Saturday, June 23, 2007

Manitoba chief's blockade threats may be best strategy
June 22, 2007

Calls for a coast-to-coast railway blockade by aboriginal leader Terrance Nelson couldn’t be more un-Canadian.
We like things settled without conflict. We’re particularly loath to engage in it right out in the open, the way Nelson likes to do it.
The chief of Manitoba’s Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation says some outrageous things when he gets heated up about the grim struggles of Canada’s aboriginal population.
And he’s just about at the boiling point these days. The Assembly of First Nations is organizing a “day of action” next week for the nation’s aboriginals, and Nelson wants to see a blockade so big that Canada’s economy will still be reeling from the shock months from now.
“There’s only one way to deal with a white man. You either pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money,” Nelson most famously said a month ago in a media interview.
In a follow-up Globe and Mail profile this week, he reiterated his hope that aboriginals use the June 29 day of action as an opportunity to disrupt Canadian National railway shipments across the country.
On first blush, there’s no way to defend a guy like Nelson. What do racist comments and blockaded trains have to do with the problems of Canadian First Nations?
But viewed as a strategy, Nelson’s call to action is more understandable. And while the whole thing may seem just a little too angry for Canada’s tastes, in fact he’s got history on his side in advocating economic protest.
Maybe Nelson has even read Poor People’s Movements, the 1979 book that identified economic protest as one of the most important factors in determining whether anything actually changed for a particular sub-class fighting for its rights.
Authors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Coward looked at movements like American civil rights, welfare reform and workers’ rights. The issues are different again for Canada’s aboriginals, but they’ve certainly been stymied by many of the same things that got in the way of those earlier movements.
The Piven/Coward book found self-interest to be one of the most powerful motivators in prompting social change.
The “elite” who control society tend not to respond to the needs of poor people until their own interests are compromised. Economic disruptions get their attention.
Of course, a whole lot of other factors have to be in place as well. The authors documented the efforts of countless hard-working believers who played vital roles on the front lines of each of the movements.
The twists and turns of history also set the stage for change. The high unemployment rates of the Depression, for instance, primed the public to accept the need for benefits for unemployed workers.
So change isn’t only about applying economic pressure. Nelson needs a plan that’s far broader than a single day of railway blockades if he hopes to help aboriginals see a brighter day.
But I’d have to concur with him that it’s time to quit waiting for the nice people in charge to set things right.
As Nelson knows all too well, everything that goes wrong in this country goes wrong way more often for aboriginals.
They live in far greater poverty. They die at a much younger age, and endure challenging health problems more often. They drop out of school at alarming rates from Grade 8 on.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. On any social front, from homelessness to addiction to foster care, aboriginals lead the downward curve. They’ve been leading it for as long as I can remember, and for several decades before that.
“Look, I’m 53,” Nelson told the Globe in defending his call for a blockade. “We have done everything we can to wake up Canada. . .”
I suspect it must be hard to get aboriginals mad enough to rise up, because I would have expected rioting in the streets by this point.
You need only think of smallpox, land appropriation, cultural extermination, residential schools, the Indian Act and our complete inability to negotiate a treaty to know that history has not unfolded particularly well for Canada’s aboriginals.
At 53, Nelson has lived long enough to see any number of grand promises to Canada’s aboriginals wilt on the vine. Money changes hands and great wads of it seem to be spent in pursuit of a solution, but it never seems to trickle down to the people who need it most.
Can you get to the bottom of a problem like that by orchestrating a 24-hour national railway blockade? Probably not.
In fact, Assembly of First Nations leader Phil Fontaine is already playing down any suggestion of genuine confrontation, and is instead promoting June 29 as a day for Canada to educate itself about aboriginal issues.
That’s a nice Canadian-style compromise. But people like Nelson have figured out what that actually means: Nothing will change. In terms of really getting Canadians’ attention, a day of education doesn’t hold a candle to a day of railway blockades.
Peaceful, dignified solutions - yes, I still hope for that. But sometimes protest is all you’ve got left.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So true so true.If any peoples have a "right" to be out on the street tearing things up it is First Nations.
The fact that in most part rarly do so is the surprise.But then AFN and other F.N National organizations are always talking but do little.Indeed most of what AFN's talk about has nothing to do with the concerns and issues relevant to ordinary FN peoples.
It's good to see a fellow blogger talking about First Nations and helping to bring attention to FN issues.
You might find this interesting: