Toronto protest ends, INAC offices still occupied in Winnipeg, Vancouver

On Thursday, demonstrators left the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, nine days after they took it over and sparked a protest that has spread across the country.

#OccupyINAC protests 'same energy' as Idle No More, says Cree lawyer who was key figure in movement

For the first time in nine days, people from a group called #OccupyINAC emerge from Toronto's Indigenous and Northern Affairs office. (Sakura Saunders/Twitter)

On Thursday, demonstrators left the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, nine days after they took it over and sparked a protest that has spread across the country.

"The time has come for us to go back to our families and loved ones, and to come out and thank our supporters. Without you, this week of awareness that has spread across the land may never have happened," read a statement from a group called #OccupyINAC, who say they were directed to leave by youth from Attawapiskat.

But while the occupation in Toronto has ended, groups are still inside buildings in Winnipeg and Vancouver — and a key figure in Idle No More sees similarities to that movement.

"People felt all of the same energy with [as Idle No More].This need to do something, this need to say something, this need to demonstrate that they exist. We exist. And we are not going to let those things happen and be silent about it," said Tanya Kappo, a Cree lawyer from Alberta who was involved in Idle No More from its earliest days.

The #OccupyINAC protesters are demanding that Ottawa do more to help Indigenous communities like Attawapiskat, Ont., and Pimicikamak, Man., which have seen multiple suicide attempts in recent months.

Protesters are also camped outside INAC's Regina office, while ongoing demonstrations keep the department's Gatineau office closed to the public.

"Due to exceptional circumstances," those offices are inaccessible to the public but remain operational, the department said on its website.

All other INAC regional offices and business centres are open for regular business.

'Great sign of support'

Kappo says she supports the #OccupyINAC protests because it was sparked by concern between Indigenous communities.

"The occupation, in my mind, became a great sign of support to people in Attawapiskat," she said.

"This is a way of getting the message out there in a peaceful way, that comes from a place of support and caring."

But while Idle No More eventually spread across the country and saw thousands of people join rallies and 'flash mob round dances,' so far #OccupyINAC only involves a few dozen on the ground, and many messages of support on social media.

Occupation in Vancouver

In British Columbia, a group with a core of three women and their children have been occupying INAC's downtown Vancouver office since Monday.
A group lead by Indigenous women have taken over INAC's Vancouver office, in solidarity with protests happening across the country. (OccupyINAC/Twitter)

"The children of Attawapiskat amplified the cries of all Indigenous children across Canada and OccupyINAC-Vancouver stand in solidarity with them," the group said in a statement posted on social media.

Organizers said that they want a meeting with federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly. They also want funding restored to Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth, which was redirected for job training programs under the Harper government. The fund used to support cultural activities for Indigenous youth, mainly through friendship centres.

"Our main goal is to exit INAC with a victory dance," the statement reads. 

Solidarity in Saskatchewan

A fence that had been erected in front of INAC's Regina building on Tuesday morning has since come down.

The office itself is still closed, but the small group of protesters who are camping outside the building cheered as the fence was taken down Wednesday afternoon.
Protesters in Regina camp out in front of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office. (Glenn Reid/CBC)

The Regina event was organized by Robyn Pitawanakwat, who said the problems facing Attawapiskat are well known in Saskatchewan communities. Three First Nations in the province also declared mental health emergencies back in March.

"It's an old story," she said. "It's a tired story, but nobody is more tired than the people in these communities. They need help."

Pitawanakwat added that the problem is also rooted in Indigenous people not having control over their own communities.

"The idea that we cannot administrate our own communities and our own funds is ridiculous," she said. "There are people who have never been to these communities deciding who gets the money and it needs to stop."

Bennett, Angus visit Attawapiskat

Since the protests began, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has paid a visit to Attawapiskat, joined by NDP MP Charlie Angus.

Bennett said a youth centre and better housing are in the works — but she said she wants continued guidance to form a plan that will address problems in First Nations right across the country.
Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, left, NDP MP Charlie Angus, centre, and Chief Bruce Shisheesh, right, hold hands as they speak with youth during a recent visit to Attawapiskat, Ont. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"I've committed to setting up a youth advisory committee to help me with priorities and make sure, as we develop plans for young indigenous people, coast-to-coast-to-coast, that I will have their guidance," she said.

Angus announced that a delegation of Indigenous youth from northern Ontario would be visiting Ottawa soon, where they'll be hosted by Senator Murray Sinclair.

For Winnipeg, no end in sight

In Winnipeg, where protests began one day after Toronto, around a dozen people remain in INAC's offices.

Organizers have said little to media but a statement issued on social media lays out their demands, which include the abolishment of the Indian Act, a meeting with the Prime Minister and an end to discrimination against two-spirit people, among others.

"We will continue to assert our sovereign right to occupy this space until the Crown, so-called Government of Canada, and so-called Chief and Council, acknowledge this statement and the commands within," the statement reads.

With files from CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Manitoba, Wawmeesh Hamilton and The Canadian Press