EDITORIAL: We must renew calls for national land rights

February 28, 2013, Tracker Magazine 

NATIONAL: There is an exciting movement currently occurring across the Pacific. 
Idle No More is an Aboriginal-controlled protest movement, writes AMY MCQUIRE.

It began with a seed, widespread First Nations opposition to omnibus bill C-45, which was watered by active and extensive social media networks, roadblocks and flash mob protests across the nation, as well as a heroic hunger strike by several leaders – including First Nations chief Theresa Spence.

It has now grown into a serious PR problem for the conservative Harper government, who have tried to cut down its branches to no avail.

Bill C-45 was widely interpreted as an affront to water and land rights under changes to the Indian Act, and other legislative changes which backtracked the government’s mandate to consult with First Nations over precious national waterways.

That bill passed parliament anyway. And while reversing those laws is still a central plank of the movement, Idle No More is much more than that.

As Pamela Palmater, a key organizer in the movement, said “it originally started as a way to oppose Bill C-45… it grew to include all the legislation and the corresponding funding cuts to First Nations political organizations meant to silence our advocacy voice”.

That voice will never be silenced until Canada re-thinks it’s relationship with First Nations.

“The failure of Canada to share the lands and resources as promised in the treaties has placed First Nations at the bottom of all socio-economic indicators — health, lifespan, education levels and employment opportunities,” Ms Palmater wrote in the Ottowa Citizen in December.

“While Indigenous lands and resources are used to subsidize the wealth and prosperity of Canada as a state and the high-quality programs and services enjoyed by Canadians, First Nations have been subjected to purposeful, chronic underfunding of all their basic human services like water, sanitation, housing, and education.

“This has led to the many First Nations being subjected to multiple, overlapping crises like the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, the water crisis in Kashechewan and the suicide crisis in Pikangikum.”

Sound familiar?
Although there are undeniable differences between our communities in Australia and those in Canada, there are also a lot of similarities.

Many of our communities struggle in fourth world conditions in a first world country. We share a history of forced assimilation and colonisation. We share the same concerns about how we protect our traditional lands, and how we can leverage some form of economic development from the scraps afforded us by successive governments.

What we unfortunately don’t share with Canada’s First Nations is an ability to influence the public agenda. Right now, so much of our protest is reactive, not proactive.

It is scattered and easily destroyed by the weight of a biased, ignorant media, fuelled by a biased, ignorant public.

Our youth, while strong, smart and passionate, are largely disenfranchised from influencing public debate, despite having the great tool of education in their hands.

Could a movement like Idle No More ever catch on over here?

Already there have been solidarity protests set up by motivated young activists, and all power to them.

But it is unlikely to move in the same way the sparks of Idle No More started fires across Canada.

That’s because there is no clear agenda, no clear purpose.

While there has been criticism of Idle No More for being directionless, there is a key protest point, and it is a point that has been driven by Aboriginal people themselves.

It’s powered by the energy and anger of the youth, who are intent on de-colonising their peoples and restoring their cultures and traditions.

In contrast, we are divided and distracted by the agendas set for Indigenous Australia by white authority – agendas like the ambiguous “reconciliation” and the pipe dream of “constitutional reform”.

Where are the ongoing calls for National Land Rights? For Treaty?

They seem to be stuck in the minds of our past land rights warriors, and have not been passed onto our future generation of leaders.

As Brian Johnstone reports in Tracker’s news pages this month, the last real chance at a national land rights model was scuttled by the Hawke government, by a weak Prime Minister who retreated too quickly when confronted by big miners.

The political arena has changed a great deal since those days. We are going backwards. Both major parties refuse to take a stand for Indigenous rights. How far the ALP has fallen from the days when Hawke even considered a Compact.

But despite this, National Land Rights is still the best banner to stand under.

It is a uniting goal, and one shared by a large majority of black Australia.

It’s a goal that cannot be torn from us, even by divisive laws like the Native Title Act.

Re-starting a movement for National Land Rights is especially timely given 2013 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in NSW.

While obviously not perfect, the NSW land rights system is the best we have. UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights James Anaya has even said it is a world-beater.

This year we will be celebrating the success of the NSW land rights system, and also looking at the challenges that face it. 
A key part of those challenges are canvassed in the Aboriginal Land Rights Act review, which is the subject of the first feature of the year for Tracker.

The ALRA review has a strong focus on the current land claims process, and the best ways to clear the land claims backlog.

The recommendations of the review will be the subject of ongoing consultations later in the year, although the date has not yet been set. 
But this is only in New South Wales. It is not enough that we sit back and watch while rights to land and water are corroded across our state borders.

We cannot be Idle No More on National Land Rights.

-Amy McQuire, editor.

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