National Post (Ottawa), January 3, 2012
The Harper government said Wednesday it expected the “rule of law to be upheld” as aboriginal activists called for rail and border crossing blockades, the same day a First Nations chief on a hunger strike suggested relations with Ottawa were becoming more “volatile” and strained.
The language from both sides came as Chief Theresa Spence, who has subsisted on fish broth and water for three weeks, called for unity between native chiefs and the grassroots movement that has blossomed into Idle No More.
Spence’s spokespeople said Wednesday in a written statement that the situation “is becoming more volatile” with each passing day that Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t meet with Spence.
The statement added that chiefs who met in Ottawa last week plan to launch “countrywide economic disturbances” if Spence’s request for a face-to-face with Harper went unanswered.
Rail blockades have so far had little commercial effects, according to CN Rail, which owns much of the rail being targeted. A blockade near Seton Lake, B.C., north of Vancouver, ended over the weekend after demonstrators left a secondary rail line they had occupied for three days. A blockade in eastern Quebec has affected Via Rail passengers, who were also affected by a three-hour shutdown Sunday in eastern Ontario.
In Sarnia, Ont., a judge on Wednesday ordered demonstrators blocking rail traffic there to end their blockade.
“We urge an end to illegal blockades and expect the rule of law to be upheld,” Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said Wednesday.
Demonstrations continue around the country and overseas under the Idle No More banner. On social media, some activists called for an escalation of action and blockades of border crossings on Saturday “to show the government that we are willing to escalate this to a point where we shut down the country.”
Idle No More has grown into a national movement that is now receiving international attention. The movement, which started as a series of teach-ins on a small Saskatchewan reserve, has faced growing pains as the founders of the movement distanced themselves Monday from native chiefs who claim to be acting on behalf of the campaign.
On New Year’s Day, a close aide to Spence sent a letter to the founders of Idle No More which quotes Spence as saying that chiefs “must humble themselves and be one with the brave grassroots citizens of our nations.
“(Spence’s) message is that the chiefs must and will redeem themselves despite an imperfect past; the time has come for the leaders of our nations to become one and the same as the people,” reads the letter from Angela Bercier.
“The chiefs have made mistakes in the past, but don’t shame them for these. They are, after all, our people. The chiefs are ready now to humble themselves for the people.”
The focus of Idle No More began with opposition to bill C-45, the government’s budget implementation bill, which makes changes to environmental laws as well as changes to the Indian Act. The changes to the Indian Act would allow aboriginal people to sell or lease their land to non-natives through a community vote.
Critics say those changes violate treaty rights, while the government argues the changes are designed to help the economy.
But since her hunger strike began on Dec. 11, Spence has become a public face for Idle No More. She has said she’ll starve herself to death if Harper doesn’t meet with her, but has also suggested that a meeting between the government and native chiefs to discuss treaty concerns would suffice.
Harper has so far not said if he will meet with Spence. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has offered to meet with Spence, but she has declined.
A spokesman for Duncan said Wednesday the minister will “continue trying to engage the Chief and other First Nations leaders.”