Canada's Indigenous People Rally For Rights Around 'Idle No More' Initiative

An indigenous protest movement is shaking Canadian politics. Idle No More is against a bill that native people say threatens their treaty rights. One chief is almost a month into a hunger strike.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. A grass-roots indigenous movement is shaking up politics in Canada. It's called Idle No More. Like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, it spread quickly through social media. And it's now got the attention of Canada's leaders, thanks to the efforts of one chief from a tiny tribe whose hunger strike has galvanized the movement. David Sommerstein, of North Country Public Radio, has the story.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: Idle No More was born last fall. Four aboriginal women from Saskatchewan began emailing about a budget bill introduced by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It makes changes to Canada's Indian Act. The women feared it would expose tribal lands to private developers, and erode aboriginal treaty rights. They spread the word on Facebook and Twitter, and Idle No More took off. Last weekend, protesters closed down several border crossings with the U.S.

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SOMMERSTEIN: Hundreds of people from the Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve marched across a bridge linking northern New York State to Ontario. Parents pulled their kids in wagons. Elders caught rides on four-wheelers. A woman burned ceremonial sage, and the smell carried over the whole march. Organizer Jose Verdugo uses the Mohawk word for original people to say the protests are bringing aboriginals together.

JOSE VERDUGO: As Onkwehonwe people, we're put here on this earth to protect the land, and that's what we're going to show today.

SOMMERSTEIN: Idle No More has rallied around one chief from the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. Chief Theresa Spence is starting the fifth week of a partial hunger strike. She is consuming fish broth. Her tribe made headlines last year for suffering through poor living conditions. Muddying the waters, though, is an audit accusing her tribe's council of mismanagement. Still, she's living in a teepee on the Ottawa River right now, within sight of Canada's Parliament; demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Harper.

Mohawk Carolyn Francis says she's marching in solidarity with Chief Spence.

CAROLYN FRANCIS: We need to have the Canadian government listen to us; that we are still here, and we are still going to make them stand up to the treaties that were done a long time ago.

SOMMERSTEIN: Idle No More has reinvigorated the debate over Canada's contentious history with aboriginal tribes. Many Canadians associate aboriginal protests with violence - largely stemming from a 1990 standoff in the Quebec community of Oka.

ALLAN MOSCOVITCH: It was a famous confrontation between a masked aboriginal protester, and a member of the Canadian military.

SOMMERSTEIN: Allan Moscovitch teaches social policy at Carleton University in Ottawa. He says Idle No More is different. These protests have been peaceful, even when blocking roads or rail lines; and even playful at times, with flash mobs in malls doing traditional round dances. Moscovitch also says Idle No More's leaders are different - young and savvy.

MOSCOVITCH: Who do not, in any way, fit a stereotype from the past. They are aboriginal, but they walk in the mainstream society; and they bridge between the two.

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SOMMERSTEIN: Marching on the bridge between New York and Ontario, Margie Skidders looks down at the icy blue St. Lawrence River, and the wooded countryside of the Mohawk Reserve where she grew up. She says this is what's at stake.

MARGIE SKIDDERS: It was really powerful. It was just powerful walking over the bridge - and no cars - and to be able to enjoy the scenery and think, and this is where we live; this is what we're protecting.

SOMMERSTEIN: Prime Minister Harper has responded cautiously to Idle No More. He said he respects people's right to, quote, "express their point of view peacefully." But he had resisted meeting about aboriginal concerns. But late last week, facing Chief Spence's declining health, he gave in. A meeting is set for Friday.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.

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Correction Jan. 9, 2013

An early version of this story incorrectly said the Oka crisis was in the 1970s. It was actually in 1990.

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