The strained relationships between the Assembly of First Nations and its members may have been evident in Ottawa, but the situation was much different at the latest Idle No More rally to hit Sudbury.
About 80 sign-bearing marchers converged on Tom Davies Square on Jan. 11 around noon where, following a round dance, they marched in a zigzag pattern hitting Cedar, Lisgar and Elm streets, to the main entrance of the Rainbow Centre.
As the city witnessed its third Idle No More rally in a month, thousands of First Nations people, Idle No More supporters and First Nations chiefs were in Ottawa where the solidarity of the local rally was contrasted by confusion and division.
What was to be an historic meeting (at least that's how National Chief Shawn Atleo was framing it on Jan. 10) between First Nations leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper became a story of division as many chiefs refused to attend the meeting at all, siding with Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Teresa Spence.
In a statement to the press released Friday morning, Spence said she would not attend the meeting because Gov. Gen. David Johnston would not be in attendance, arguing that all treaties were signed between the Crown and First Nations and Johnston, as the Queen's representative in Canada, should be on hand.
Many chiefs sided with her. The meeting, which was to start at 11 a.m., was held off until the afternoon, but still went ahead with Chief Atleo and Assembly of First Nations leaders.
As anticipation was building for the march, Sudburian Brad Robinson said he was hoping for a “peaceful resolution to the demands of all us First Nations people.”
“I hope in earnest and honesty Harper does get us to the table and discuss truthfully how a nation of relationships can work,” he said. “I hope that conversation does go on and it's fruitful.”
While the chiefs may be divided over the meeting with federal leaders, they did agree on how they would like the relationship to change.
First, they want changes made to the federal omnibus budget bills — which kicked off the Idle No More movement — concerning environmental protection and the Indian Act.
Every reserve should have a usable school and clean drinking water; They want a national inquiry launched into the cases of hundreds of missing or murdered Aboriginal girls and women.
Besides these, the chiefs would like to see a promise to modernize treaties to give First Nations more share in resource wealth. They also want funding that grows with inflation and population.
And they want Harper to repeal major parts of his two budget omnibus bills that they say sacrifice environmental protection to resource extraction.
For Robinson, the reason behind his presence at the rally was simple.
“Above all, we just want to be heard,” he said. “If we can establish something that would be closer to a memorandum of understanding — an agreement of two nations — both of us could prosper.”
Juanita McNichol echoed his priorities.
“I'm hoping they will sit down and listen to what our leaders have to say and actually start working with our people and honouring the treaty rights they've made with our people,” she said.
Travelling to Sudbury from Sagamok to participate in the rally, she believes that by banding together, citizens can be heard by government.
“Government is really bullying people into all these acts they're trying to pass through quickly,” she said. “We have to stand together ... because we're all equal. We should work together.”
After all, she said, the Idle No More movement is about more than First Nations rights. It's about land and resources and things that matter to every living being.
“Our waters are being polluted,” McNichol said. “Every year, I walk with my sisters to pray for the water, that the government is letting these big factories pollute our waters. That's our lives — without our water, life can not exist. We need it to survive.”
The Idle No More movement, which has been gaining momentum across the country since October 2012, has now become an international movement for indigenous people's rights. Local protester Chris Johnson said he appreciates the international support.
“I think it's just everyone showing their support for Canada and its people,” he said. “There are people all over the world that care about what's going on here. I'm grateful for everybody out there showing their support.”
Shelly Trudeau came to Sudbury from Manitoulin Island while her son Tyler and her partner James Clark were on a bus to the nation's capital.
“My husband always wanted to go up there ever since this happened,” she said. He wanted to be part of the “history-making” rally.
Lost in the confusion of Friday's protests in Ottawa was the dinner this evening between the governor general and First Nations leaders. As of Friday afternoon, it was unknown if that event, which Ottawa described as “ceremonial,” was going to go ahead.