At random intervals, two Torontoist staffers square off to debate an issue that’s important to our city. We invite our readers to join the debate in the comments section following the post.
Last Friday June 29 was designated a “national day of action” for First Nations people to raise public awareness on Native issues. While most of the activities were peaceful, there were some groups which went further, engaging in illegal blockades of roads and rail lines. Are these types of actions straightforward crimes which should be dealt with strictly as a law enforcement matter? Or are they a legitimate form of political expression, made necessary by government intransigence in the face of a desperate crisis in aboriginal communities?
Read on as Torontoist examines a contentious question.
Canada Day is here. Time to celebrate all of the things that make this a great country and a wonderful place to live. Universal health care, hazaa! Gay marriage? Fine by us! Pot smoking? Not a big deal!
Multiculturalism? Why, it’s our defining characteristic!
All of that is true. Canada is a great nation, we do have a lot to be proud of, and that’s what makes our record on aboriginal issues so shameful. Much of our Native population lives in incredible poverty.
Services are shoddy. Suicide is rampant. Land claims hundreds of years old remain unresolved and we are just starting to come to terms with generations of institutionalized abuse in the form of residential schools. In many parts of the country, racism towards native people is open and flagrant, and within our prison population, aboriginals are vastly over-represented.
The question here is not about the legitimacy of Native grievances.
You would have to be either wilfully blind or just plain ignorant not to recognize the plight in which Native people find themselves. The question we are really dealing with is whether or not forms of protest such as highway and railroad blockades are a legitimate form of political action.
In this case, the question of legitimacy is all about context. Plenty of groups have grievances with the government, from students who wish their tuitions were lower, to those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, but none of those groups would dare to shut down a highway or a railroad as a means of bringing attention to their cause.
If they did, there is little question that we would not tolerate it.
Nor should we. However, in the context of aboriginal protest, we should recognize that these sorts of actions are uniquely appropriate, not only because the Native situation is so dire, but because these protests highlight the core issue of land claims.
Whether we are on our way to a fancy cottage on the lake, or just taking the train to see our parents, chances are that we have to travel across territory that has been in dispute ever since Canada became a nation. Most of the time, this issue never occurs to the average citizen while making their journey, but every once in a while it is appropriate that we be reminded that these great thoroughfares of commerce and travel that we take for granted traverse land where people feel excluded from the Canadian dream and where hopelessness is pervasive.
No one likes to be inconvenienced. Sitting on the 400 for hours in the heat with a crying baby while burning litre upon litre of very expensive gasoline is no fun at all. Having your train home cancelled on the first long-weekend of the summer is a major hassle. But the few extra hours that we are delayed at times like this are nothing compared to the decades upon decades that our Native populations have been waiting for their land claims to be resolved. That makes this a particularly poignant and legitimate form of protest.
Last Friday’s day of action has come and gone, and while a 12-hour blockade of the 401 and some other disturbances by a group of Mohawk extremists caused consternation, there was no permanent damage to Confederation. However, the spectacle of Canadian governments not only turning a blind eye to, but actively aiding the illegal acts of a thuggish minority of protesters is a slap in the face to the rule of law in this country.
There’s no doubt that Canada’s native communities need help—poverty, mortality, and imprisonment rates are far higher among aboriginals than the general population. First Nations people have gotten a pretty raw deal, historically speaking, and you can’t blame them for trying to get something back.
That said, the vast majority of natives have opted for the path of peaceful protest and negotiation. So who exactly was it that spent Thursday night in lawn chairs in the middle of the nation’s busiest highway?
Well, the group principally responsible for these weeks’ actions in Ontario represents pretty much nobody. The leader of the Mohawk protest, Shawn Brant, has never been elected to anything, and the Assembly of First Nations and even Brant’s own Chief have distanced themselves from his actions. Out of an aboriginal population of around 200,000 in Ontario, Brant could barely muster enough supporters to get up a decent game of road hockey. Hell, I’ve stood in longer lines at Burger King.
Not important. Our pusillanimous provincial government, desperately sensitive when it comes to aboriginal issues, would rather let innocent citizens bend over and enjoy a good reaming than question the legitimacy of any group which claims to represent Natives.
Still more remarkably, when the protesters announced that they would be armed, not only did the cops fail to send in the in the ETF, they actually closed the highway on behalf of the Natives to avoid any possible confrontation. Maybe next time the protesters won’t have to bother showing up at all—just fire off an email to Julian Fantino so he can send some officers around to put up the blockade themselves.
The extortionate approach (“nice economy—be a shame if something happened to it…”) doesn’t even benefit the people on whose behalf the actions are notionally perpetrated. These sporadic acts of high-profile economic inconvenience have settled no claims, spurred no concessions, and generated little sympathy for the native cause with the general public.
Given that these types of actions are not only illegal but ineffective, why do they keep happening? Firstly, they attract a great deal of media coverage, and Brant and others of similar mind often confuse attention with progress. Plus, if you’re an unemployed angry youth, armed insurrection is always more fun than drawn-out legal discussion, and probably a better way to impress girls. But most importantly, our politicians have been burned before on native issues, and with elections always in the back of their minds, they’d sooner condone dangerous criminal acts than risk more bad press.
The precedent set by the illegal actions and half-hearted government response will be educational for other fringe groups with grievances. It should be frightening for the rest of us.