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Indigenous people

Canada's First Nations fight for their heritage

A vocal indigenous movement has burst onto the Canadian political scene. "Idle No More" demands recognition of the land rights of Canada's First Nations peoples and improved living conditions on their reserves.

Victoria Island lies in the Ottawa River, at the foot of the Chaudiere Falls. The falls were dammed two centuries ago to power a sawmill. As the lumber trade blossomed, it transformed Ottawa into the capital of a new nation, Canada. The city's name comes from the Algonquin First Nations word adawe, meaning "to trade."

Trade and human habitation in this area long preceded the arrival of European and American settlers: Victoria Island was a traditional meeting place for First Nations peoples, as well as a place to trade and to pray for safe travel down the tumultuous river.

There still is an aboriginal encampment on the island, normally a tourist attraction. When Chief Theresa Spence chose it as the site to stage a hunger strike, the small island became a magnet for Jacob Wawatie and other supporters of Idle No More.

Spence, a First Nations chief from the remote, poverty-stricken sub-Arctic Attawapiskat reserve 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) to the north, is a powerful symbol of the Idle No More movement. In protests across the nation, its supporters demand recognition of First Nations peoples' land rights as well as improved living conditions on the reserves. The movement has spawned sympathy protests in the US, the UK and even Australia.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence holds hands with fellow hunger striker (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick)

Theresa Spence has become a symbol for indigenous rights

Wawatie and many others have gone to Ottawa to raise awareness about the impact a large transnational logging company has on their traditional homeland.

"What seems to happen is they don't see our needs," Wawatie told DW. "When they cut the forest, it's like taking all the stores out of town. You take away your food, you take away your medicine, you take away your clothing and everything else."

Eroding a way of life

At more than 12,500 square kilometers, Quebec's La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve boasts 4,000 lakes stocked with trout, sturgeon, pike and bass. The forest of jack pine, spruce and birch is the habitat for diverse wildlife, including beaver, wolves, deer, hare, moose, fox and more than 150 species of birds.

It's a place that has everything needed to sustain life, Wawatie says - and he fears commercial logging could destroy it.

During a recent protest, Wawatie kneeled on the ground, holding a small bird. He asked a logging foreman to let his workers see the harm he says they do to the animals in the area.

"We are here to protect these things," he told the men. "This is just a baby bird. But you guys don't see that every time you knock a tree down, you don't see this." He mentioned the moose in the area, running scared, and a bear cub without a mother.

"This is our life, this is what we believe and the reason why we are trying to negotiate something," he said.

Idle No More protesters hold hands and dance (Photo: Darryl Dyck)

The protest movement is gaining momentum

The logging company, Resolute Forest Products, argues it has permission from the province of Quebec to operate in the area. Both parties say First Nations living in the area were consulted through the band council, the local indigenous administrative body.

Wawatie and his fellow campaigners say they were not consulted. "Our heritage is not considered, our way of treating our family is not considered, the way we heal our people is not considered," he says.

If they want logs, they could have asked, he says, adding that the First Nations could have furnished them.

"We could have been part of the process, part of the economic venture. That is what living together and co-existing with one another is about."

Growing anger

Wawatie is used to his heritage being ignored - and worse. He narrowly escaped Canada's attempted assimilation drive. Born in 1956, he grew up on a reserve and was forced to go to one of the Indian residential schools, boarding schools for Canada's indigenous peoples that were financed by the state and run by Christian churches.

Jacob Wawatie standing with ceremonial staff

Wawatie is fighting to protect his heritage

He says it almost succeeded in killing his culture.

"At the end of 10 years, I had forgotten my language. I had forgotten my culture," he says. "The hardest part was when my grandmother would call me stupid because I didn't understand the language, I didn't understand the things that needed to be done, how to organize myself back in the community."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has since offered a public apology to First Nations peoples for a policy of assimilation that ended in the 1990s. He called it "killing the Indian in the child."

It wasn't until Wawatie became a teacher in his community that he began to learn about the time-tested Algonquin traditions and teachings from his grandmother. Self-reliance was one of them, he says. "You go out into the woods and find everything you need. You have the skills to do pretty much anything to survive with any material that you have."

Thousands of years of self-reliance

For several years, Wawatie lived off the land, without electricity or oil. He would get up in the morning, pick up his gun or fishing pole and 15 minutes later, he would have caught a partridge or rabbit for dinner, he says. He lived a life of self-reliance the Algonquin have refined over 26,000 years.

Wawatie says the Algonquin land was never "ceded" to anyone. With respect to the logging controversy he questions Quebec's authority over his homeland.

"We weren't defeated. We weren't conquered. We may be diminishing in numbers, but we are still here."

Wawatie and his siblings say they are prepared to carry on with their protest as long as commercial loggers clearcut on their traditional land in La Verendrye Park. And it is clear that Canada's wider indigenous struggle, which is finding expression through Idle No More, is digging in for a long battle. As Wawatie sees it, it's a matter of life and death - for the environment as well as humankind.

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