In the late fall of 2012, something extraordinary happened in Canada. The country’s indigenous community had reacted furiously to the federal government’s proposal of several omnibus bills removing protections for forests and waterways, among other infringements on their sovereignty. But after no action from then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration, activists took matters into their own hands.
Four women, three of them members of Canada’s First Nations communities and one an ally, launched a series of teach-ins intended to bring awareness to indigenous struggles. Around the same time, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation launched a hunger strike, demanding Harper meet with her and other indigenous leaders in order to address the problems plaguing their communities. Flash mobs cropped up in various provinces, and roads and highways were blocked. It was a rare moment in history, one that saw Canada’s indigenous communities make international news. Solidarity rallies were held across the world — stretching from the United States to Europe to the Middle East, even as far as Australia.
The resulting movement, one that has grown and evolved, is commonly referred to as Idle No More. Per its manifesto, Idle No More calls on people around the world to honor indigenous sovereignty and to protect the environment, as well as naming and shaming colonialism:
The state of Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities (such as Attawapiskat) have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit. The taking of resources has left many lands and waters poisoned — the animals and plants are dying in many areas in Canada. We cannot live without the land and water. We have laws older than this colonial government about how to live with the land.
Canada’s relationship with its indigenous residents is a strange and complicated one. The environment that has allowed for Idle No More to thrive and endure is the same one that demanded its necessity in the first place.
Composed of Inuit, Métis, and First Nations communities, Canada’s indigenous residents have arguably fared better in recent years than their counterparts over the border in the United States. Aboriginal contributions to Canadian identity and heritage are not necessarily embraced throughout the country, but indigenous issues have been at the forefront of current events in the past two decades. And in 1999, the territory of Nunavut was created, a victory for its native Inuit inhabitants and a strike for autonomy and self-determination.
During the years of the Harper administration, which frequently saw advocates for Native rights pitted against a conservative and unsympathetic government, aboriginal Canadians struggled a great deal to have their needs met. Working with grassroots organizations and relying predominantly on indigenous activists and allies, however, arguably helped bring these efforts to a national stage, in addition to drawing global attention to one of the country’s most overlooked and marginalized groups.
They also helped shine a light on one of Canada’s ongoing national traumas: the disappearances and murders of as many as 4,000 indigenous women. While Harper resisted calls to launch a national inquiry into the issue, his successor Justin Trudeau has made the issue a priority — in no small part due to pressure from activists. In May, Canada also finally accepted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, after being the lone objector to the declaration.
But while the victories of these movements have done a great deal to boost the profile of indigenous Canadians, their lives remain disproportionately challenging.
This became apparent when a crisis struck Attawapiskat, a remote Ontario First Nation, last fall. Between the months of September 2015 and April 2016, approximately 101 people, or 5 percent of the entire community, attempted suicide, prompting the area’s chief and council to declare a state of emergency.
It was not the first time the community found itself in crisis. Contaminated drinking water, sewage in homes, and a lack of available housing have all led to similar emergencies in the last decade, and spurred former Chief Theresa Spence to go on a hunger strike in 2012 to bring attention to First Nations issues.
“There is too much sexual, physical, and psychological abuse in our lives, and our communities pay for it in suicides,” indigenous Canadian writer Louise Bernice Halfe wrote in a much-lauded 2014 article in the publication The Walrus. “Our men are more likely to die by suicide than non-Aboriginal men; our women more likely than non-Aboriginal women….The realities are criminal — despite what the government might say about sociological phenomena, about our missing girls and our abducted women. What about our emotional devastation and poverty?”
While the case of Attawapiskat is admittedly extreme, the community’s experience reflects those of many tribes across Canada. The Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba declared a state of emergency around the same time as Attawapiskat, following a spate of youth suicides. Away from reservations, problems also persist: according to Statistics Canada, more than one in five off-reserve indigenous Canadians report having suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives.
Suicide is, of course, more than a mental health issue. Indigenous Canadians all too often live in extreme poverty, lacking access to fundamental necessities like potable drinking water and effective heating to endure the country’s harsh and unforgiving winters. Tribes also rarely benefit from the wealth that others acquire at their expense.
Attawapiskat is, again, an example of this. The community is approximately 60 miles from a De Beers diamond pit that employs around 2,000 of its residents, yet the majority of Attawapiskat’s inhabitants make a meager living from hunting and fishing. Accessing areas outside of the community is difficult; in response to the suicide epidemic, both the federal government and the government of Ontario had to fly in mental health workers to effectively tackle the issue.
What happened in Attawapiskat happened in 2016, and the events offer a cautionary tale to those quick to hail an end to anti-indigenous sentiment. While shifting attitudes towards indigenous communities have been part and parcel of Canada’s new Liberal government, the road has at times been rocky.
Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, elected in 2015, earned praise for putting forward CAD $69 million to fund indigenous mental health services, and for seeking to address the disappearances of indigenous women. However, his support for the Keystone XL pipeline and similar projects has put him in direct conflict with tribes, many of whom object to his stances on oil and gas infrastructure. In May, Canadian aboriginal groups came forward to threaten the construction of oil pipelines on their land. Trudeau’s response was not heartening.
“Well, communities grant permission,” Trudeau told Reuters at the time. “Does that mean you have to have unanimous support from every community? Absolutely not.”
In the case of Keystone, a veto from President Barack Obama ultimately halted the transnational project, not objection from indigenous groups.
In a shifting and increasingly more progressive Canada, it remains to be seen if overtures towards aboriginal communities are anything more than lip service — and if even that is enough to bridge the overwhelming disparities so many face.