To fully understand the phenomenon of Idle No More, you must imagine two parallel universes. In one, INM is comprised of good-hearted grassroots Native people responding to a call to oppose Bill C-45 and to protect the land and water of their traditional territories. In the other, however, are chiefs using the mobilization to achieve their political & economic agenda, an agenda that includes partnering with corporations seeking to exploit oil and gas resources on reserve lands.
Faction of Chiefs Oppose Atleo’s “Assimilation” Policy
Correspondence between chiefs and aides was recently acquired by the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) calling for the removal of Shawn Atleo as the head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). This occurred after Atleo announced a temporary leave from his position for medical reasons last week (see “AFN’s fault lines magnified by Idle No More movement,” APTN National News, Jan 15, 2013).
According to supporters of Atleo, including Ernie Cray of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in southern BC, this most recent effort to oust Atleo is a continuation of last June’s AFN elections, in which Atleo won his re-election. They have asserted that INM is being used as a vehicle to force Atleo from office. According to Crey:
“These folks who lost out to Shawn Atleo are using the cover of Idle No More to fight last July’s AFN election all over again, and they’re hoping to unseat him…”
(“Dissidents seize on Atleo’s illness, chiefs call for non-confidence vote,” Kathryn Blaze Carlson, National Post, Jan 16, 2013)
Pam Palmater, a Míkmaq lawyer and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson
University, came in a distant second in the AFN elections, winning 141 votes (to Atleo’s 341). Palmater has been one of the main spokeswomen for Idle No More. Crey asserts that Palmater is attempting to promote herself while undermining Atleo in an effort to gain control of the AFN.
Chiefs and Big Oil
One of the chiefs spearheading the campaign against Atleo is Onion Lake Cree Nation chief Wallace Fox. Chief Fox was one of the chiefs that challenged the 2012 AFN election results, and also coordinated with Idle No More in carrying out the symbolic attempt to enter the House of Commons, on Dec 4, 2012 (which generated considerable publicity and helped launch INM’s Dec 10 national day of action).
Although both Fox and Palmater claim that Atleo is leading the AFN down a path of assimilation, the Onion Lake band, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, is one of the wealthiest bands in the country. It has made deals with numerous corporations such as Black Pearl Resources (which provides Onion Lake with a 34.5 per cent royalty on every barrel of oil extracted) and Calgary’s Fogo Energy (which provides for a 50 per cent royalty) and currently produces some 20,000 barrels per day through 400 drilling wells, making it the top oil producing Native band in the country:
“Onion Lake has become one of the most prosperous First Nations in the country by capitalizing on oil and gas projects in its territory. It is the largest oil producing First Nation in Canada and operates several companies involved in the energy sector.”
(“Atleo pushing First Nations down “assimilation” road, says former backer,” by Jorge Barrera, APTN National News, June 22, 2012)
(Source for bpd: “Top oil producing First Nation seeks OPEC audience“, by Jorge Barrera, APTN National News, Nov 23, 2012)
Black Pearl Resources is also involved in the Alberta Tar Sands through its Blackrod operations.
Back in 2004, when the Alberta government was having trouble with bands in the Slave Lake area opposing the oil & gas industry & erecting roadblocks, they praised Onion Lake Cree Nation for its collaborative approach:
“It’s certainly not every band that’s doing it [blockades] and many of them work very well with the resource companies,” said Snelgrove [a member of the legislative assembly]. “And many of them have taken that extra step and developed their own. In Onion Lake for example, they have developed their own resource business and are very successful.”
“Onion Lake has taken that proactive approach to the resource industry and as a result has never had problems coming to agreement with industry.
(“Onion Lake takes a lead role in oil industry relations,” Lloydminster Meridian Booster, March 17, 2004)
In September 2012, Onion Lake Cree Nation helped facilitate a collaborative business venture with other bands in the region, in an agreement,
“…signed between Onion Lake Energy, owned and operated by Onion Lake Cree Nation… and Driftpile, Sucker Creek, and Ermineskin First Nations. The agreement to create the Wanska Energy Alliance will see the four First Nations work together as strategic partners over the next year to explore economic opportunities, including joint gas and oil ventures.”
(“Economic development agreement will lead to self-sufficiency,” By Shari Narine, Alberta Sweetgrass, Vol. 19, Issue 5, 2012)
Chief Fox is also on the board of directors of the Indian Resource Council, established
in 1987 to assist Native band councils in managing and exploiting oil and gas resources on reserve lands. Today, the IRC has some 189 bands as members, including 64 in Saskatchewan, 40 in Alberta, 31 in Manitoba, and 20 in Ontario. Many of these bands, such as the Blood tribe in Alberta, are today involved in multi-million dollar oil and gas operations on reserve lands.
Chief Fox and others have also been seeking international partners for their oil and gas business. In November 2009, for example, chief Fox and a delegation of other chiefs traveled to Taiwan for meetings with Chinese Petroleum Corp. in an effort to partner with the company for oil & gas extraction on reserve lands.
Fox originally supported former Rosseau River Indian Act chief Terrance Nelson in the June 2012 AFN elections. Nelson only gained 35 votes in the first ballot, 25 in the second, and dropped out during the third. Nelson had been chief of the Rosseau River band for many years, where he became known for his radical statements and militant
rhetoric. In 2007, he had threatened a train blockade during the AFN’s national day of action, but never carried it out (instead making a multi-million dollar deal to settle a land claim).
After losing his band chief position in 2011, and the AFN election in June 2012, Nelson gained international attention in October 2012 when he travelled to Iran with other current and former chiefs . The delegation sought investment deals with Iran as well as assistance in approaching OPEC member countries for even greater economic opportunities (OPEC is the organization of petroleum exporting countries).
While in Iran, Nelson condemned Canada’s apartheid system and stated that reserves were concentration camps on national Iranian television. The Iran delegation occurred during a heightened period of tension between Iran and Western states, including the US and Canada.
In November 2012, chief Fox announced that the Onion Lake Cree Nation would also be seeking a partnership with OPEC states. In early December 2012, grand chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, along with Ontario AFN regional chief Stan Beardy, met with a senior official from the Chinese consulate to discuss business opportunities with China.
Chief Fox and others assert that economic self-sufficiency is the key to independence, and their main demands of the state and corporations are for equal partnerships in business ventures. Joe Dion, a hereditary Kehewin Cree chief and president of Frog Lake Energy Resources Corp. (FLERC), states it clearly: “We’re capitalists,” says Dion. “You wouldn’t know us from A and B Oil & Gas down the street” (“An oil sands venture in Frog Lake is redefining old roles,” Alberta Oil Magazine, June 27, 2010).
These chiefs have been at the forefront of instigating the INM mobilizations in their respective regions. Not only did they lead the charge in attempting to symbolically enter the House of Commons, they have also organized many of the rallies & blockades in their provinces and have been central players in efforts to undermine AFN grand chief Shawn Atleo. It was chiefs from these three provinces who boycotted the Jan 11 meeting between Harper and the AFN, and who also called for the Jan 16 day of action.
It is not by mere coincidence that it is in the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario that the Idle No More mobilization began and where it initially had the greatest traction. This is because it had the backing of the Indian Act chiefs and the resources at their disposal. Across the country as well, band and tribal councils are also participating in INM rallies because of massive funding cuts to tribal councils and provincial organizations announced by the federal government in early September 2012 (such as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs). And of course there also many, among both the chiefs and grassroots, who resent the dictatorial manner of the Harper government.
While the Aboriginal business elite engages in a power struggle with the state over issues such as political power and economic development (“resource sharing”), the grassroots is motivated by defense of land & water.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Of course, there aren’t two “parallel universes.” The reality is that there are various factions working under the banner of Idle No More. The official founders of INM, while publicly distancing themselves from the Jan 16 day of action and “illegal” blockades, have worked from the beginning with the chiefs from Ontario, Manitoba and parts of Saskatchewan, as well as Pam Palmater. Most of the grassroots people participating in INM probably have little understanding of the internal dynamics at play, and the political maneuverings that are occurring.
What all of this tells us is that, alongside the inspiring and hopeful messages of “unity” and “Indigenous Rights Revolution” is the murky world of Indian Act chiefs and the Aboriginal business elite attempting to use the grassroots as political leverage in their power struggle with the government, & against the AFN’s Shawn Atleo. The image gets even murkier when one considers the irony of INM participants protesting “foreign corporations” accessing natural resources and some of the main proponents of INM seeking deals with those same corporations for oil and gas.
Recently, public forums on Idle No More have been organized asking the question “Where do we go from here?” While this is an important question for any grassroots movement, equally as important in regards to INM is “Where did we come from?” As I have stated repeatedly, INM is not simply a grassroots movement, but is instead one that has been manipulated from the start by Indian Act chiefs with their own agenda, and who worked closely with the “official founders” of INM in mobilizing the grassroots in pursuit of that agenda.
Where do we go from here? I would suggest that those genuinely interested in Indigenous liberation go back to the grassroots and begin the process of self-organizing an autonomous resistance movement, without “official” leadership from middle-class elites and separate from the Indian Act band councils, who are in reality an Aboriginal business elite seeking greater participation in industry.