12/21/2012 05:29 EST | Updated 02/20/2013 05:12 EST

Watching the Watchdog: This Aboriginal Revolt is For Real

Canada is guilty of one of the most elemental colonial sins: trying to destroy aboriginal culture and assimilate aboriginal people. That's why Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike matters. This time, our first peoples won't be placated with an apology in parliament, This time, the revolt is for real.


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

In the middle of the Ottawa River there is an island called Victoria, named by the white settlers to honour their queen across the water.

On Victoria Island is a tepee. And in the tepee on this freezing cold first day of winter sits Theresa Spence who is Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation and holds an eagle feather in her hand.

For nearly two weeks now she's been on a hunger strike to try to force Canada's government to rescue the peoples of our First Nations.

"I am willing to die for my people," she says "because the pain is too much and it's time for the government to realize what it's doing to us."

Ironically, from the chief's tepee on Victoria Island, which is Algonquin territory, you can see the splendid Canadian Parliament where our laws are made, and the Supreme Court of Canada, where our laws are enforced.

Chief Spence is not alone in her anger. Across the country, First Nations people are meeting and planning resistance and already some are closing highways. And from coast to coast, the movement Idle No More grows to protest against generations of traditional Canadian government indifference toward endemic First Nations poverty, desperation and despair.

How has it come to this?

Simple. It's what inevitably happens eventually when colonial powers invade aboriginal land.

The newcomers carry big guns and speak grand words about the glory of their civilization and the power of their mighty god. And they justify the invasion by trying to destroy native culture, "civilize" the people and turn them into lesser versions of the colonizers.

In recent history it's almost always been paler people doing this to darker people.

It's called racism.

But what, you ask, has this to do with Canada? Our two colonial invaders, France and Great Britain, certainly didn't behave as badly toward the indigenous people as some other colonial powers.

Colonialists "behaving badly" though, is just a matter of degree. And no colonial power is ever ready to admit -- and voluntarily right -- its wrongs.

For instance, during Algeria's eight year war of liberation from France, perhaps 1-millon people were killed. But it took until last week before France admitted that its colonization of Algeria included both torture and massacres.

That's when new French president Francois Hollande told the Algerian parliament: "For 132 years, Algeria was subjected to a brutal and unfair system -- colonization. I acknowledge the suffering it caused."

As for the British, for years Kenyans have accused them of covering up systemic atrocities during the Mau Mau rebellion against colonialism back in the fifties.

Now, a British High Court has ruled that the government can be sued for those atrocities.

Gitu wa Kahengeri, of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, says they're asking for reparations and a formal apology from the British. "We are looking for compensation for all of the people whose lives they have destroyed."

"We are also looking for them to come out and apologize to the people of Kenya and, of course, to the people of the world because what they did here is completely inhuman."

It's believed some 20,000 Mau Mau fighters were killed by the British during the rebellion, thousands were tortured and more than 1,000 arbitrarily executed.

Guardian Journalist David Anderson writes: "At no other time or place in the British empire was capital punishment dispensed so liberally -- the total is more than double the number executed by the French in Algeria."

Claims of abuse -- and coverup of abuse -- under British colonial rule have been made in other former British colonies all the way from Cyprus to Guyana.

Anderson writes that it's time for Britain to examine its colonial past: "Squaring up to the seamier side of our empire is long overdue. However benevolent empires aim to be, they are invariably built on political, economic and military domination. Empires are by their very nature exploitative."

Now, Canada can't be accused of such heinous colonial crimes as the French admit to committing in Algeria and the British likely committed in Kenya. Then again, armed revolts against colonial rule here have been small and sporadic.

But Canada can rightly and accurately be accused of one of the most elemental sins of colonialism -- trying to destroy aboriginal culture and assimilate aboriginal people, then abandoning them when they refuse to become ersatz whites.

Which brings us all the way back to Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation people who sits fasting in the tepee on Victoria Island, which is Algonquin territory, holding the eagle feather and looking out at Canada's Parliament and Supreme Court.

And the Idle No More protest movement.

And a forecast -- that this time the anger of our first peoples won't be placated with an apology in parliament or more easy, unfulfilled promises of reform sometime in the future.

This time, I believe, the revolt is for real.

We ignore it at our peril.