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Are Women Taking Over Canada's First Nations?

Posted: 01/03/2013 8:11 am


Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

It's not much of a protest.

Perhaps 400 people drum, wave flags, chant, block traffic on this bitterly cold day on Yonge Street at Dundas Square.

Buckskin jackets, a few jingle dresses, a banner reading "We Are All Treaty People." And two cops standing, watching, not even anoraked against the cold. (Rumour has it that the riot squad is in buses parked in a nearby street, waiting to be called in if necessary.)

It's another Idle No More protest in Toronto -- traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation -- this one on the very first day of 2013.

It could be any one of thousands of routinely ignored First Nations protests over the past hundred years against government neglect and consequent third-world conditions.

Except it isn't.

Yes, the crowd isn't big. But there's a new energy here this day. A new focus. Along with a problem for Idle No More.

Everyone here knows that the women who started the movement on that small Saskatchewan reserve 3,000 kilometres to the west of here have had to slap down Canada's chiefs -- mostly male -- who tried to take over leadership once it hit the headlines.

Last Monday the founding women issued this statement: "The Chiefs have called for action and anyone who chooses can join with them, however this is not part of the Idle No More movement as the vision of this grassroots movement does not coincide with the visions of the Leadership."

This is a blunt reference to the fact that the nation's indigenous chiefs have largely failed to improve First Nations living standards over the years.

Some are regarded as government stooges, others as corrupt, many as simply weak.


--------------------


On this first day of 2013, some 350 kilometres to the north-east of Toronto on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River -- traditional Algonquin territory -- Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence starts the fourth week of her hunger strike.

She calls for peace between the Idle No More movement and the chiefs. "Let us come together in unity, because all of us, chiefs and grassroots, are one. If we are going to point fingers, let us point them squarely at this colonial government. 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."

Canada's chiefs aren't used to being humbled. Particularly by a women.

Could it be that women are finally, in desperation, taking over leadership of the First Nations world?

After all, many tribes and bands are matrilineal (descent traced through the mother and maternal ancestors.)


--------------------


Back in Toronto, the protesters -- perhaps half indigenous, half settler -- gather in a circle under the banner "Indigenous Rights Are Non-Negotiable ... Protecting the Rights of the People who are protecting the Rights of the Planet."

A young woman takes the loudspeaker to attack successive Canadian governments for treating indigenous people like inferior dependents. "It's a new year and we want a new relationship" she shouts "nation to nation."

The crowd echoes back: "It's a new year and we want a new relationship -- nation to nation."

Tantoo Cardinal (Order of Canada, Dances With Wolves) picks up the same thread to a CityTV camera: "Canadian people really have to understand that there are two signers in the treaties. They call a certain indigenous people treaty people, right? [But] we're all treaty people. Because those agreements were signed for all nations."

--------------------

Time for the traditional round dance, a ceremony to remember and honour ancestors. Now, today, part of a protest against a distant, uncaring government.

The drums and singers start. Protesters form two huge circles in the middle of Dundas Square. On one side, a woman in buckskin and beads takes my hand. On the other side, a white teenage boy. We smile at each other.

And dance.

I've danced at powwows before, but at first, I feel awkward, silly. Old white man, descendent of British colonialists responsible for so much of this mess, daring to dance with wolves.

But as the drums, the heartbeat of Mother Earth, beat out their rhythm and the singers' voices rise and fall and we slowly circle the square, holding hands, feet sliding on the packed snow, something strong and bright and shiny happens.

We become as one. All of us -- First Nations, protesters, sympathizers, settlers, young, old, women, men, all of us holding hands and dancing this dance while the voices ring clear and the drums beat time.

And for these moments at least there is no difference among us. Only oneness, only the dance and the cause and Mother Earth and Turtle Island.

The protest ends. The banners and flags are furled. The drums are wrapped. The people drift away, most toward the subway. The two cops climb into a SUV with bicycles strapped to its back and drive off.

And I walk across the deserted white and frozen square and pass a music shop where Bob Marley sings "Get Up, Stand Up."

And it's the first day of a new year.

And perhaps a new start for Canada's First Nations.

Loading Slideshow...
  • A native dancer looks on during an 'Idle No More' gathering on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

  • Native dancers rally during an 'Idle No More' gathering on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

  • Idle No More Mall Protest

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/LJ_Henshell"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/630755180/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/LJ_Henshell">LJ Henshell</a>:<br />A First Nations Drummer plays during a protest at Intercity Shopping Center in Thunder Bay, Ontario

  • It's about the future

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/LJ_Henshell"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/630755180/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/LJ_Henshell">LJ Henshell</a>:<br />A child protests in Thunder Bay, Ontario

  • United we stand

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Doug_Cleverley"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/805699678/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Doug_Cleverley">Doug Cleverley</a>:<br />At the #IdleNoMore rally in Owen Sound (Saugeen Ojibway Nation territory), during a spontaneous round dance at the main downtown intersection.

  • Killer Whale Dance

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4441016.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop">Courtney Harrop</a>:<br />Idle No More actions, Coast Salish Territories, Powell River, BC

  • Idle No More #J11

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4441016.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop">Courtney Harrop</a>:<br />Coast Salish Territories, Powell River, BC

  • Idle No More #J11 March

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4441016.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop">Courtney Harrop</a>:<br />Coast Salish Territories, Powell River, BC

  • Tla'Amin Prayer Song #J11 Idle No More

    Tla'Amin Prayer song on #J11 2013 Idle No More, Coast Salish Territories, Powell River BC

  • Tla'Amin Killer Whale Dance, #J11 #IdleNoMore

    Tla'Amin Killer Whale Dance, #J11 #IdleNoMore, Coast Salish Territories, Powell River, BC

  • C45 affects all Canadians! Join the fight.

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Eleanor_Kure"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/840875359/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Eleanor_Kure">Eleanor Kure</a>:<br />At the Idle No More protest in Halifax Nova Scotia. with an eco-justice article in pocket, spreading the word that Bill C45 affects every Canadian, not only First Nations. Thank you FN, for beginning this movement.

  • Piyesiw Awasis

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/mizzren"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/3183681.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/mizzren">mizzren</a>:<br />Thunderchild First Nation @ Lloydminster Flash Mob. January 16, 2013

  • <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/01/16/idle-no-more-queen-elizabeth-2-highway-blockade-alberta_n_2490009.html">Idle No More supporters jump onto a truck</a> as they are pushed by a driver trying to pass, as the protesters block Highway 2 as part of a planned national day of action, in Edmonton, Alberta on Wedneday January 16, 2013.

  • Aboriginal protesters march down Huron Church Road towards the Ambassador bridge in Windsor Ontario, Wednesday, January 16, 2013. About 1000 demonstrators disrupted traffic to the country's busiest border crossing for several hours.

  • Aboriginal protestors pray at the end of their blockade of a CN railroad track just west of Portage La Prairie, Man., on Wednesday, January 16, 2016. They ended their protest without incident.

  • Aboriginal protesters demonstrate at the base of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor Ontario, Wednesday, January 16, 2013. About 1000 demonstrators disrupted traffic to the country's busiest border crossing for several hours.

  • Idle No More demonstrators block a CN east-west track just west of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba Wednesday, January 16, 2016.

  • Mississaugas of the New Credit support INM

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Vicki_King_Jamieson"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/750500023/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Vicki_King_Jamieson">Vicki King Jamieson</a>:<br />New Credit Youth supporting INM

  • Montreal Idle No More

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Caillum"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Caillum">Caillum</a>:<br />Thousands of people, both Native and Canadian, show their support at an Idle No More protest in Montreal on January 11th, 2013.

  • #Denendeh #J11 #IdleNoMore #YZF #NWT Yellowknife "Northwest Territories"

    Video of the Global Day of Action rally in downtown Somba K’e (Yellowknife)on the Akaitcho territory of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Denendeh (Northwest Territories).

  • #IdleNoMore March and Round Dance in Yellowknife Denendeh NWT

    "Today (Friday, December 21, 2012) in Denendeh and across the globe, we made an impact, a statement for true justice to be brought forward and acknowledged. But it will not stop, for the 8th fire has been lit and will only grow. Mahsi for all who showed up and united, we felt the support....we felt the fire!! And there's more to come in the new year." On Facebook By Lawrence Nayally, Melaw Nakehk'o and Eugene Boulanger https://www.facebook.com/events/112403725595655/

  • Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, wearing a headdress, takes part in a drum ceremony before departing a Ottawa hotel to attend a ceremonial meeting at Rideau Hall with Gov. Gen. David Johnston in Ottawa, Friday January 11, 2013.

  • Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, centre, departs a Ottawa hotel to attend a ceremonial meeting at Rideau Hall with Gov. Gen. David Johnston in Ottawa, Friday January 11, 2013.

  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with First Nations leaders in Ottawa on January 11, 2013.

  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with First Nations leaders in Ottawa on January 11, 2013.

  • Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence makes a brief statement on Victoria Island near Parliament Hill Friday January 11, 2013 in Ottawa. Spence is speaking out for the first time about how her reserve spends government money, saying most of what flows to her isolated James Bay reserve actually gets spent outside the community.

  • Aboriginal Chiefs stand at the main gate to Parliament Hill during a protest Friday January 11, 2013 in Ottawa.

  • Idle No More protesters listen to speakers during a rally on Parliament Hill Friday January 11, 2013 in Ottawa.

  • Gordie Odjig of Wikwemikong stands at the west gate to the Langevin Block during the aboriginal meeting in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Idle No More at UBC Vancouver

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Randall_Gray"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/100001602753648/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Randall_Gray">Randall Gray</a>:<br />

  • Idle No More at UBC Vancouver

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Randall_Gray"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/100001602753648/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Randall_Gray">Randall Gray</a>:<br />

  • Los Angeles Rally In Solidarity with First nations

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/hp_blogger_Melinda Gopher"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/contributors/melinda-gopher/headshot.jpg" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/hp_blogger_Melinda Gopher">HuffPost Blogger Melinda Gopher</a>:<br />Brock Conway, Blackfeet activist, with Saulteaux Actor Adam Beach and companion. Photo: Morning Star Gopher

  • Native protesters march up Wellington Street in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Four-year-old Phoenix Sky Cottrelle,from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, holds a sign as aboriginal protestors gather on Victoria Island before they march to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Aboriginal protestors hold signs as they march from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Gordie Odjig, an aboriginal protestor from Wikwemikong, shouts as he marches from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Woman's Voices

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4441016.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop">Courtney Harrop</a>:<br />Idle No More event Dec 30th,2012. Tla'Amin Nation Coast Salish Territories Powell River, British Columbia.

  • Idle No More Edmonton

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/AUPELOCAL6CHAIR"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4411530.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/AUPELOCAL6CHAIR">AUPELOCAL6CHAIR</a>:<br />Planned overnight and what a turn out!

  • IdleNoMore March, Dauphin, Mb

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Phyllis_Racette"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/1354341984/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Phyllis_Racette">Phyllis Racette</a>:<br />#IdleNoMOre Dauphin, Mb

  • Chicago Idle No More @ the Canadian Consulate

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Jolene_Aleck"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/644015258/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Jolene_Aleck">Jolene Aleck</a>:<br />Chicago's Idle No More 1.5.2012 rally @ the Canadian Consulate

  • VancouverC Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • A man waves a flags as aboriginal protesters and supporters in the Idle No More movement block the Blue Water Bridge border crossing to the United States in Sarnia, Ont. on Saturday, January 5, 2013.

  • VancouverA Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverB Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverD Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverH Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC, January 2, 2013.

  • VancouverF Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverE Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverG Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • Flag Planting

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/seawaytoday"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/seawaytoday">seawaytoday</a>:<br />Akwesasne Idle No More att Cornwall, ON

  • Dec 21st 2012 Idle No More Ottawa: Berdine

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Gail_Chicky_Gallagher"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/535670179/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Gail_Chicky_Gallagher">Gail Chicky Gallagher</a>:<br />

 

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