Idle No More spreading beyond Canada's borders

The aboriginal movement known as Idle No More continues to gain strength beyond Canada's borders on Tuesday as activists embark on a public relations blitz in the United States.

First Nations activists in Washington, D.C., to give interviews to American media

Alex Rogers wears a grass dance headdress near a railway blockade line in Sarnia, Ont. last month. The Idle No More movement has spread as far afield as Texas and New Zealand. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

The aboriginal movement known as Idle No More continued to gain strength beyond Canada's borders on Tuesday as activists embarked on a public relations blitz in the United States.

Pamela Palmater, one of the leaders of the movement, travelled to Washington, D.C. to give interviews to the U.S. media. She said the goal of the media campaign was to raise awareness internationally and force Prime Minister Stephen Harper to act.

"The idea is to put pressure on the Canadian government to pay attention and come to the table," Palmater said by phone. "I was invited to come down and do some media about Idle No More, basically answer questions about why it's spreading into the United States."

In addition to recent events held across Canada, rallies have already been staged as far off as Texas, Hawaii and New Zealand with plans for more in the coming days.

Palmater said Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike, now in its fourth week, is part of a much larger protest movement.

The initial spark was the federal government's omnibus budget legislation but it has now become about broader issues like inequality and treaty rights, she said.

Palmater noted an evolution in the form protests have taken over the past few weeks, toward increased civil disobedience.

"We did letter writing and phone calls and trying to talk to MPs and, you know, we took that route and it didn't work," she said. "Then we had to move up to peaceful marches and rallies, and that didn't work. So now we're doing all these flash mob round dances, which are more about working hand in hand with Canadians and also keeping the focus on the media. But now you see blockades."

Rail lines disrupted

There have been several disruptions at rail lines over the past week, including one on the main line between Montreal and Toronto on Sunday evening which delayed Via Rail passengers. Protesters have also blocked a CN line in Sarnia, Ont.

There was even a call to set up blockades at Canada-U.S. borders on Saturday, though that move hasn't been endorsed by organizers.

It wasn't clear whether local activists would follow through.

A statement released last week on the Idle No More website urged peaceful forms of protest.

"Idle No More feels that any acts that are not in line with peace and solidarity only detract attention from our ultimate mission," the statement said.

Palmater echoed that sentiment on Tuesday.

"We're trying our best to avoid things that would inconvenience Canadians," she said.

Meanwhile, Spence's hunger strike continued to gain support from across the country. A group of activists travelled from the Maritimes to bring supplies to her protest site, located on an island in the Ottawa River across from Parliament Hill.

Demonstrators block Toronto traffic

Dozens of demonstrators took to the streets of downtown Toronto on Tuesday afternoon in support of Idle No More and stopped traffic at one of the city's busiest intersections.

Actor Tantoo Cardinal was part of the Toronto rally and said she got into acting to tell the world the stories of Canada's aboriginal peoples.

"The blueprint of who we are as a civilization — that was attacked by the church, by the government, by corporations," Cardinal said.

Spence is in support of the treaty rights and the "Canadian people have to understand there are two signers in the treaties," she said.

"Those treaties were signed in a sacred way— they were signed through ceremony, through prayer … and it's a sacred agreement."

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has offered to meet with her but Spence has turned that proposal down.

The federal government says it has made an effort to consult with aboriginal leaders and work on pressing issues on reserves like education, clean drinking water and housing.

It points to a meeting held last January with First Nations leaders as proof it is serious about improving their relationship.