For 37 years, Gary Wassaykeesic has been seeking justice for his mother, who died on a remote reserve for indigenous people in Canada. Canadian law enforcement and the federal government have historically turned a blind eye to crimes committed on First Nations reserves, critics say. His quest to bring the alleged killer to justice has been enlivened by Idle No More, a protest movement led by Canada’s indigenous First Nations people that sprang up last autumn, and has forced politicians and the public to confront the challenges that face Canada’s 1.1 million indigenous people.
Many indigenous Canadians like Wassaykeesic have been emboldened by the Idle No More movement. On March 25, a group of First Nations youth arrived in Ottawa, the capital, after walking 1,600km from a northern community to draw attention to poverty and other social problems they face. In January, protesters blocked railway lines and roads across the country, some indigenous leaders have gone on hunger strike, and statues of past Canadian leaders have been vandalised.
Idle No More spread across Canada after the federal government in Ottawa introduced a bill known as C-45 last October. Activists say the proposed law threatens vast tracts of wilderness by reducing the number of federally protected waterways, among other things. The Canadian parliament passed the bill last December. But the issues fuelling the movement go much deeper. Indigenous communities in Canada, which make up about three percent of the country’s population, have long felt socially and politically excluded. Many, particularly in the vast expanses of rural Canada, experience developing-world standards of living. Suicide rates are some of the world’s highest, according to the Canadian Institute of Child Health. Statistics Canada has reported that more than half of First Nations members living on reserves have not completed high school. Drug and alcohol abuse is rife among some indigenous people, including in major cities such as Toronto.
Since last autumn, thousands of people – including many non-indigenous – have attended Idle No More demonstrations across the country. An Idle No More Facebook page has more than 100,000 supporters. Many angry and disaffected young First Nations men and women see this grassroots movement as an opportunity to highlight their social and economic plight, beyond Bill C-45’s perceived threat to Canada’s forests and natural beauty. At the core of the tensions is a push to exploit vast tracts of land rich in oil, gas and minerals, often putting mining and energy companies in direct competition with First Nations communities.
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