COAST SALISH TERRITORIES—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 and economic agenda—an agenda that includes partnering with corporations seeking to exploit oil and gas resources on reserve lands.
The Aboriginal People’s Television Network recently acquired correspondence between chiefs and aides calling for the removal of Shawn Atleo as the head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). According to supporters of Atleo, 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.
Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq 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. One of the main spokeswomen for Idle No More, Palmater has been accused of attempting to promote herself while undermining Atleo in an effort to gain control of the AFN.
One of the chiefs spearheading the campaign against Atleo is Onion Lake Cree Nation chief Wallace Fox. He also coordinated with Idle No More in carrying out the symbolic attempt to enter the House of Commons on December 4, 2012, which generated considerable publicity and helped launch INM’s December 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 and currently produces some 20,000 barrels per day through 400 drilling wells, making it the top oil producing Native band in the country.
Back in 2004, when the Alberta government was having trouble with bands in the Slave Lake area opposing the oil and gas industry and erecting roadblocks, Onion Lake Cree Nation was praised 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,” Lloyd Snelgrove, MLA for Vermilion Lloydminster, told the Lloydminster Meridian Booster at the time. “In Onion Lake for example, they have developed their own resource business and are very successful.”
In September 2012, Onion Lake Cree Nation signed an agreement with Onion Lake Energy and Driftpile, Sucker Creek and Ermineskin First Nations, creating the Wanska Energy Alliance. They are spending a year examining opportunities for joint oil and gas ventures.
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. 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 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.
“We’re capitalists,” Joe Dion, a hereditary Kehewin Cree chief and President of Frog Lake Energy Resources Corp, told Alberta Oil Magazine in a 2010 interview. “You wouldn’t know us from A and B Oil & Gas down the street.”
While the Aboriginal business elite engages in a power struggle with the state over issues such as political power and economic development, the grassroots is motivated by the defense of land and water.
The reality is that there are various factions working under the banner of Idle No More. 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.
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, which are in reality an Aboriginal business elite seeking greater participation in industry.
Zig Zag, aka Gord Hill, is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation and a long-time participant in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist resistance movements. A longer version of this article was originally published on warriorpublications.wordpress.com.