By Denise Leduc, Rankandfile.ca writer
For three months, Colonialism No More activists in Treaty Four territory have maintained a solidarity camp outside the Regina offices of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). In fact Tuesday marked 100 days of protest outside of INAC. The camp setup in April as one of a handful of occupations that emerged across the country after NDP MP Charlie Angus brought public attention to the high rates of suicides in Attawpiskat, Ontario.
Only the Regina camp remains. The demands of the movement have broadened to include the development of a publicly accessible database on conditions experienced by First Nations in Saskatchewan, a remedy to the situation facing Indigenous children who are forced into state care, and for the treaties to be respected and upheld. Most importantly perhaps, the camp wants to see the Indian Act abolished.
It was a hot, sunny day when I arrived at the camp on its 90th day of protest. Throughout the day, activists and community members passed through the INAC picket. Many Rider fans even honked or offered a wave on their way to the game.
It’s not uncommon for people to drop by the camp for a bit of food, coffee, and some conversation before heading off. This is how some of the most dedicated members of the camp came to join the movement.
One of the activists I spoke with, Prescott, has been there since day three. He initially came down just to check things out but quickly discovered that others at the camp shared the same concerns about the Indian Act and the suffering colonization exacts on Indigenous peoples.
Prescott has been coming back every day since. Born in a small town, he says he did not know what racism was until he moved to Winnipeg where immediately he had racial slurs hurled at him in school. Even today he says he knows he is being racially profiled when he walks into stores or down the street.
It’s striking that Prescott doesn’t seem to let this reality bother him, and in his experience it’s just the way things have always been. Instead, he focuses on the poor living and social conditions First Nations people experience every day.
Over half of First Nations children live in poverty, and conditions are worse on-reserve. In Saskatchewan, 69 per cent of on-reserve children experience poverty, compared to just 13 per cent of non-Indigenous children in the province. This is the lived reality of colonialism. Prescott says the Indian Act has taken away people’s culture and left them with few role models and sources of inspiration.
Poor job opportunities and a lack of affordable housing make matters worse. In Saskatchewan the unemployment rate is five times higher for First Nations than it is for the rest of the labour market. While he remains hopeful, Prescott acknowledges that many of the long-term changes he wants to see will take time to implement.
Others, like Robyn, initially came down to the camp out of curiosity. A life skills coach who is originally from Carry the Kettle First Nation, Robyn says he is interested in the issues that Colonialism No More is confronting.
The government, he believes, is not seriously committed to addressing the problems facing Indigenous peoples. He wants to see policy makers listen more to people at the grassroots level and, most importantly, to see the treaties honoured. He’s tired of band-aid solutions.
While curiosity brought him to the camp in the first place, it is the camaraderie and shared goals that keep bringing him back. Both Prescott and Robyn say people often dismiss the challenges Aboriginals face by saying, “Go get a job.” The issues, of course, are more complex.
Prescott says that over time people can internalize the dominant culture’s view of them, inhibiting their personal and political growth. Robyn is also skeptical of some of the training programs offered on reserves. The programs are fine, he says, but if there are no jobs where they live and individuals lack the resources to move, none of these services help.
Our conversation was interrupted when a woman passed by and started to take an interest what was going on. Robyn immediately sprang to action welcoming her into the camp. In the large tent used as a kitchen he discussed with her the homemade posters on the walls. This is how the camp has effectively built solidarity in the community.
Union members have also joined the ranks of Colonialism No More activists at the camp. Darin, with COPE Local 397, and Unifor local 1-S member, Don, were there in attendance on Day 90. Asked why they support the camp, Don says that Unifor has a strong social justice background and that he believes in the movement Colonialism No More represents.
What we are dealing with, Don insists, is a form of systematic racism that can only be dealt with at the macro-level. Yet, he’s committed to the idea that people need to work from the grassroots up to affect change. For Darin, a long time labour activist, it is not enough to deal with issues of racism in the workplace alone, but in the greater community as well.
He mused that we can attend union workshops on these issues all we want, but there is more to gain by simply sitting down and listening to someone like Prescott. Both Darin and Don feel it is time for labour to put words into action. And in many ways it has.
Organized labour in the community has shown its support for Colonialism No More through donations of money, equipment, food, and time. The Regina and District Labour Council, the Sask Building Trades, COPE, CUPE, and Unifor have all expressed solidarity with the camp. In fact, individual members from these respective organizations have been present at the occupation since the first demonstrations launched in the spring.
The nearby Knox Metropolitan United Church and various human rights organizations have also provided assistance.
A surprising amount of public support has helped the Colonialism No More camp secure inroads with INAC. Several meetings have already been convened with local representatives from the Regina INAC office, and activists believe that the public servants – represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) – are genuinely attempting to understand the concerns raised by Colonialism No More.
It is the hope of members at the camp that INAC will work in unison with people at the grassroots level towards finding solutions for challenges many Aboriginals face such as the under-funding of education and health care, lack of access to clean drinking water, and youth suicide.
Everyday is a celebration of the camp’s survival and growing influence. From a few tents to a space that now houses a kitchen under a CUPE-supplied canopy, and a generator paid for with money donated by rank-and-file Unifor members, Colonialism No More has become a fixture in the city.
The camp is also a symbol of community-level democracy. Afternoon meetings are open to everyone and decisions are made by consensus. Values of equality and inclusiveness are important to this group, as is coalition building. Prescott credits the diversity of the group for it still being around while other camps fizzled out.
“We can’t do this alone”, he says. “We need lots of people with lots of voices from all different backgrounds to come together.”
Robyn makes a similar point. “This group has heart. And good listening ears.”
Everyone I spoke with at the camp commented on the sense of community they feel and the good people they have met through the camp. Indeed these are principles that should resonate with the labour movement.
Darin comments “An injury to one is an injury to all.” And injury is certainly being inflicted on Indigenous peoples in Canada. Darin believes it is time expand that concept from the union halls and workplaces to all of society. And this is exactly what Regina’s Colonialism No More camp is trying to do.