Four sparks light aboriginal fires

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Tue Sep 21 2010.   Christopher Alcantara, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University

Last week, the Ontario government announced that it planned to pass the Far North Act, a controversial piece of legislation that is designed to reconcile environmental, business and indigenous interests in Northern Ontario.

In response to this announcement, First Nation leaders such as Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation have threatened to engage in blockades and protests because he and others feel that the legislation ignores their historical treaties and jurisdictions. Moreover, they say it was designed without adequate input from First Nation representatives.

Most commentators agree that conflict is likely to occur because of these reasons.

But the real reasons behind why indigenous groups choose to engage in confrontation are a little more complex.

Recent research suggests that four factors determine whether an aboriginal group is likely to adopt confrontational strategies against the Canadian state.

The first is when aboriginal and non-aboriginal goals relating to indigenous-claimed lands and resources are highly divergent. The more different the goals, the more likely confrontation will occur.

Second, the nature, scope and frequency of intrusions on aboriginal lands matter. Aboriginal groups tend to use conventional political strategies like lobbying and media campaigns when intrusions on their lands are infrequent and impact only a small number of their members. When the intrusions are more frequent and adversely affect a large number of indigenous individuals, leaders and community members face powerful incentives to mobilize quickly and effectively, using things like protests and blockades.

Third, indigenous groups mobilize when they feel that the Canadian political and legal systems are unlikely to be responsive to their needs.

Finally, indigenous groups are more likely to engage in confrontational strategies when there is a sense that such strategies are likely to be supported by non-aboriginal allies and tolerated by the Canadian state, and when they think they can frame the dispute in ways that will resonate with ordinary Canadian citizens and members of the local and national media.

These four factors together produce aboriginal groups that are more likely to engage in protests and blockades.

So what should the federal, provincial, and municipal governments of Canada do to address the rise and threat of indigenous protests and blockades in this country?

The short-term solution is to be more proactive and effective in assessing situations where confrontation is imminent. Once it is determined that a group is likely to engage in confrontation, based on the four factors above, government officials should put more effort into fostering common goals with that group and immediately minimize the nature, scope and frequency of nonindigenous interference on aboriginal lands.

Aboriginal protests and blockades have gone on for far too long in this country. It’s time we took more seriously the reasons behind these confrontations and worked out peaceful strategies to avoid them.

Christopher Alcantara’s research on indigenous protests appears in the latest issue of theCanadian Journal of Native Studies.

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