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Idle No More, from Canada to Mexico

By: 
Liam Barrington-Bush

December 23, 2012

Canada’s colonial past continues in the present. Battles over natural resources, massive inequality of income, lifespan and cultural freedom, and ongoing deadly conflicts with settler governments are still very much the norm for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. As one Canadian First Nations journalist described the situation recently, “We have been backed into a corner and we are literally fighting for our lives. We are literally dying, in so many preventable and unacceptable ways. I’m not being poetic or hyperbolic here and I don’t just mean culturally. We are dying.”
 
She is right. An indigenous man in Canada lives fifteen-years less than the national average. Nearly 600 First Nations women have disappeared since 1980, without significant public investigation. Communities that find themselves in the middle of any natural resources deemed of economic value have found their drinking water poisoned and local food left inedible, as pollution from mineral and oil extraction are casually dispersed amongst the homes and traditional lands of Canada’s First Peoples.
 
And things are no better further south.
 
In the disproportionately indigenous south of Mexico, Oaxaca has become one of the most dangerous places in the country to be an indigenous activist, while the Zapatistas home state of Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest, with over three-quarters of the population living in poverty.
 
Idle No More
Across Canada, 21 December 2012 saw the largest yet day of action since the #IdleNoMore banner was unfurled earlier this month. Indigenous-led protests across the country, including a mass-demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence, who passed the tenth day of a hunger strike demanding a meeting with PM Stephen Harper, is being called the most unified show of native resistance in Canada for at least twenty years.
 
Members of Alberta’s Fort Chipewyan First Nation launched a road blockade against the tar sands oil industry in Fort McMurray, which has been linked to rises in rare cancers and respiratory illnesses in their community. At the same time, activists in Vancouver brought intersections to a standstill, carrying out traditional dances in the city’s cold winter streets, while over a thousand people joined a flashmob in Toronto’s Dundas Square, shutting down parts of the city’s commercial centre during the peak holiday shopping period.
 
Zapatistas
Meanwhile, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, several thousand members of Zapatista indigenous communities took a different approach, marching silently on four of the state’s major cities, reasserting themselves as a major political force under the slogan, “To be heard, we march in silence.”
 
The Zapatistas have been living autonomously in six pueblos (towns) around Chiapas since they asserted their traditional rights of ‘autonomia,’ to coincide with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Since then, they have remained mostly quiet, with but a few notable public statements and action, modelling a different way of living and organising that has attracted the attention of activists, the world over.
 
But they have been under regular attack throughout this period, with yesterday’s action marking the fifteen year anniversary of the massacre of 45 community members in Acteal in 1997, in which 17 state officials were implicated, but none charged.
 
Yesterday they reasserted their presence in the thousands, wearing the traditional balaclavas and bandanas, and quietly filling the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, Las Margaritas, Ocosingo and Palenque.
 
Whether these protests will be sustained, only time will tell, but there is a growing sense that a new era is indeed upon us, and it cannot be reconciled with the ongoing injustices of colonialism that have marked the last five hundred years. As these – and other – struggles for social and environmental justice spread through our increasingly networked world, we can expect that only greater numbers of people who have long-endured the hardships of Western “progress” and “development” will indeed become “idle no more.”
 
Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist and journalist from Toronto, Canada, currently living in Oaxaca, Mexico. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades.

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