Idle No More: not yet relevant to Nunavut
If you’re inclined to sympathize with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government over the now dissipating waves of Idle No More protests that peaked last month — don’t bother.
The Conservative government — mostly on their own— provoked nearly every element of that complex but unnecessary crisis.
First, after taking power in 2006, the Harper government rejected a proposal, inherited from the Paul Martin Liberals, to spend an additional $1.8 billion over five years on First Nations schools.
This would have brought per-capita education spending closer to a level most public school systems in the provinces and territories already enjoy.
And that year, they rejected a $1.6 billion spending commitment, also inherited from the Martin government, to pay for badly needed on-reserve housing and infrastructure.
These commitments, announced at a first ministers meeting in Kelowna, B.C., may not have formed part of a legally-binding agreement. But by rejecting most of the arrangements first unveiled at the November 2005 Kelowna gathering, the Conservative government helped give credence to the protestors who six years later would hound them for weeks.
More errors followed, compounding the effect of those early blunders. In 2010, Harper’s throne speech promised widespread environmental deregulation — but said little about the federal government’s duty to consult and accommodate aboriginal peoples.
In early 2012, Joe Oliver, the natural resources minister, launched a campaign of vilification aimed at mainstream environmental groups, labeling them as “radicals” funded by shadowy foreign conspirators.
Paranoia on one side of a dispute usually breeds paranoia on the other. All this nonsense came back to haunt the Tories late last fall, when they tabled Bill C-45, the second budget implementation act.
That bill contained big amendments to a law that’s irrelevant to the federal budget whose bill it was buried in: the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
These changes removed tens of thousands of rivers and lakes from federal protection, including bodies of water to which aboriginal groups have registered legitimate claims and declarations of interest. Bill C-45 contained other amendments to the Indian Act and other federal laws that arguably affect aboriginal rights to varying degrees — provoking more fear and suspicion.
In response, the Idle No More phenomenon moved off the internet and onto to the streets of many Canadian cities, setting into motion an incoherent and chaotic chain of events that still hasn’t quite sputtered out. In the midst of all that, in a bizarre sideshow that threatened to turn deadly, Chief Theresa Spence launched a 43-day liquid-diet protest that didn’t end until late last month.
Did any of this really matter to the Inuit of northern Canada? So far, not much.
Canada’s Inuit organizations, with few exceptions, support nearly everything that Idle No More opposes. On issues related to resource development and environmental protection, organizations like Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami march in lockstep with the Harper government.
For example, Idle No More is bitterly opposed to the government’s attempts to streamline federal environmental laws and regulations.
But Nunavut’s largest Inuit organization? They’re all for it.
In 2008, NTI, after little or no consultation with beneficiaries, helped the Harper government amend Article 12 of the Nunavut land claims agreement. That amendment effectively removes Nunavut from the jurisdiction of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act — unless the minister decides otherwise on certain rare occasions.
NTI also supports the regulatory streamlining provided in Bill C-47, which the Tories are marketing as “The Northern Jobs and Growth Act.” That bill, now sitting before the House of Commons aboriginal affairs committee, sets out rules for bodies like the Nunavut Impact Review Board and the Nunavut Planning Commission. This includes provisions aimed at making environmental reviews in Nunavut run faster.
The NIRB’s recent public review of Baffinland’s Mary River project, incidentally, ran on timelines contained in Bill C-47. The NIRB, and other players, agreed to conduct as if the amendments were already in place.
It’s not unreasonable, on its face, to promote resource development as a way to lift aboriginal people out of poverty. That’s a big part of the Harper government’s northern policy. It’s also NTI’s policy and the Government of Nunavut’s policy. Most Nunavut leaders don’t object and regular people who do are easily marginalized.
Yes, it’s true that NTI’s president Cathy Towtongie, vice president Jack Anawak and NTI CEO, James T. Arreak paid a token courtesy call to Theresa Spence in early January to talk about “commonalities.”
But on substantive policy issues, such commonalities are hard to find. NTI’s biggest beef, implementation of the land claims agreement, now sits before the courts. Compared with the fierce passions unleashed by the Idle No More movement, that issue’s just a friendly cribbage match among lawyers.
Idle No More’s unifying principle is the idea that aboriginal peoples are sovereign nations who have yet to surrender their sovereignty to Canada. That idea forms the movement’s beating heart.
But no officially recognized Inuit organization within Canada asserts such an ideology. Consider the well-known ITK slogan, coined by the late Jose Kusugak: “Canadians First, First Canadians.” For many Idle No More spokespeople, that slogan is the expression of a collaborationist sellout.
That’s no commonality. It’s a stark, irreconcilable difference.
However, if NTI’s lawyers wish to make themselves useful, they might want to research the recent amendments to Navigable Waters Protection Act to determine whether they weaken any Inuit rights.
As for the Harper government, we hope they’ve now learned to respect the legal requirement to “consult and accommodate.” At the same time, the prime minister should find another job for John Duncan. He’s a sincere, hard-working minister.
But on the complex issues now facing his department, he often appears over his head. Harper should replace him with a front-bench quality caucus member. JB