Idle No More protests hit Winnipeg

First Nations leaders and protesters with the Idle No More movement demonstated at various sites in the Manitoba capital to draw attention to aboriginal issues.
Traffic at Winnipeg's James A. Richardson International Airport is backed up during the Idle No More protest. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

First Nations leaders and protesters with the Idle No More movement demonstrated at various locations around the Manitoba capital on Friday.

Demonstrators slowed traffic around James Richardson International airport Friday morning to draw attention to aboriginal issues. About 350 protesters then gathered at The Forks and later marched along Broadway to the Manitoba Legislature.

The protest, organized by the northern chiefs organization, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), blocked one lane of traffic to the airport terminal between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. CT.

Dozens of vehicles circled through the terminal traffic loop, waving flags and signs from windows and making holiday travellers aware of their cause.

Police stand guard at Winnipeg's James A. Richardson International Airport during Friday's Idle No More protest. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)
Idle No More protesters line up to get signs before circling the Winnipeg airport terminal. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

The protesters included chiefs from the Norway House Cree Nation and Cross Lake First Nation and representatives from MKO, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Southern Chiefs Organization.

John Adams got to the airport earlier than usual because he was expecting delays after hearing about the protest through media reports.

He understands why the First Nations are trying to raise awareness about their issues, but wasn't happy about their interruptions at the airport.

Adams and others at the airport said protests at this time of year will not gain sympathy from the public.

"I'd prefer they try other ways but I guess they think negotiation hasn't done anything for them in the last few months so by forcing the issue maybe something'll come of it," he said.

Dozens of vehicles circled through the terminal traffic loop at the Winnipeg airport, waving flags and signs from windows. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

The participants are also planning to take part in another Idle No More rally, set for the afternoon at the Manitoba legislative building.

About 2,000 people are expected to attend that one, which will begin at noon at The Forks. They will then march to the Manitoba legislature starting at 1:30 p.m., according to the event's Facebook page.

The protests are part of a national day of action for the Idle No More movement. MKO's Brennan Manoakeesick said aboriginal leaders hope public pressure will force Prime Minister Stephen Harper to meet with them.

Movement gains momentum

Idle No More is a Canada-wide movement that is protesting the federal government's omnibus budget Bill C-45, which First Nations people say violates their treaty rights and weakens environmental laws.

The bill proposes significant changes to the federal Indian Act, including changes to land management on reserves that would make it easier for the federal government to control reserve land.

Those involved in Idle No More have said they are upset about the effects of federal policies on their communities, and the government's habit of making changes to the Indian Act without consulting aboriginal people first.

The grassroots movement has been gaining momentum in recent weeks, especially among young First Nations people, thanks to social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.

"I've never seen a movement that has been so led by young people and so motivating to young people," says Michael Champagne, one of the organizers of the Forks-to-legislature rally.

"There are young people that I've known for years. I've been trying to get them to wake up and come and participate in some stuff. And now, they're helping volunteer at Idle no More rallies."

About 300 people attended a similar rally last week outside the Manitoba legislature.

Hunger strikes ongoing

Champagne said he will consider Friday's rally to be a success if Harper agrees to meet with Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nations in northern Ontario.

Spence has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 11 to protest a lack of respect for treaty rights.

She has been demanding a meeting with the prime minister and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to discuss the matter. So far, a meeting with the federal minister of aboriginal affairs has been offered.

"We're really hoping that Stephen Harper and his representatives are able to meet with Theresa Spence so that she can end her hunger strike," Champagne said.

"If Chief Theresa Spence passes away as a result of this hunger strike, it makes me really nervous for what our young people are going to do."

Raymond Robinson, a 51-year-old man from the Cross Lake First Nation in northern Manitoba, has been on his own hunger strike for over a week to draw attention to the plight of Canada's aboriginal peoples.

Like Spence, Robinson is demanding a face-to-face meeting with Harper.