Canadian flags burn during Day of Action
How a grassroots revolt eclipsed a national protest
By any measure, highway blockades upstaged the marches and rallies on Canada’s Aboriginal Day of Action in June. Weeks of high-profile controversy climaxed on June 29, when small groups of protestors took over roads, rail lines, and the country’s news headlines.
In the media, open conflict between “radical” and “moderate” indigenous leaders got plenty of airtime, although the underlying political issues received little attention. The issue of “violent” and “illegal” protest was the top story.
As early as May 15, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was warning that “violence — or the threat of violence — will kill any public sympathy for getting on and fixing this problem.” On June 28, Phil Fontaine made a last-ditch appeal to aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people not to use the national day of action as an opportunity for “violent confrontation and illegal road blockades.” But despite all the warnings, at the end of the day, no incidents of violence were reported.
Nonetheless, news writers across the country tagged Shawn Brant, the leader of the Tyendinaga Mohawk blockade in Ontario, as a “hothead” (National Post) “rogue” (CBC) and “militant” (Canadian Press). CP went further, calling Brant a “lone voice advocating militancy” — ignoring the dozens of Mohawks standing with him and hundreds more behind barricades across the country.
Against this backdrop, the AFN were positioned in the media as moderates. The national organization formed in 1982 as a way for chiefs and bands to advocate for treaties, land rights, education, development, health, housing, and more. But the AFN doesn’t represent all indigenous people: non-status natives are left out, for example.
The AFN initiated the Day of Action last December when the Special Chiefs Assembly passed a proposal calling on Canada to “respect the fundamental human rights of indigenous peoples to ownership and legal recognition of a rightful share of all natural resource wealth in Canada.” Chief Terrance Nelson of the Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba sponsored the resolution. By May, Nelson and the band were promising to block the CN Rail lines through the Roseau River reserve.
In the weeks leading up to the protest, Phil Fontaine, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, tried to rein in the blockaders. But Fontaine himself had to admit he couldn’t control what individual chiefs and bands choose to do. “Many of our communities have reached the breaking point. The anger and frustration are palpable,” he told reporters in May.
Fontaine, along with Harper, argued that blockades are counter-productive because they don’t win support from the public. There is much more than public image at stake, however. Fontaine and other AFN leaders may have been aiming to win the hearts and minds of Canadians, but for the blockaders, the day of action had a different goal: to squeeze the government and corporations until they are willing to make real change. Blockades are economic actions, not media stunts, but they still got the lion’s share of the camera time.
They also got the government’s attention. Threats of action spurred the government into moving to resolve outstanding issues that have festered for generations.
On June 12, Harper, Fontaine, and Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice announced a proposal to overhaul the native land claims system. One week later, the Conservatives settled the Roseau River land claim, prompting the AFN’s action leader to cancel the CN Rail blockade in Manitoba. And on June 30, the government designated former diplomat Janet Zukowsky as a special representative to the Barriere lake Algonquin community, days after members of that First Nation set up camp on Parliament Hill.
Astute observers will note the new initiatives do not address widespread poverty on reserves, and they don’t provide help for employment, health services, drinking water, or education. The announcements also fail to address a key demand of First Nations: implementation of the Kelowna Accord to immediately address living conditions on reserves.
First Nations leaders warn if the status quo doesn’t change, many more protests are on the way.
“What Shawn Brant did is nothing compared to what is going to happen in the future if we can’t give our people hope for the future,” Nelson told delegates at the Alliance of First Nations annual general meeting in July.
In fact, a second wave of protests started only days after the National Day of Action. Writers for Warrior Publications, a west coast-based group, slammed the AFN as colonialist collaborators and called for a boycott of the Day of Action. The Warriors announced separate Anti-Canada Day protests against a system they describe as corrupt – a system that includes treaty negotiations, the band councils, and the AFN itself.
Activists in Montreal, Guelph, Vancouver and Saanich, BC organized blockades and protests on a smaller scale than those seen two days earlier. But the Anti-Canada Day protests failed to deliver the media punch of the Day of Action protests, coming as they did after most editors had wrapped up the native issue and moved on to other news priorities.
As summer temperatures climb, First Nations unrest continues. In BC alone, three more civil disobedience actions began in the first week of July. Members of the Sechelt Band occupied their band office demanding the chief resign after he accepted an apology from RCMP officers who pepper sprayed a crowd of soccer fans. In Lytton, band members blocked the highway to protest loss of ferry service that left a community isolated. And a long-simmering dispute within the N’quatqua First Nation erupted again when protestors blocked an old-growth logging operation in Blackwater.
What the National Day of Action achieved was a flash point — a focus and an impetus for activists. But as Fontaine learned, once people are galvanized into action, they may not be willing to fall into line behind their leaders.