Young Cree attend Montreal demonstration to support the people of Elsipogtog

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October 17_23In Montreal’s Cabot Square, at the edge of the crowd waiting for the October 18 Solidarity for Elsipogtog march to begin, stood four young people from Chisasibi: Summer Twenish, Dakota Quachegan, and their two roommates Melissa and Stephany.

The day before, the RCMP had launched a full-on military assault against the blockade set up by the Mi’kmaq First Nation of Elsipogtog to protest a corporate fracking operation near Rexton, New Brunswick. Snipers in full battle dress, officers leading attack dogs and hundreds of RCMP officers in bullet-proof vests converged to brutally enforce a court injunction against the protest camp that began last June. In the confrontation that followed, some reported that snipers aimed their rifles at Elders and children. Six police cars were later set on fire and supporters reportedly threw Molotov cocktails into the road to bolster barricades. The RCMP arrested 40 people, including Chief Arren Sock, and used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and pepper-spray against protesters.

Immediately, dozens of solidarity demonstrations were organized across the country, like the one in Cabot Square. Twenish, who moved to Montreal in July to attend Vanier College, knew right away that she wanted to take part.

“I am very big on Aboriginal rights, and there was just an explosion of it on my Facebook and in the news,” she said. “I thought I’d go check it out and show that I’m also interested in that aspect of Aboriginal culture – the rights and freedoms that we have.”

But her roommate Quachegan, a Dawson College student who arrived in the city in August, wasn’t sure whether it was worth attending. He followed his friends to the Square but still hadn’t made up his mind.

“When I first heard about it, I didn’t really feel like going,” he said. “But then I heard women singing, and realized the gravity of the situation, with fracking and the RCMP. It just got to me.”

Watching a woman pass with a braid of burning sage, Twenish said, “I really wish I could smudge. You think I could just go over and ask her?”

“Sure,” said one of her friends.

Twenish hesitated. “I wish I had my own smudge kit,” she said.

The crowd moved around to one side of the statue to hear speakers and singers – including noted Métis writer Chelsea Vowel – and then began the march. As if on cue, Montreal police immediately informed the marchers over a loudspeaker that the demonstration was illegal under a bylaw that forbids public protests that haven’t been previously approved by authorities.

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“Part of me was nervous,” said Twenish later, “but I figured the worst that could happen is maybe they bring out the tear gas. I felt it was more important to show my solidarity than to fear something happening.”

Quachegan was equally worried, though he said it was concern more for his friends than for his own personal safety.

“I felt a little nervous,” he said. “Not for me specifically, but for [my friends]. I didn’t want them to be caught in anything if they tried to block us. I was really generally worried.”

As they got ready to walk, Quachegan asked, “What ever happened to Idle No More, anyway?” As he later explained, “I remember back in March, hearing about the walkers getting to Ottawa. Then they got back and the whole protest was done. Harper didn’t show up – he went to see the pandas instead. I thought that was ridiculous.”

After the Nishiyuu walkers completed their 1,600 km trek, Quachegan had the impression that Idle No More disappeared.

“We didn’t hear about it anymore,” he said. “It seemed like everybody forgot about it all at once. It felt like we did all that stuff for nothing. We walked from up north to Ottawa, showed them we could do that, and Harper didn’t even come. That really shocked and surprised me.”

Twenish agreed, saying, “It’s going on a year since this big movement started and it needs more attention: nothing has changed. Things are still going to happen to Aboriginal people in the future. Just because we walked to Parliament or had a hunger strike, nothing’s changing.”

That might explain why Twenish and Quachegan were in the streets of Montreal with their friends, trying to keep a comfortable distance from the police. As they walked, they looked over their shoulders, nervously joking about the situation or quietly listening to traditional singers, all the while making sure they weren’t about to be surrounded and arrested. But the police kept their distance, to everyone’s relief.

The protest made its way down St. Catherine St., finally arriving at Berri Square without incident. Drummers sang and protesters chanted. The mix was a little odd, said Twenish.

“I wish there was more involvement here in the city with Aboriginal people who live here,” she said. “I know there are quite a few, but at the protest there were none. It’s great that people were showing solidarity with other young people, caring about the environment or our rights, but it’d be nice to see more Native people out there. This started with Aboriginal people, and they should stick with it through to the end.”

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