The drumming, dancing, train blockades and candlelight vigils popping up in cities across Canada in recent weeks under the banner of "Idle No More," have spurred an Aboriginal rights movement that has shown unusual staying power with a worldwide following through social media.
Galvanized by an aboriginal chief on a liquids-only hunger strike, the protests about legal changes to environmental laws and land rights have shaken the political scene, and on Friday led Prime Minister Stephen Harper to announce he would meet with a delegation of chiefs on Jan. 11.
At issue are wide-ranging amendments in a budget bill, C-45, that affect Canada's Indian Act and environmental laws. Critics say these changes undermine treaties more than a century old by altering the approval process for leasing Aboriginal lands to outsiders and by removing environmental safeguards for rivers and lakes in Aboriginal territories.
In a larger sense, they reopen issues fraught with constitutional implications — the relationship between the federal government and the million-plus strong community of Aboriginals.
The latest standoff began in November with a teach-in in Saskatchewan under the slogan "Idle No More," about Bill C-45. It picked up steam on Dec. 11 when Theresa Spence, 49-year-old chief of the 1,800-strong community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario, began fasting to press her demand for a meeting with Harper.
Camped on an island in the Ottawa River, at a point where it passes the parliament in the federal capital, Spence has become a magnet for opposition politicians calling on the Conservative prime minister to meet the chief.
Spence was thrust into a media spotlight in 2011 when she declared a state of emergency in Attawapiskat. She highlighted conditions such as housing that often amounted to no more than dilapidated shacks and tents without running water.
A U.N. investigator, James Anaya, arrived and issued a report expressing "deep concern" that despite Canada's fine human rights record, "Aboriginal communities face vastly higher poverty rates, and poorer health, education (and) employment rates as compared to non-Aboriginal people."
Today, through social media, Idle No More has gathered followers from Norway and the U.S. to Guatemala and New Zealand.
Jeff Denis of MacMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who has studied Aboriginal issues, likens the rise of Idle No More's profile to the Occupy and Arab Spring movements. "Idle No More and Occupy are similar in that they are both diffuse, grassroots movements with no central organizing structure. Like Occupy, Idle No More has taken on a life of its own and it's difficult to keep track of all the events," he said.
Mark Blevis, a media analyst and consultant, monitored social media from Dec. 23 to Dec. 29 and found Idle No More mentioned 12,258 times on Facebook, 1,165 times on news websites, in 977 videos on YouTube, 745 blog posts and 144,215 tweets.
Keith Beardsley, a former Harper aide, wrote in the National Post: "Canadians normally tune out from political issues during the Christmas holiday season, yet Spence kept Aboriginal issues front and center and she managed to do it peacefully, garnering positive press coverage from coast to coast. That is a singular achievement few First Nations leaders have been able to achieve."
Central to the Aboriginals' cause is poverty and inadequate housing. They say these issues make a mockery of the "balance" they were led to expect in return for ceding their lands to the Canadian government. The government agreed to allocate specific land reserves to Aboriginals, which they would have total control over, and to provide them with cash, farming assistance, schools and other needs.
Government officials and conservative activists say that's what the changes in the land laws aim to help redress.
Tom Flanagan, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a campaign manager for conservative parties, has said past land leasing has created jobs and generated revenue for Aboriginal needs, and that the latest amendments to the law will ease the process.
Jan O'Driscoll, spokeswoman for John Duncan, the minister for Aboriginal affairs, said, "In fact, it was First Nations themselves who asked for these changes ... to improve the economies and self-sufficiency of their communities."
She said the new law alters the approval process for leasing — not selling — land, and transactions would have to be approved by the community in question.
Another spokesman for Duncan, Jason MacDonald, said that in the six years Harper has been in power the government has built 30 new schools and 10,000 new homes on reserves, investing money in safe drinking water systems and settling more than 80 outstanding land claims.
"While we are making progress, we too are impatient to see more change that will benefit First Nation communities," he said.
As for Spence, she said she was "overjoyed" that Harper agreed to a meeting. "I will be there with my chiefs. We'll see what the results are," she said. "There are a lot of issues we will discuss."