Urban centres key to Idle No More's fight for Mother Nature

Though Idle No More may focus on Canada's far-flung waterways and conditions on remote First Nations reserves, Hamilton, like dozens of cities and big suburbs across Canada, has served as a staging ground for several protests related to the movement.
About 200 protesters participate in an Idle No More demonstration in December at Hamilton City Hall. (Adam Carter/CBC)

With flags, placards and loudspeakers in tow, hundreds of activists descended on Main Street West and Dundurn in west Hamilton on the first Saturday of the new year.

Though the intersection, one of the city's busiest, is an unmistakably urban locale, it served as a staging ground for activists to urge the federal government to do more to protect Canada's far-flung lakes and rivers.

Hamilton, like dozens of other urban centres across Canada, has seen demonstrations related to Idle No More, the burgeoning protest movement spearheaded by First Nations groups and their allies. That's because the issues at hand don't just affect First Nations people on remote reserves, according to Myka Burning, who helped to organize Saturday's march.

"For all people who have to live on this land, their water is at risk, that they might not be able to drink it," she said.

In particular, Burning and the other demonstrators have come to decry, among other things, the federal government's Bill C-45. Passed by Parliament in early December, the legislation removes hundreds of Canadian lakes and streams, many of which lie in remote parts of Canada, from a list of federally protected bodies of water.

Yvonne Maracle, who spoke at an Idle No More protest in December at Hamilton City Hall, said all residents of Canada, not just indigenous people, should be concerned about the legislation and its possible impact on the environment.

"It doesn't matter where you live, we all need the water and the land to live and survive," she told CBC Hamilton in a written statement.

Maracle, a Mohawk who chairs the City's Aboriginal advisory committee, said the "movement has also allowed for all Aboriginal people to come together for a cause which unites them in the calling on one voice that will respect the great need to protect our natural resources."

Maracle added that environmental issues are extremely important to First Nations people living in cities because they still have strong ties to reserve communities. (Maracle even noted that though she works and resides in Hamilton, she plans to retire to nearby Six Nations.)

High level of mobility

Myka Burning speaks over a megaphone at an Idle No More demonstration in west Hamilton on Jan. 5. (Adam Carter/CBC)

The ties between urban Aboriginals and rural environs are not simply cultural or ideological, according to Jeff Denis, a McMaster sociologist who examines the relationships between First Nations activists and their non-Aboriginal allies.

"There is a fairly high level of mobility both ways between the cities and the reserves."

Cities, he noted, bring together social actors from a variety of backgrounds, creating an environment of political ferment.

"Many of the key activists and organizers are located in cities like Toronto and Hamilton, and places like Thunder Bay and Winnipeg."

Urban centres, he said, were the "hub" of the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and '70s. The effort began in Minneapolis, where a group of local native activists railed against police brutality and poor living conditions, and evolved into a nationwide cause.

"I think we're seeing that here as well," Denis said.

An exercise in leadership skills

Brantford, Ont.-based motivational speaker Earl Lambert has attended and spoken at Idle No More gatherings in Hamilton, Toronto, St. Catherines and Brantford. But to the B.C-born 36-year-old who speaks in schools and community centres, the purpose of the movement isn't simply to influence government policy — it's also an occasion for First Nations people, especially youth, to assert their identities proudly and publicly.

Earl Lambert, a Brantford-based motivational speaker, addresses an Idle No More demonstration in December. (Courtesy of Earl Lambert)

In addition to suffering disproportionately high levels of sexual abuse, alcoholism and drug use, all legacies of the residential school system, Aboriginal youth in cities grapple with finding their place in society, he said.

"Identity conflict for urban youth is that they're growing up in a mainstream society," said Lambert.

"They try to fit into non-Aboriginal society thinking that if they deny their roots towards their cultural groups or not acknowledge it, they'll be thought of as a better person and be more apt to fit in."

In contrast, the Idle No Movement, he said, presents First Nations youth, and young people in general, with "an exercise in leadership skills and taking a stand."

"This is for all youth to stand up and have a say and say that they want to be consulted."