Indigenous Activists Take-On Canadian Government: Successful Resistance to G8/G20 Summits

On 24 June 2010, encircled by a substantial police presence, 1,500 indigenous activists and their allies marched through downtown Toronto under the slogan “Canada can’t hide genocide,” openly contesting Canada’s authority in negotiating on the global stage. Shouting “No G20 on stolen native land!” the marchers carried placards, banners, Mohawk Nation flags, and an inverted Canadian flag. The group altered the Canadian national anthem’s opening lines “O Canada! Our home and native land!”, singing instead “O Canada! Our home on native land!” They hoped to bring international awareness to aboriginal issues via media coverage of the G8 and G20 summits. The demonstrators urged the Canadian government to investigate the disappearance of some 500 aboriginal women , demanded self-determination, complete political recognition of past treaties, and nation-to-nation negotiations with Canada on equal terms.

On 25 June 2010 ‘Shout Out for Global Justice,’ sponsored by the Council of Canadians, organized an incredible line-up of speakers to challenge the G20 and demand trade, water, and climate justice. The event was sold out. 2,700 people attended, as well as many others who watched the forum by web-cast in communities across Canada and at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit. The line-up of speakers included Clayton Thomas-Müller of the Mathais Colomb Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and tar sands campaigner with the U.S.-based organization Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

The five First Nations in the region of the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, rely on traditional food sources, like moose, fish, beaver, and muskrat, all of which have become contaminated by mining pollution. A community of only 1,200 has seen more than 100 deaths in the last decade from rare cancers and autoimmune diseases. The tar sands leases also breach aboriginal treaty rights; they were sold by the provincial government without the prior informed consent of local communities.

There is no scarcity of examples of native resistance in recent Canadian history. In 1990, an historic armed standoff between Mohawks and the Canadian army near Oka, Québec lasted more than two months when the provincial government tried to convert a native burial ground into a golf course. Five years later, the Canadian government employed helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, improvised explosives, and more than 77,000 rounds of ammunition during a three-month standoff over land title at Gustafsen Lake in British Columbia. In 2007, the Mohawk community at Tyendinaga, 200 kilometres east of Toronto, blocked the trans-continental rail line, and Canada’s largest highway, in protest at the government’s failure to address land rights and basic issues of survival within First Nations – including safe drinking water, which the community lacked. Despite the exposure of such injustices, a foremost concern in 2007 appeared to be how to circumvent a roadblock. (See here and here.)

Aboriginal peoples living in Canada have lower life expectancy, less access to education, a much lower average income, and a much higher suicide rate than the rest of the country. The UN has stated that if Canada were “judged solely on the economic and social well-being of its First Nations” peoples, the country’s human development ranking would drop from 7th to 48th out of 174 countries. Organizations like Amnesty International have sharply criticized Canada’s treatment of aboriginals, calling the country’s reserves a third world problem in one of the world’s richest countries.

One final thought. Press coverage of issues related to aboriginals clears the way for government actions that “reproduce material and social inequality between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people” (including subtle sanitized ethno-genocide). This is a major cause of concern because it promotes an environment in which social injustice is tolerated and Canadians are less likely to be sympathetic to aboriginal resistance movements.

Tessa M. Blaikie, Nicole R. Gordon, and Natalia T. Ilyniak are sociology honours students at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. Kimberley A. Ducey is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.