‘Idle No More’

MARQUETTE – Members of several area Native American tribes joined thousands of Canadian Aboriginal rights activists in protesting a recently enacted Canadian bill that they say erodes environmental protection efforts as well as treaties concerning the leasing of Aboriginal lands.

A group of about 50 people marched from the Carp River along U.S. 41 to the federal building on Washington Street in downtown Marquette to help raise awareness of Canadian Bill C45 and to promote a Canadian grassroots movement against the bill, “Idle No More.”

“(We began) at the site of the most ancient village in the area. It’s 10,000 years old, and we marched here to federal building,” said Martin Reinhardt, a Northern Michigan University Native American Studies professor and member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Reinhardt said the group chose to end the march at the federal building because it symbolized hundreds of years of negotiations between governments and Native people.

The group gathered on the corner of Washington and Third streets, singing Native songs and discussing the negative affects of harming the environment.

“I want the Earth to be good for my grandchildren,” said Geriann Bialkowski to a round of applause from the protesters.

Bialkowski is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Reinhardt said the bill eases Canadian laws on environmental protection around the Great Lakes – protections he said are necessary on both sides of the Canadian-United States border.

“The border doesn’t exist for Native people,” Reinhardt said. “That’s like trying to tell the fish, ‘Hey, that’s the U.S. and that’s Canada.’ They’re going to get sick on either side.”

Thousands of Aboriginal rights activists also protested Friday in front of Canada’s Parliament as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Aboriginal chiefs attended a summit to discuss disagreements over treaty rights and other grievances.

The meeting divided the Aboriginal community, with some chiefs boycotting the summit because Canadian Governor General David Johnston, a representative of Queen Elizabeth II, did not attend. They argued his presence is imperative because he’s a representative of the British monarchy and the talks center on treaty rights first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1793.

The meeting between Harper, other top government officials, Canadian National Chief Shawn Atleo and 20 other native Canadian leaders ended late Friday with plans to meet again within a month to continue the dialogue on treaties and comprehensive land claims, said Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

There was no immediate comment from the chiefs after the meeting.

Atleo, the elected head of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s main body of Aboriginal leaders, said earlier this week that some chiefs want the Harper government to review sections of two budget bills that amend environmental laws. They are also demanding that a formal process be established to examine long-standing treaties.

Atleo also had said he would demand a national inquiry into the disappearance or killings of hundreds of Aboriginal women over the past decades with little police investigation. He planned also to bring up the need for a commitment to ensure every Aboriginal community has a school.

The governor general was scheduled to meet separately with chiefs after the summit but some chiefs said that wasn’t enough.

“They are meeting with him now, that was the appropriate response,” Duncan said in response to questions from reporters about why Johnston didn’t attend the meeting with Harper.

Among those boycotting was Chief Theresa Spence, who launched a liquids-only hunger strike a month ago to demand the summit. Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat, a northern Ontario reserve, has become a central figure of Aboriginal rights protests that erupted almost two months ago against a budget bill that affects Canada’s Indian Act and amends environmental laws.

Protesters say Bill C-45 undermines century-old treaties by altering the approval process for leasing Aboriginal lands to outsiders and changing environmental oversight in favor of natural resource extraction.

The “Idle No More” movement, which has shown unusual staying power and garnered a worldwide following through social media, has reopened constitutional issues involving the relationship between the federal government and the million-plus strong Aboriginal community.

Spence, who remains on a hunger strike and is camped out on an island in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill, told the protesters before the meeting that Aboriginal people should have an opportunity to hold the government accountable for years of broken promises.

“This meeting’s been overdue for so many years,” she said.

Spence agreed to attend the ceremonial meeting with Johnston moments before it began Friday.

Other chiefs warned the protests will escalate unless Harper and Johnston agree to meet with them Friday together in one room at an Ottawa hotel on their own terms.

First Nations leader Gordon Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians threatened to block major economic corridors, such as border crossings to the U.S. next week. He said roughly 200,000 Aboriginals in Ontario would launch a “day of action” Jan. 16 if their demands are not met.

First Nations would move to “stop roads, rails, transportation of goods,” Peters said. “We just have to walk out on our land and stop it.”

Other chiefs criticized the boycott as extreme and counterproductive.

“I’m really troubled by what looks to be a breakdown in discipline,” said Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the First Nations Summit in British Columbia.

Kelly, a staunch ally of Atleo, said a “handful” of chiefs from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario are creating an appearance of division. He said Atleo was granted a mandate to negotiate with Harper by a number of chiefs.

“We didn’t vote for Theresa Spence as national chief,” Kelly said.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is jstark@miningjournal.net