LITTLE CURRENT––While many commuters across Canada found their travel plans delayed by Idle No More protests, the demonstration at the venerable Little Current swing bridge actually sped up the process of getting off and onto Manitoulin Island on Saturday morning, thanks to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). Officers on both sides of the bridge were directing traffic through as soon as the last car had crossed, removing the normal delay in the light changes.
The peaceful demonstration originated in Wikwemikong during a community information session, explained Gordie Odjig, one of the organizers of the bridge protest. “Our chief (Duke Peltier) called the community members together a couple of days ago to explain what was going on in the political front,” said Mr. Odjig over coffee at Three Cows and a Cone. “He was bringing us up to speed on where we stand with Bill C-45, basically what it was all about.”
“Some community members started putting up their hands and asking what we could do about it,” he said. “They were saying, ‘what should we do, what should we do, we gotta do something’.”
The meeting turned into a strategy session on what tactics could be employed to focus attention on the issues.
“Everyone was saying that we have to keep it peaceful,” said Mr. Odjig. “We are a peaceful people. We are all brothers and sisters across Manitoulin and Canada. People need to realize that it (Bill C-45) affects all of us.”
Mr. Odjig referred The Expositor to the gathering’s spokesperson. “Our grand chief is here,” he said. In fact, at one point there were at least four local and regional chiefs at the bridge that morning, including Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee, Chief Shining Turtle of Whitefish River, Chief Patsy Corbiere of Aundeck Omni Kaning and Chief Duke Peltier of Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve.
Grand Chief Madahbee was uncharacteristically taken aback when informed that he was the ‘official spokesperson.’ “Who told you that?” he laughed. “I am just here in support of the people.” Grand Chief Madahbee noted that while the Idle No More movement was an expression of the people in reaction to the current government’s approach to consultation, treaty rights and the living conditions to be found in too many First Nation communities, the concerns being addressed reach far beyond that.
“This is about our children, your children, it affects everybody,” agreed Mr. Odjig. “The land, the water, it is not being protected,” said Mr. Odjig. “Everybody will be impacted, Native, non-Native. We don’t like the omnibus bill.”
For his own part, and one of the key aspects of the Idle No More movement, are the personal motivations of the participants. Mr. Odjig said that his spirit would no longer allow him to remain quiescent about the way Canada was changing.
“Personally, just my heart speaking, when I heard about Chief (Theresa) Spence and her hunger strike, I have fasted so I have some idea of what she is going through, but what she is doing goes far beyond that,” he said. He said he felt inspired to take action himself in some concrete way. “My inside spirit said ‘do something.’ We have to reach the general public.”
Mr. Odjig said that the provisions of Bill C-45 are attacking the very fabric of First Nation life and culture, a life and culture that is largely misunderstood in the wider public.
“It is about a lifestyle that centres on getting up each morning and thanking the Creator for the gifts he has given, about taking part in the ceremonies and the sacred medicines,” he said. “At the same time, you walk in the real world, you have to have a job, get an education, make a living and support yourself. Those things are also at the heart of our culture. We want the same good things in life that everybody else does, and we are willing to work for those things.”
His own community of Wikwemikong was among the main fishing ports on the Great Lakes, historically supplying fish to cities as far away as Chicago. There are many farmers who still work the land in his community.
“We are demonstrating, peacefully, to try and educate people,” he said.
“The average Canadian is being lulled to sleep by the Harper Conservatives,” said Chief Shining Turtle. “C-45 is an enormous bill of over 400 pages. The average person does not have the time to sit and read this bill, never mind understand all the legal jargon, technical writing, the acts, clause changes and terminology in this bill.”
“(Bill C-45) is a significantly large and complicated bill moved through House of Commons, finance committee, senate and senate finance committee at light speed,” said Chief Shining Turtle. “The reason is simple, majority government. The opposition tried to debate the bill, but Conservatives used all of parliamentary procedures to limit debate. But make no mistake, this is significant Canadian legislation that affects more than Indian bands; it will impact pensions, employment insurance, the Canada Labour Code, the Fisheries Act, immigration, Environmental Assessments Act, Canada Revenue Agency and yes the Indian Act. Bill C-45 is not just an aboriginal issue, it’s a Canadian issue, plain and simple. Think about that when you pay HST!”
The swing bridge protest attracted over 100 people throughout its 9 am to 2 pm run, with many braving the subzero temperatures and bone-chilling winds for the entire period. Not all of the participants were Native.
“I am here to try and bring people’s attention to the provisions in Bill C-45 that threaten all of us,” said biologist Judith Jones. “Bill C-45 changed more than 60 pieces of Canadian law without any debate in parliament,” she said. “These changes are wide ranging and will impact almost everyone.”
Ms. Jones noted that the changes that the act will allow meant that almost any body of water can now be dammed. “Changes to the Environmental Assessment Act will allow industry much greater leeway on air and water pollution. The Fisheries Act changes will mean that spawning areas and core fish stocks are no longer being monitored or protected as before.”
“These changes were buried in the budget bill (C-45)” said Ms. Jones. “We cannot allow this underhanded attempt to circumvent the parliamentary process to stand.”
Ms. Jones and her companions were handing out pamphlets entitled “Idle No More is not just about First Nations!”
The First Nations protestors were also handing out pamphlets to drivers pausing at the swing bridge. That pamphlet was entitled ‘Three Fires Confederacy.’ The list of concerns contained within that pamphlet included that the “Canadian government is ignoring the rights of First Nations people and Canadians; rights being terminated, waterways and streams no longer being protected. We are standing up for our children’s and your children’s future-come join us! Get informed, do the research, learn the facts.”
Many passing cars honked in support of the demonstrators, who were kept back from the highway by yellow vested marshals from the community. When vehicles were stopped to wait their turn to cross the bridge the demonstrators handed out the pamphlets to those who would take them. Most rolled down their windows to accept the papers, but not all. One stone-faced trucker stared straight ahead through the windshield of his rig. “I guess he doesn’t want to know,” sighed Ms. Jones.
Before the demonstration began, Mr. Odjig delivered the ground rules established with the OPP for the protest.
“Stay off the highway and keep to the passenger side of the vehicles,” he admonished. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt. This is a peaceful protest.”
Although a 10 minute round dance was originally slated for the centre of the road to end the protest, the organizers decided to hold the event in the parking lot of Three Cows and a Cone instead. Many of the demonstrators were popping into the local restaurant to grab a coffee or tea to warm up, but Wikwemikong’s Joe Osawabine grabbed himself an ice cream cone instead. “It’s not so bad,” he said as he shrugged off the cold. Mr. Osawabine joined one of the many impromptu drum groups singing during the event. “We gotta stand up against this kind of government,” he said. “These guys don’t care what the majority of Canadians think, they got their own agenda and they will do whatever it takes to ram it down our throats.”
Spirits were collegial and upbeat among the protestors taking part in the demonstration and most were well bundled against the elements.
“I had this in my truck,” said Chief Madahbee, referring to the snowmobile suit he was wearing. “I was going to head out in my jeans, but I changed my mind the minute I got out the door. I am glad I did.”
Many of the Anishinaabe kwe had blankets wrapped around their shoulders to cut the cold January winds, especially on the Goat Island side of the bridge. One young woman’s three month-old baby was warmly nestled in a snuggly beneath her blanket.
The Manitoulin Welcome Centre washrooms provided a public service during the event. The MTA board was conducting a meeting in the building and the entranceway provided a place to warm up for elders and children.