waving of placards alongside Hamilton River Road and ended with a photo session in front of the MP’s building. The MP himself did not make an appearance.
Since that blustery Monday, Idle No More has grown to be a little less obscure. Rallies of as many as 4,000 people have taken place in Kingston, Saskatoon, Oka, North Bay, Quebec City, Sioux Lookout, Fort Saint John, Owen Sound, Dease Lake, Vancouver, Stephenville, Ottawa, London (England), Los Angeles, San Francisco and Cairo, Egypt.
Marches are taking place in Calgary, Sudbury, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Fort Frances, Ottawa and even Colombia.
Flash mob rounddances are breaking out in Thunder Bay, Montreal, Portland, Seattle, Grand Rapids, Grand Traverse, Toronto, Dartmouth, Calgary, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, Hamilton, Chilliwack, Regina, Denver, North Bay, Whitehorse, Cincinnati, Detroit, Iqaluit and Winnipeg.
Two sections of the Trans-Canada Highway in Nova Scotia were blocked with traffic slowdowns, as were both Highway 401 and 17 in Ontario and also many roads around Alberta.
A bridge was blocked in Montreal, access was cut to the Winnipeg airport and rail lines in Sarnia were closed with blockades that might still be standing.
And Theresa Spence, chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, began a hunger strike on an island in the Ottawa River. She said she won’t eat until she speaks with the prime minister and the Governor General, but they show no signs of wanting to meet her. (Early holiday deadlines mean that at the time of writing Chief Spence’s strike was still only two weeks old. Much can have happened before publication.)
Chief Spence is not just protesting her community’s poverty, or the industrial exploitation that threatens her peoples’ lands. She is trying to protect her community’s aboriginal rights against a federal government that responds to a housing crisis by using it to take direct control of Attawapiskat.
Idle No More was started by four women who planned a number of small teach-ins around Saskatoon to let people know how several bills being passed in Ottawa, especially C-45, will limit and even eliminate certain aboriginal rights guaranteed by treaty and by royal proclamation.
The message caught on. The teach-ins became the 11 rallies in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and elsewhere. The rallies became the marches, blockades and flash mobs. The larger they get the more powerful they become and their growth is not slowing.
Already Idle No More is able to shut the country down and, if the worst happens with Chief Spence, shutting Canada down will probably only be the first thing Idle No More does.
Faced with this growing movement Prime Minister Stephen Harper has two choices. He can either agree to Chief Spence’s demands and sit down with her prepared to compromise on government policy in order to respect rights guaranteed by the Crown, or he can stick stubbornly to his current position, perhaps assuming he can weather any storm. He’ll probably be sorry if he’s chosen the latter course, since Idle No More already appears stronger than he is.
Labrador was at the forefront of this continent-wide movement because it was already in the middle of what Idle No More is fighting: attempts by industrial forces to destroy wilderness for profit.
Unfortunately, Labrador is split on the issue. While the NunatuKavut peoples of Inuit and Mi’kmaq descent have joined wholeheartedly in Idle No More, seeing the construction of the Lower Churchill project as an assault on their aboriginal rights, they seem to be standing alone.
The Innu First Nations seem mostly oblivious to the revolution sweeping Canada. Perhaps they will benefit from industrial exploitation, or maybe they just followed their leaders to the wrong side of history.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.