Idle No More: Canada Escalates War on First Nations – by Winona LaDuke and Frank Jr. Molley (Indian Country: Today Media Network.com – June 26, 2013)

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Mi’kmaq and Maliseet reserves in Atlantic Canada are the sites of a new major battle between First Nation activists and the Canadian government that represents the next stage of the Idle No More movement. The flash point came when the Conservative government threw down the gauntlet with what some call sign-or-starve consent agreements presented to First Nations right across the country.

Facing increasingly strong opposition to both its extractive industries and its federal policies, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has adopted a hard-line strategy seemingly designed to eliminate First Nations’ negotiating power and rights. Harper’s cudgels are annual contribution agreements between the government and the First Nations that have new, questionable appendices that are forcing some of the poorest communities to take it or leave it, or worse, face third-party management, which would essentially mean having the Canadian government manage their finances and governmental affairs. At stake here is title over Indian lands and minerals, as well as a host of choices on the future direction of Canada.

The government seems to be focused on getting de facto termination of many constitutionally and treaty protected rights of First Nations. Its first thrust in this battle was this past fall’s Bill C-45, which gutted most of Canada’s environmental laws and was the spur for last year’s Idle No More movement. “It took away a lot of the treaty muscle First Nations have,” says Nina Wilson, one of Idle No More’s founders, of that bill.

Since the eruption of the Idle No More movement in early December, there have been many amendments to Canadian laws that threaten aboriginal peoples rights and their traditional lands, all of them enacted as part of what the government calls “Canada’s Economic Action Plan.” Although dubbed a long-term plan to strengthen the Canadian economy, the majority of the “actions” in this plan will curtail aboriginal peoples rights over their lands and resources. The government seems to be trying to undermine the traditional “derogation” provision, a clause that Chelsea Vowel, a Métis scholar and blogger for Apihtawikosisan.com, explains “is central to every agreement between First Nations and the Canadian government.”

A nonderogation clause in aboriginal law generally reads like this: Nothing in this agreement shall be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from the protection provided for existing aboriginal or treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada by the recognition and affirmation of those rights in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

In “Are you alarmed? You should be,” an article posted on Apihtawikosisan.com, Vowel explains that these new my-way-or-the-highway agreements include language that is, “typical legal doublespeak. Your rights are protected… unless we need to violate them to carry out this legislation that we did not create with adequate consultation with you and further, we will not consult with you as we carry out these legislative duties.”

The new consent agreements bearing these bits of subterfuge are the staple of financial support for First Nations, funding essential health care, education and housing. “Some new agreements with the bands are designed to force a land surrender,” says Wilson. “In other cases, basic rights, like the right to potable water—which is not available in a number of First Nations—are being linked to a diminishment of rights.”

All this comes at a time when many First Nations are in dire financial straits. “We have been receiving very minimal support for services in our communities,” Wilson explains. “[Federal appropriations are] based on prices that date back to the last millennium. For instance, one community gets $4,000 a year for snow removal, and in fact is spending $36,000 a year. That money has to come from somewhere. [This annual shortfall] has snowballed into a debt, and bands have no way of taking care of it. Bands now are being faced with new financial negotiations, and many bands are in the red because of the low-ball appropriations.”

The omnibus budget bill enacted in January has been criticized by opposition MPs as an attempt to subvert the democratic process. The bill was rushed through Parliament, along with many supplementary bills, eight of which directly affect aboriginal peoples and their lands. Of concern to First Nations are changes to legislation on water rights, matrimonial law, the Indian Act, education, health, privatization of Indian lands, taxation on reserves and on the matter of financial transparency and accountability.

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