At a luncheon last June in Montreal, former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin described the “god-awful” living conditions he witnessed on a recent trip abroad. “I met with the president of this particular country in Central Africa and he asked how are things going. And I said, ‘Mr. President, I’ve just been to a community that’s the worst goddamn place I’ve ever seen, and I don’t understand how you can allow that to happen.’”
Martin recalled the young assistant asking the president for permission to speak. “Mr. Martin, I went to McGill University,” the African aide said. “I spent two summers up north and I can take you to communities that are much worse than anything you will see in this country.’”
The Third World is right in our own back yard.
The hunger strike by Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence could go in any number of directions, and the Idle No More movement (in which Spence’s hunger strike is embedded) may turn out to be a flash in the pan. Or the movement may become a beacon for a generation of younger First Nations people navigating the dual rocks of self-victimization and state paternalism.
Idle No More was galvanized by the Conservative omnibus budget Bill C-45, which critics say terminates federal oversight of waterways and abrogates treaty rights by assisting the sale of reserve land without consultation.
With its official statements about preserving and protecting Mother Earth, Idle No More is reminiscent of a recent movement from further south. You have to go back to November of 2001, when the U.S. firm Bechtel sued Bolivia for $25 million for cancelling a contract to manage the water system of Cochabamba, the third largest city in Bolivia. Incredibly, the new restrictions had barred the collection of rainwater from rooftops to permit holders only.
For years, the World Bank had pressured Bolivia to privatize its state enterprises. The transnational Bechtel was one beneficiary of this strong-arming, until huge price hikes for water access inflamed protests across the country. The dark-skinned socialist Evo Morales, who led the massive protests, took office after the white-skinned, U.S.-endorsed presidential candidate hightailed it to Washington, D.C. (Morales joined the growing list of Latin American leaders with indigenous roots. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was the first and most notable.)
Bechtel dropped its suit in 2006. In 2010, Bolivia passed “The Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” (Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra). Translated from Spanish, the Bolivian law states: “She is sacred, fertile and the source of life that feeds and cares for all living beings in her womb. She is in permanent balance, harmony and communication with the cosmos. She is comprised of all ecosystems and living beings and their self-organization.”
Bolivia was inspired by the example of its neighbour Ecuador, two years earlier. “Nature has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution,” the Ecuadorian constitutional amendment states. The government must take “precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles.”
If the above is news to you, you’re not alone. Project Censored deemed the Ecuadorian story number 18 in its Top 25 Censored Stories of 2009.
“It’s going to have huge resonance around the world,” Canadian activist Maude Barlow said when Bolivia tabled the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth before the UN in 2011. “It’s going to start first with these southern countries trying to protect their land and their people from exploitation, but I think it will be grabbed onto by communities in our countries, for example, fighting the tar sands in Alberta,” she told Postmedia.
Harper may be reaping the whirlwind. The interests of average Canadians now appear to be in closer alignment with those of aboriginal people, as indicted by the ethnically diverse protests against Northern Gateway. As for the notion of legal rights for Mother Earth, this isn’t just racial grievance or hippie boilerplate retooled for ambulance chasers. It could turn out to be the cross-cultural equivalent of open-source software: the biggest environmental/legal app of the new millennium, led by cultures that preceded colonizers by thousands of years.