In a First Nations community, anger can bubble under the surface for many years or decades before it finally materializes in a way that is visible to the human eye.
I just happened to have my camera rolling as the anger on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation finally boiled over into a heated argument between a band member and a representative from CN Rail. It was the culmination of different events in different parts of the country that had led to that moment, and for several weeks in December 2012 and January 2013 if felt as if all of Canada was caught up in it.
It had started with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s reserve land being gradually shaved down from over 10,000 acres to around 3,100 acres. The land had been lost through surrenders to the Town of Sarnia and to industry, starting in the mid-1800’s, and continuing through to a heavy period of land loss between the 1920’s and the 1960’s. A large part of the reserve had been absorbed by the encroaching town, and the remainder had become what is today known as Chemical Valley. A spur line, owned by CN Rail, was constructed across the First Nation as a way to link the surrounding chemical and oil companies by railway.
Thousands of kilometres away on James Bay, the Attiwapiskat First Nation was experiencing its own problems, including a housing crisis that was documented in Alanis Obomsawin’s recent film The People of the Kattawapiskak River. By October 2011, as winter approached, the First Nation had declared a state of emergency over the shortage of inhabitable housing. The Department of Indian Affairs had responded by trying to bring in “third party management” to handle the band’s finances. Chief and Council (led by the recently elected Chief Theresa Spence) refused, stating they welcomed an audit of their finances to prove the band was not mis-spending funding, but simply lacked the funds to cope. The incident created particularly bad feelings between the First Nation and the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Meanwhile in Ottawa, the Harper government followed up the May 2011 Canadian federal election by proposing a number of omnibus bills that introduced legislative changes. Those bills happened to violate treaties with First Nations across Canada. As the omnibus bills worked their way through Parliament, anger began to build, and by November 2012, the Idle No More movement was gaining momentum on social media.
In Attawapiskat, the housing crisis continued, and when Chief Theresa Spence announced she was going on a hunger strike on December 11, 2012, it launched a wave of supportive protests and marches across the country.
The blockade of the CN Rail spur line on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation was originally intended to be a one day protest in support of Chief Spence’s hunger strike. However, after CN Rail served the protesters with an injunction to have them legally removed from the rail tracks, the blockade was moved to another crossing where it was thought that the rail tracks illegally crossed the First Nation’s land. From there, CN Rail threatened to sue those at the blockade for millions in lost revenue. It was this exchange that I happened to capture on camera.
The story continues to this day, as Aamjiwnaang band member Ron Plain faces charges stemming from the incident. It has been said that he is the only person in Canada faced with legal consequences relating to the wave of Idle No More protests that swept the country this past winter.