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Firmly Backing Idle No More, Atleo Says Indigenous Peoples' Moment Has Come

As Idle No More protests rolled out across Canada on Friday December 21, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo promised that the growing movement of demonstrations and protests would continue until the federal government takes concrete, credible steps to honor the treaty rights and international human rights of the country’s estimated one million indigenous people.

“We will not stand down as this country seeks to attempt to develop $650 billion in natural resources,” Atleo told reporters in a conference call on Friday morning. “Our people are saying that we will stand up for the waters, for the air, for the medicines, for the animals, for the land and the plants; that despite legislative efforts that we have an inherited responsibility and in the case treaty, treaty is paramount over parliament, over laws that Canada might pass.”

He promised that aboriginals would “carry out coordinated legal challenges and responses, but we will also take this to the Canadian public as well as on the international level to the United Nations and the Organization of American States to see the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ recognition of our right to free prior and information consent and the implementation of Section 35 [of the Canadian Constitution, which protects aboriginal and treaty rights] are upheld as well as the commitments articulated at the Crown-First Nations Gathering last January.”

As Atleo spoke, Idle No More protesters gathered at the AFN’s Ottawa offices in preparation for an afternoon demonstration in front of the Parliament building. The movement began in early December and continued to grow when the Senate passed the omnibus budget legislation known as Bill C-45 by a vote of 50–27 in mid-month. The bill amends the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canadian Labour Code, according to the Chiefs of Ontario. First Nations reacted immediately and strongly to the passage, citing the lack of consultation with First Nations during the creation of a bill that profoundly affects aboriginals' daily lives.

Meanwhile, on December 10 Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike to protest abhorrent reserve conditions, a strike that was still under way on Friday. Atleo said he had visited with Spence and that she was “in good spirits, but feeling weak. She has a tremendous amount of support. There are pipes being lifted and prayers being offered.”

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He cited a recent report by Amnesty International, which says, “ ‘by every measure—respect for treaty and land rights, levels of poverty, average life span, violence against women and girls, dramatically disproportionate levels of arrests and incarceration or access to government services such as health care, housing education, water and child protection—Indigenous Peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis.’ ”

It’s “implementation time” for all the treaty rights and promises from the federal government, including the right of consultation, Atleo said. “Drive-by consultations won’t do.”

On December 16 Atleo wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General Davis Johnson urging their immediate attention to “the critical situation” facing First Nations. He urged the governor general and prime minister hold a meeting with the AFN leadership. There has been no response, Atleo said.

Atleo said the Idle No More movement has the potential to help unite Indigenous Peoples worldwide, feeding into the 250th anniversary next year of the Royal Proclamation regarding settlements and trade with the indigenous populations of Turtle Island, a U.N. world forum on indigenous issues scheduled for 2014, and other movements already under way.

Atleo foresees Idle No More being “part of a moment where Indigenous Peoples see that this is our time, that it’s the age of Indigenous Peoples,” and added, “We’re not only peoples with culture; we are also peoples with a deep knowledge about the lands and territories, and there’s a thirst to return to a greater sense of harmony and interconnectedness.” Given the many interpretations of the Mayan calendar, Atleo said, “perhaps this marks a moment in time when Indigenous Peoples are taking our rightful place.”