OTTAWA—It was brisk and overcast on Parliament Hill this week when a small group from the distant First Nation of Attawapiskat presented a letter to two Liberal cabinet ministers charged with Indigenous affairs.
Less than a decade ago, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence staged a hunger strike on an island in the Ottawa River, a protest that helped ignite a national Indigenous rights movement called “Idle No More.”
And here they were again, leaders of the same nation clustered on the sidewalk near the Centennial Flame with a flag and staff lined with eagle feathers, pressing a different government over the same concerns that have long animated their people: treaty rights, self-determination, poverty, and housing.
That last one is connected with a longstanding demand of the First Nation to add a tract of land to its reserve where the Attawapiskat River empties into James Bay. It also touches on an issue that Marc Miller, the newly-minted Liberal Crown-Indigenous relations minister, is striving to place at the front of the government’s reconciliation agenda: land.
In his first comments in the new role this fall, Miller turned heads when he stated that “it’s time to give land back” to Indigenous peoples. It was an invocation of an established goal of Indigenous activists pressing to reverse the damaging impacts of colonialism in this country, one of the core aims of Idle No More and other movements since. And it was a statement with potential relevance to Indigenous nations across Canada, from the Wet’suwet’en opposing a pipeline project in northern B.C., to the people of Attawapiskat who are hoping to acquire new land for housing in their community.