“Why I Support Idle No More” by Linda Goyette

Editor’s note: This Facebook post is republished with the author Linda Goyette’s permission.  

I am no longer a journalist, and I do not seek a bully pulpit on any topic, but tonight I want to explain to my family and friends why I give my unqualified support to the Idle No More movement as a Canadian citizen.

canada love idle no more

I am becoming more and more concerned about the harsh backlash among non-aboriginal Canadians against this peaceful protest movement. I’m not talking exclusively about virulent racial bigotry and hate speech, although it exists in dark places, but more about the willful denial of reality, the blindness to injustice, among many decent people.

These are the people I address tonight. I respect their right to a different opinion, but I hope they will hear me out.

Four Saskatchewan women—Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean and Jessica Gordon—and Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario found the courage to say that a change is going to come. Thousands of indigenous people across Canada are demonstrating in peaceful ways to tell the country that they will wait no longer for that change. When I see round dances in shopping malls, peaceful road blockades, or a chief on a hunger strike, I see an opportunity to learn more about the deep frustration of my neighbours. I see no threat at all.

The protesters are asking for the country I want for myself, and for my family.

Millions of Canadians do respect First Nations, Metis and Inuit legal rights because these rights are guaranteed in our modern Constitution, frequently upheld by our highest courts, entrenched in our historic treaties, and valued in our intermingled family connections, our friendships, our minds and our hearts.

Many of us badly want the Canadian government to respect Indigenous land, resources, cultural ways, and most of all their right to self-determination.

I feel hopeful—wildly hopeful—that a core demand of the Idle No More movement for stronger protection of our shared natural environment will spread to Canadians of all racial backgrounds and political allegiances. I also hope that the Harper government will think twice in future before it passes omnibus legislation with minimal parliamentary debate or national consultation on the contents.

If the Idle No More movement has allies, and it does, we need to be more outspoken. Our silence in 2013 will be interpreted as complicity, and polite agreement, with everything that is wrong with the relationship between Canada and the founding peoples. Firm support for Idle No More could push the whole nation forward in a new and more positive direction.

We need to stand beside indigenous peoples when they confront an obtuse federal government that consistently undermines their success while it scolds them about local governance. In our homes and communities, we need to challenge the mockery, the simplistic assumptions, the casual and devastating bigotry that diminish Canada and make it a smaller, narrower place than it deserves to be.

As some of you know, I have worked for most of my adult life as a reporter, writer and oral history transcriber with enduring connections to many First Nations and Metis people and their communities in different parts of Canada, primarily in the West. That doesn’t make me an expert in anything, but I have had a rare opportunity to learn from the true experts – the people themselves, their life experiences, their values, their hopes. I have witnessed with my own eyes hardships and injustices that took my breath away, not only in Attawapiskat in 2010, but in almost every province and territory over three decades.

To those comfortable Canadians who complain that their hard-earned tax dollars disappear down a huge funnel to places like Attawapiskat, I say: Visit the place yourself, or any other isolated, northern Aboriginal community, and you might notice that most inhabitants, primarily children and old people, endure substandard public services beyond the imagination of southern, urban Canadians.

They can’t count on clean drinking water, warm housing, decent elementary schools, safe roads, good fire protection or sewage systems—all services that white Canadians in neighbouring towns and cities take for granted. Other Canadians can rely on fairly capable local and provincial governments while First Nations have to contend with the inept budgeting practices of the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, not to mention the restrictive nature of our hideous national antique, the Indian Act. Read it some time. It will change your view of your country.

To those Canadians who allege that all chiefs and band councils are robber barons who “make more than the prime minister,” and run a vast northern kleptocracy, I say: I have never heard an Idle No More activist or an Aboriginal person in any community defend overpayment of band officials, padding of expense accounts, or local corruption. Just as I have never heard any Canadian, anywhere, justify the overpayment of local, provincial or federal elected and public employees, although this also happens with depressing regularity.

Overpayment happens because we allow it to happen. That can change, too. I would like to hear Canadians ask why the president of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, received $627,000 in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, which includes house and car allowances, performance bonuses and deferred compensation. Her salary had increased 6 per cent compared to the year before.

Folks, she earned more that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. president Barack Obama that year while Alberta students contended with steady tuition increases. She earned more than any First Nation chief I’ve ever heard of. Yet do we hear waves of public indignation about the continuing high salaries of university and college presidents across Canada? Even a murmur? We do not.

We swallow similar bad news about other elected and public officials who receive sky-high salaries, benefits, and sometimes, huge severance payments after dismissal for poor performance. That’s our tax money, too. We could at least apply our indignation evenly across the country, and we might question the national preoccupation with compensation to chiefs, and how and why that obsession came to be.

Long ago, when I was reporting for the Edmonton Journal in 1980 or 1981, I received a brown envelope from a Department of Indian Affairs finance officer containing documents on the salary and benefits of an outspoken Cree leader Harold Cardinal who was working at the time to assist the northern Dene Tha’ with poor conditions on their reserve. I was in my early twenties at the time, and inexperienced, and yes, I supplied the news story that brought a good man’s hard work into disrepute, fortunately temporarily. I was a little pawn on a chessboard, pushed forward, to do the government’s bidding. Shut him up. Shut it down.

I learned a hard lesson from that experience. I began to watch the situation more carefully. In the following three decades I noticed that each time First Nations and Metis leaders, or activists in the community, demanded their legal rights or a fair share of Canada’s abundant resources, similar official brown envelopes would whiz in the direction of good, bad or indifferent reporters and media commentators. These journalists would dutifully report the news of overpayments–as they should, it is indefensible–but without any context or understanding of how they were being used to silence, ignore and marginalize Aboriginal people in great need.

Does the federal government release similar figures to the media about the plump expense accounts of its own senior deputy ministers? No, it does not. The Harper government encourages significant overpayments to a favoured few, on the one hand, and then spins this information to discredit the legitimate claims of an entire group of people. This is not good governance. This is dysfunctional manipulation.

I don’t blame many southern Canadians for their singular focus on chiefs’ salaries—that’s just about all they’ve heard from the shills in the conservative media for two decades—but I don’t think people understand that federal transfers to First Nations are often significantly lower than provincial transfers to non-aboriginal communities for the same services. The Auditor General and Parliamentary Budget Officer have confirmed this fact again and again, and conscientious people in provincial and local governments and in the media have complained about it.

Try to calculate how much public money your town or city receives for every school and hospital, for all salaries of local public employees, for road and bridge construction, for police and fire departments, for sewer lines, garbage disposal, recycling, public transit and so on. That amounts to many millions of dollars a year, too, even for small communities. Canadians interpret these financial transfers as a right of citizenship, the cost of a civil society.

More than one million people in Canada describe themselves as Aboriginal, and more than 700,000 have First Nations status. The Government of Canada will spent about $8 billion this year for the budget of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, including all transfers to more than 600 communities. About twenty per cent of the total goes to departmental administration expenses, but look at the $8 billion. That’s the same amount that New Brunswick will spend this year on public services for its 751,000 people.

To those Canadians who say, “But I pay taxes, and they don’t, so I have earned these services, and they haven’t,” I say in reply: A large majority of First Nations people and all Metis people, now live off-reserve, work for a living, and do pay taxes. It is the Canadian way to provide public services for all citizens, even those without paid employment, such as the elderly, parents caring for children at home, people with disabilities, and people who earn too little in their jobs to pay significant taxes. Some people on reserves, and in neighbouring non-aboriginal communities too, fall into these categories. Why should we resent them? Their gifts to us are beyond the measure of money.

More important, this country is affluent and comfortable by international standards because of the rich natural resources it extracts from its northern and western regions, the traditional territory of many First Nations and Metis people. They have paid and paid the rest of Canada—in lost revenue, over generations—for the miserable level of public services they have received through much of the last century. They have received no fair share of the benefits of a rich nation, and it is time they did.

To the Canadians who say, “But Idle No More leaders should be more specific, they should define their terms, I don’t know what they want,” I say: Where have you been hiding throughout your lifetime? If you don’t know what they want, you haven’t been listening.

The parents and grandparents of Idle No More activists lined up at the microphones at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry after 1974, patiently explaining to the country why their land and sovereignty needed to be respected. Decade after decade, others spoke to parliamentary committee hearings, First Ministers conferences, and every MP and reporter who would listen to them.

Year after year, they testified at hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and at hearings of the United Nations human rights bodies. In case after case, they took the federal government to the Supreme Court of Canada to press for legitimate recognition of their land claims and treaty and Aboriginal rights. They negotiated the Kelowna Accord with the former prime minister, and then saw the deal collapse.

Their frustrations found expression at Oka and Burnt Church and Ipperwash, Ont., in the protest marches through the streets of Edmonton and Winnipeg, in the railway blockades in B.C. They celebrated many victories and land claims settlements along the way, and found allies, and achieved significant improvements on their own initiative.

If you don’t know about this yet, it is not too late to learn. Rather than demand that other people define their terms immediately in language you are ready to accept, just listen, and remember what you have heard.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say that diverse Aboriginal communities have different definitions of sovereignty, and different interpretations of their relationship with the Canadian state. People are different. Communities are different. No single answer is the total or final answer on any public issue.

The very least Canadians can do is pay attention with some level of respect and gratitude for a largely peaceful protest movement. Other countries would envy us for Idle No More, and its non-violent core values. Their patience is a great gift to this country.

When the percentage of Aboriginal people in schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and jails matches their percentage of the Canadian population, some equality will have been achieved. Equality does not exist now.

I think this is a defining moment in Canadian history, a time when each citizen is asked to make a choice. Where do you stand? Where will your children and grandchildren want you to stand? I have made my decision. I leave your decision to you.

Thank you for listening.

To learn more about. . .

The Idle No More movement:


About Attawapiskat:

http://www.nfb.ca/film/people_of_kattawapiskak_river/An NFB documentary by award-winning Alanis Obamsawin “Still waiting in Attawapiskat,” Canadian Geographic magazine, Linda Goyette with photography by Liam Sharp

Attawapiskat finances:

The issues at the heart of this debate:

15 thoughts on ““Why I Support Idle No More” by Linda Goyette”

  1. “To those comfortable Canadians who complain that their hard-earned tax dollars disappear down a huge funnel to places like Attawapiskat, I say: Visit the place yourself, or any other isolated, northern Aboriginal community, and you might notice that most inhabitants, primarily children and old people, endure substandard public services beyond the imagination of southern, urban Canadians.”

    This part bothers me. I agree with holding onto culture and beliefs and practices…..but if those are the things you want…than take them. But don’t ask me to pay for electric to come to you, and gas lines to come to you, and proper roads and water. If you want to live the way your ancestors did, kudos to you, but I don’t want to pay for the things your ancestors didn’t have. And I won’t say, “I pay taxes and they don’t”, because well, sometimes, things are just shitty. I spent two years living on the streets. Did I pay taxes then? No. Of course not. But I also did not demand clean water and proper education.

    I just think that if you want to choose to live in a traditional way, then go for it. I fully support you on that. But, if you start to complain about unfair living standards, than maybe your ‘traditional way’ isn’t the best idea.

    1. Are you ever on left field just like every non-Aboriginal Canadian citizen…u don’t even understand what we mean by traditional ways..Holy Crap..no wonder this country is the way it is..And non-Aboriginal society CAN NEVER understand until you’ve lived in a First nation community…Try it..I dare you..just one year…then you will know our demise..all the white teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, that are not from this community understand and support us because they live here & understand what we are talking about..UNTIL you live here will you learn VERY QUICKLY how much understanding you will have by the EXPERIENCE..then again..u will probably be on the first plane out on the following day….

  2. Ron, I don’t think you understand what they mean about living in a traditional way. It’s not about hunting with bows and arrows, etc, but it’s a way of thinking and of being a part of the land.

    And you are not subsidizing them; Canada owes them much more than Canada has paid them, Canada, including all of us, has benefited hugely from the use of the land and resources, but many aboriginal people have been left out and have received fewer benefits and lower funding than non-aboriginals receive every day. It’s about fairness.

    Editor, shouldn’t you have a link to the original facebook posting?

  3. “Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012) exposes the housing crisis faced by 1,700 Cree in Northern Ontario, a situation that led Attawapiskat’s band chief, Theresa Spence, to ask the Canadian Red Cross for help.
    Streaming of the film has been extended by 3-days, it is available to watch for free on NFB.ca through Sunday, January 20.

    Please take the time to watch this incredible film. Alanis has taken an ugly situation and given us a beautiful, privileged look inside.”

    http://www.nfb.ca/film/people_of_kattawapiskak_river/

  4. it was a very intresting article, someone for a change didn’t talk about being a tax-payer but a human being concerned about his children and grandchildren. I am a Mi’kmaq, and rest assure I would never make that much money in my lifetime. By then I’d probably be dead. But thank you for writing this article, I enjoyed it very much, made me feel that much more proud of who I am and not what some people see me as First Nations person with children and grandchildren. forever grateful. Thanks!! Al. Martin Sr

  5. Finally an honest look at the issues surrounding First Nations and Metis problems that have been ignored for centuries. To those who think that all Aboriginals want to live as their ancestors that is in some respect correct. Where a comment of electricity, gas lines etc are used maybe that person and those who think the same should look at what we are actually calling for. Denied the right to practice ceremonies and traditional spiritual ways as outlined by theIndian Act, passed down through successive governments is only a small portion of the assimilation process. Remember FIRST PEOPLE’S are those who were here before the period of discovery and that has never been respected. Natives were used by all European conquerors ( yes there was a conquest here in Canada) and when the time came to settle up they were forced into areas not wanted for settlements with so called treaties that were supposedly equal and were understood by the natives of Canada.

    No, everyone needs to fully understand what has been allowed to occur in Canada to natives in the search for the almighty dollar. I fully support the Idle no More movement as they are displaying peaceful and determined voices that are concerned with issues that all Canadians should very well be concerned. As an Aboriginal Veteran who has served this country for well over 35 years I now want the recognition of rights that have been denied as well I want this country to look forward to a new chapter of tolerance towards Aboriginals.

    It is shocking when new immigrants to Canada receive better compensation and more recognition of traditions than has been allowed to the first occupies of what is now Canada. Tolerance more about native culture and spirituality I challenge all to undertake awareness training and learn the dark secrets that are only now starting to come to light.

    My thanks

    Robert T

  6. I can only hope that more people will really GET what IDLE NO MORE is All About!!!

    Canada is full of Ignorance and with this Ignorance comes so much expectation. These Ignorant Canadians have been way more Spoiled by the Canadian Gov’t than what they “Think” the Aboriginal people have been. These Ignorant Canadians expect the Gov’t to support them on Welfare, Pay for their Food and Shelter, Pay for their extra Education and Training, Pay for their Medical costs, Pay for there Dental Costs, Pay for their Eye Wear, Pay for their Expenses to Travel out of city for Medical Treatments, Pay for their Out of City Rooming Costs and the List goes on for what these Ignorant Canadians Expect and Receive from the Canadian Gov’t. These Ignorant Canadians are far more Spoiled and Live Better than any Aboriginal I know. These Ignorant Canadians are SPOILED “White Folk” NOT the Aboriginal People!

    I’m sooo sick of listening to the “White Folk” Trash Talk the Aboriginal People of our Country, a Country that would NOT be where it is today if truly not for our Aboriginal People.

    IDLE NO MORE is NOT about Saving our Aboriginal People, it’s about Saving Our Beautiful COUNTRY that Won’t remain Beautiful for much longer if our Stupid, Ignorant Prime Minister stephen harper, Continues on Destroying Everything Pure and Natural (Lakes, Rivers, Streams, Air Quality) within Our Country!!!

    IDLE NO MORE MEANS: SAVE OUR CANADA, or SAVE OUR COUNTRY, or STOP STEPHEN HARPER FROM DESTROYING CANADA’S PURE AND NATURAL BEAUTY.

    IDLE NO MORE DOES NOT MEAN: GIVE OUR ABORIGINAL PEOPLE MORE MONEY, MORE HOUSING, MORE MORE MORE!!!

    People, do your homework and truly Learn about and Understand what IDLE NO MORE Really Means. It’s really about the Aboriginal Protecting Our Country for YOU, for ME, the WHITE FOLK of Our Country and for the Aboriginal People, NOT just the Aboriginal People!!!

    IDLE NO MORE IS FOR ALL CANADIANS. PROTECTING OUR COUNTRY, OUR UNIVERSE FOR ONE AND ALL………

  7. I appreciate your words. I now have an goal in life. I would like to see in my lifetime no comments made about any aboriginal issue with the hate and misunderstanding displayed in every medium. Even with the details in this article there was one person that argued and said he didn’t want aboriginals to have basic necessities of Canadian life, for that matter first world standards. I want for every Canadian to feel compassion and to not hate aboriginals. I want the planted seeds of denial of history to be dug out and replaced with an honest recounting of how Canada was formed. I want agreements that made thousands of people rich in Canada off its resources to be honoured. I want to go to my dentist and not feel like a second class citizen asking for a handout. I want poor non aboriginals to have dental. I want a gov that is not going to further damage the relationship by eroding any agreements obligations to aboriginals. I want to get hired for a job where first nations isn’t a topic during the interview. I want my son to be able to grow up and discover the wonderful world he was born into.

  8. This is no doubt the best and most enlightening discussion I have read on this heart-rending and complex subject (just a reminder that this madness did not start with Harper). The injustice is terrible – it started a long time ago and policies were set in motion decades ago that bureaucracy, good intentions, money, etc. cannot change, as both ‘sides’ are now locked in to the dysfunction. It is so darn sad.

  9. I was very happy to read Linda’s article, as she is (and has always has been) a writer of great integrity, wisdom and insight.
    In reading her article and the subsequent replies, I felt I wanted to offer a comment that might help to provide an better understanding of the allocation of Canadian tax dollars. Contrary to popular belief, tax dollars are not actually used to support First Nation transfer payments.
    In many ways, the “welfare” spin perpetuated by the “powers that be” has done more to harm the relationship betrween Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal citizens. Not surprisingly, as there are some facts we should all be aware of!
    As interpreted by the Canadian Government, the statement “Depth of a Plough” and subsequent 1930 “Natural Resources Transfer Agreement” has resulted in the legal enttilement of Natural Resource revenues to First Nations. Held in trust, the “payments” to First Nation communities are actually a percentage of those Natural Resource revenues.
    To be clear, I wanted to add that the Treaty agreements behind resource revenue payments do happen to be in serious debate. Many Elders and legal experts have interpreted the treaties to not include natural resources, and unauthorized development on traditional lands is yet to be settled in the courts.
    Personally, I am very grateful to see the Idle No More Movement, and the ensuing dialogue it helps to foster. I pray our waters will remain clean and flowing, our forests and woodlands will continue to be pristine. Mostly, I pray that all of our children, grandchildren and generations to come will be able to experience the wild places and the beauty of Canada. In this way, I am thankful to the Aboriginal Elders that help to keep our common land protected.

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