Canada: The Protest Walk of Native Canadians

Flaminia Bondi (Montréal), traduit par Nikola Rajić
5 Avril 2013

The protest movement of Canadian native people which begun in mid-January is growing stronger.

Par âpihtawikosisân | 16 décembre 2012
Par âpihtawikosisân | 16 décembre 2012
The native Canadians’ protest walk begun in mid-January this year, in order to support the “Idle no more” movement, and finally reached Ottawa on Monday, March 26th. This walk, born of the initiative of a 17-year-old native Canadian David Kawapit, started as a small gathering of only 6 people who had decided to travel on foot approximately 1600 km to reach the capital in order to submit their demands for better living conditions. These young people have taken this initiative to symbolize a new generation, the young one, mobilized against the discriminations suffered by their communities.

Other native Canadians and sympathizers of the protest joined this walk along the way, until finally 200 people gathered in front of the Parliament. The protesters challenged Stephen Harper’s bill C-45, which was, according to them, discriminatory, especially concerning navigable waters and the use of wildlife reserves.

Numerous demands

The walk was also inspired by Theresa Spence known for her brave act as a chief of Attawapiskat reserve. In a hunger strike lasting from December 11th, 2012 to January 23rd, 2013, Spence called out for a meeting with Prime Minister Harper in order to urge the government to take the living conditions of the native population more seriously. After some hesitation, the minister had finally accepted this meeting but Spence found it to be disappointing.

Canada’s indigenous people, numbering more than 90 000 only in Quebec, are still victims of discrimination, most of which remain untold. For instance, recently, another protest walk took place in Montreal on March 12th this year, triggered by the disappearance and murder of 22 native Canadian women in 2010 whose files silently disappeared in 2012.

Native Canadians, ancestors of the peoples who occupied Canadian territories before the arrival of Europeans, consist of different communities that are often victims of stereotypes propagated by the mass media. They are often described as “alcoholics”, “lazy” or even designated as “useless, living at the expense of the state”.

This fact is the result of certain rights granted to them due to their particular status of being “First Nations” living on these territories before the formation of the Canadian state, and having their own rights to a portion of this land. These different communities, already at war with each other over borders, finally found a way to integrate into the canadian state through a number of treaties primarily focusing on the equal share of land. These treaties have been increasingly ignored. For this reason, the native populations have never felt "conquered" by the Europeans, and still claim their autonomy and right to self-determination.

This "sharing" provided for the allocation of a portion of land known as "reserves", existing for the exclusive use of Indians and guaranteed by the state, where they could exercise their freedom without the state questioning their sovereignty. These lands remain the state’s property, exempting their inhabitants from any taxes. Hence, they were considered for a long time as “privileged citizens” and this appellation still feeds the distrust of Canadians against them. According to Canadians, these people don’t work, and live at their expenses, which earned them the epithet “lazy” .

It must be said, however, that although these populations take advantage of their rights, they are also deprived from other rights normally accorded to other Canadian citizens. For example, they don’t participate in the “free sharing of property " and remain nominally under the supervision of the state, developing as a result a relationship of dependency towards it.

Additionally, not paying tax limits their right to occupy their land, as well as the possibility to transfer lands between the communities before first being approved by the Canadian government. Furthermore, these lands can never become subject to mortgage, which limits the possibility of taking loans by reducing the chances of access to credit. The payment of taxes usually makes it possible to claim certain rights, which in this case are mostly limited.

Misunderstanding of Canadian citizens

The majority of Canadian citizens ignores this situation and continues to consider them as “privileged”, feeling a sense of injustice which only fuels the tensions among people. Native Canadians are also often defined as lazy  because of the high unemployment rate in the reserves, which can be explained simply by a lack of job creation in these areas and the fact that the native population is becoming increasingly younger
These clichés are well-rooted in Canadian society because of a lack of information at the level of primary and secondary education where these issues are treated only partially, and also because of the prejudices propagated by the media. Indeed, a lot of documentaries on TV or on the internet show native Canadians as poor people usually involved in drugs, alcohol, and crime. It is this depiction that makes some people scornful of native Canadians, and fills others with distrust
However, although it is true that these people live in conditions that are often depreciable, particularly in terms of access to water and state-subsidized education, it is far from being a general rule. Many young native Canadians work or study as many other Canadian citizens and  receive prestigious awards as the case of Stanley Vollant illustrates. This Innu surgeon is known for his expertise and  committed work among the indigenous population.  

The latter case is also exemplified by the young man who began a march of 1600 km to assert their right to dignity, and shows everyone that they are there and far from being passive or lazy, but rather dynamic, determined, and courageous. Perhaps a new generation has arrived on the public scene, evident both in the recent protest movement of native Canadians as well as in the “Maple Spring” protests, that is determined to change things and put an end to injustice.