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Rights + Justice

Fish Broth and Tough Advice: Lillian Rose Howard's Hunger Strike

Nearing week four of her fast, the veteran Nuu-chah-nulth advocate offers support, and words, for Idle No More.

Suzanne Fournier 11 Jan

Suzanne Fournier has been writing about and reporting for various media on social justice, First Nations and women's issues for 37 years in B.C. She is the co-author of the award-winning book Stolen From Our Embrace: the Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities.

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'I'm a grassroots person': Lillian Rose Howard, a Nuu-chah-nulth member, has been fasting in support Theresa Spence and the Idle No More movement since Dec. 23. Photo by S. Fournier.

Amid the excitement of flashmobs, spontaneous round dances and protests, the burgeoning Idle No More movement in B.C. would do well to heed the quiet, powerful words of a Nuu-chah-nulth matriarch who has been in the forefront of virtually every key indigenous battle in the last 40 years.

Lillian Rose Howard, whose Mowachacht name Nahnahumyiis means "Welcoming the Visitors on behalf of our Chiefs," has joined in all Idle No More protests in B.C., speaking out, as she says, "and finding my strength and my voice through the joyousness of drumming." At Idle No More events, Howard is always dressed for celebration and ceremony in her traditional button blanket, her drum active. On Friday, Jan. 11, Lillian will mark the 20th day of her own hunger strike, which she has only begun to discuss publicly in the last few days.

She began her fast on Dec. 23, taking only fish broth and tea, in support of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's stand on Victoria Island.

Flanked by her extended family at Idle No More gatherings, Lillian has drawn on a wide network of friends, relatives and colleagues across Canada and internationally. She is adept at social media, the hallmark of this grassroots, bush-fire movement, and boasts more than 2,200 Facebook followers, whom she favours with inspirational images and sayings but also with some tough no-nonsense advice:

Check your ego, she advises, keep scrupulous track of money, focus your goals on protection of water -- a sacred resource and a responsibility squandered by senior government.

Howard believes defending water and land will "wake up" mainstream Canadians and gain their support. Indigenous rights, lands and treaties must remain key issues, Howard says, as well as the localized grievances that drive each INM "chapter." Articulate your purposes clearly, listen to elders and make a plan for elders and children if violence erupts, she says. Plan to strategically escalate tactics and expect police to start to react violently, Howard tells those who ask. She even sets out her savvy political insights in clear point form on Facebook for those who seek her counsel.

Increasingly, Howard is being recognized for her bid to ground and focus Idle No More.

A Mowachacht education in power imbalance

Howard, now 62 and an influential member of the city of Vancouver's Urban Aboriginal Peoples Advisory Committee, became an activist early in life, learning from her great-grandfather, her grandmother and parents. She recalls her grandmother's anger at seeing the rich timber resources on their traditional territory being hauled away for logs and sawdust, making millions of dollars while her own family lacked a house to live in. Howard grew up mostly on the Mowachacht reserve, a strip of miserable houses that was moved from its rich traditional land and waters at isolated Friendly Cove to the doorstep of the Tahsis pulp mill, in another nation's territory and close to everything evil: Foul pollution from the pulp mill in the form of smoke and sour gas plumes that swept daily through the village, bad food and alcohol, and racism, from the logging town of Gold River.

From taking part in her late teens in blockades over logging and loss of land on Vancouver Island, Howard went on to become a band manager in her twenties with her troubled home Mowachacht community, near Gold River on Vancouver Island; and then began to work with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Vancouver School Board as a native support worker, and as co-chair of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. At the heart of all her political activism has been a quiet rage against the inequities and racism she faced from a very young age.

Lillian Howard's motivation to keep her fast, at least until Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally meets with Assembly of First Nations leaders on Jan. 11, is fuelled by the teachings of her elders and political mentors from whom she has learned so much, ranging from Cree writer, broadcaster and activist Bernelda Wheeler; the late George Manuel, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs; Vuntat Gwich'in leader Rosalee Tizya and Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan indigenous activist. Lillian was by Rigoberta's side in 1992 when the fiery Mayan woman became the first indigenous person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for her work on social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation.

The eldest of 12 siblings, Howard is now the Vancouver-based matriarch of a large clan, including her own two adult daughters, two granddaughters and a new great-granddaughter, two-month-old Naomi Rose, who all have joined Lillian at gatherings.

Lillian's father Barnabas Howard, 82, has wheeled his walker into many an INM fray by the side of his eldest daughter. He believes in her cause and is deeply proud of her, but confides "I'm pretty worried about her," as Lillian sits quietly on the edges of a feast, with her thermos of broth, on a Wednesday night at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

The dinner is in honour of Chief Spence and the large gym is full, of elders, moms with babies in strollers, families. There will be dancing, and drumming, and Lillian's quiet voice takes on energy and enthusiasm as she shakes off her fatigue from lack of nutrition. "I've been deeply involved in political movements since my early 20s but never have I seen so much action and potential on such a large scale, across Canada and internationally," says Howard.

Before the Harper government picked a fight with First Nations, says Howard, "they should know now we have relatives all over the world, in every community. "We are a large tribe and we have national and international support, native and non-native, all nations, and all I can say, is Thank God for Facebook and Twitter. We are all in this together, for the long haul, and no matter what form this movement takes, they can't stop us now."

'A quiet, strong presence'

Howard appreciates that the Idle No More movement was begun last November by four Prairies women, a sacred number in native lore. The movement also is a reflection of the demographics of urban Aboriginal people, a huge and growing population of young people under 25 who have mostly grown up in cities, where as many as two-thirds of all families are headed by single mothers. Women who fled poverty, marriage breakdown or domestic violence on reserves all across Canada in many cases were forced to relinquish funds and privilege that flowed in disparate ways to those on reserve.

Many women founded their own strong families in the city and forged bonds in their own communities, around eastside Vancouver schools like Britannia, where Howard was a parent and student advocate. Yet those Aboriginal women who lacked traditional family support and any viable income, some entering the sex trade to support themselves, became grimly disproportionate victims of violence, with more than 5,000 indigenous women now missing or murdered over the last several decades across Canada.

Howard notes that Vancouver, along with many cities and villages across B.C., are still grieving and have suffered horrifically in the wake of the rampage of Robert Pickton and other unchecked serial killers. She is still incredulous that former judge and Attorney General Wally Oppal's inquiry into the "'missing women" could have taken place without respectful and meaningful involvement by virtually all key groups in the Aboriginal community, who were denied funding while police and government lawyers multiplied in number daily.

Lisa Yellow-Quill, a Nekaway woman with Cree, Dakota and Anishinabe heritage originally from Manitoba, who became known as one of the strong critics of the Oppal inquiry and a supporter of women trying to leave Vancouver's vicious survival sex trade, paid tribute at a recent Idle No More gathering to Lillian Howard. "I've known Lillian for years, in many different capacities in our communities, and she is a quiet, strong presence here," said Yellow-Quill.

"There are many busybodies out there trying to tell people what to do but she knows the truth and what should be done. This movement was started by four indigenous women, and there are people who would like to take over, or change it. It's the women like Lillian who are going to remain strong, whatever form this takes in the future," said Yellow-Quill, who is a member of the Memorial March Committee that organizes a walk each Feb. 14 to downtown eastside sites where women lost their lives or just vanished.

A Ph.D. in her sights

Focusing on her university studies, her family and her own healing journey over the past few years, Lillian Howard came to realize that if she wanted to achieve her goal of attaining a doctorate, she would have to do her own healing, facing squarely with the help of Aboriginal-focused therapy the brutal sexual abuses she suffered as a child, both at the Christie Residential School and in her own community, and again as an adult. Building up her strength over the past five years with an arduous annual canoe journey with her northern Tlingit relatives, Howard felt in late December she was strong enough to contribute. She was moved into speaking out again and picking up the drum when she heard about the northern Ontario Attawapiskat reserve, where more than 80 per cent of homes are not fit to inhabit.

"My heart said enough is enough," recalls Howard. "How can we be going into the 21st century and we still have people living on reserves in third world conditions, as my family and my people did when I was a child? Now Bill C-45 is trying to legislate away the rest of our rights. I'm not young anymore. I'm a grassroots person but I want to go to school. I'm the matriarch of my family and I want them to live a good life, with a quality of life that every human being deserves, to achieve their goals and dreams without having to be politically involved and fight every step of the way as I have."

Howard has been at the heart of many a blockade and sit-in over the decades and she knows whereof she speaks. She says that maybe her first political act was when she refused to be placed in a vocational stream in high school, demonstrating her ability to do algebra and her right to an academic education. She took four years of undergraduate studies at UBC but walked away in 1982 without a degree when they refused to recognize her Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation language. She blockaded logging trucks and roads. She was part of what was called the Indian Child Caravan in 1980 when reserves that had been systematically stripped of their children for decades, by supposedly well-meaning government social workers, got angry and launched a long march and drive to Vancouver. The Spallumcheen band, where busloads of children were removed and given to Mormon and Christian homes south of the border, enacted its own bylaw to give parents the right to bring up their own children. The caravan wound up on the Shaughnessy lawn of then-minister Grace McCarthy, who swiftly agreed to recognize Aboriginal children and families' rights, enacting legislation by July 1980.

When a group of women occupied federal Indian Affairs offices in downtown Vancouver in 1981, Howard helped draw up consensual rules, a code of conduct that included letting elders, teens and children go home at night, and strict goals which included subjecting the late senator Ray Perrault to several hours of carefully-articulated grievances.

Omibus threats

Howard learned all about the inherent conflict between land and treaty rights and the greed for oil at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, before former Justice Tom Berger in the mid-'70s and she took part much later in the West Coast Oil Ports Inquiry. Then as now, she emphasizes, protection of the sacred water and land resources is the key issue, whether it involves the Mackenzie Valley pipeline or the Enbridge-proposed twin pipelines in northern B.C. plus tanker traffic down the very coast that Howard canoes every summer with her Tlingit relations.

Howard believes the federal omnibus bills championed by the Harper government are an abrogation of Ottawa's responsibility to safeguard all fish-bearing waters, sacrificing the birthright of indigenous and non-native British Columbians so that pipelines and industrial installations can proceed without the encumbering precepts of the federal Fisheries Act, once Canada's strongest environmental statute.

Howard also saw early on in her life as an activist the galvanizing momentum of organized Aboriginal opposition, when she helped organize the Constitutional Express, a train that crossed Canada in the early 1980s with UBCIC president George Manuel at the helm. Encouraged by the cross-country support the train got by the time it reached the nation's capital, Manuel took the "express' on to Europe. Always a visionary who understood the links between indigenous peoples in many countries, and the potential for international organization, Manuel visited the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France and England, garnering attention and media coverage of the grievances of Canadian First Nations.

Indigenous rights are now enshrined in the Canadian constitution, a fact impossible to separate from Manuel's efforts. That spark of international outrage at the treatment of indigenous people still denied decent housing in their homeland, no matter how many millions of dollars doled out, can easily grow into a conflagration with today's instant connections of the Internet, Howard points out. The Avatar generation gets it; indigenous people have been grievously exploited. No matter how much disapproval and hand-wringing some pundits can muster in tiresome media tirades, the youngest generations in Canada are primed to communicate even more effectively in more popular Internet sites -- and show up with just minutes' notice in a public place to demonstrate their outrage.

Advice from a sage

Howard advises that "people must be prepared for the police to break their word and for violence -- that's why our conduct in protests and acts of civil disobedience must be above reproach."

Having been an elected and employed leader of her own band and tribal council, Howard takes seriously issues of financial accountability. She remarks sardonically, however, that Attawapiskat is being taken to task for not keeping proper track of only $104 million it received over several years to repair or replace more than 80 per cent of its housing stock. Yet the federal government barely blinked before improperly spending $50 million for a gazebo and bathrooms in 2010 to spruce up the Ontario site slated for a summit meeting of some of the world's wealthiest nations.

A leaked audit this week only fanned the flames of mounting criticism of Chief Spence's administration and by inference the Idle No More movement. Caustic media critics excoriated a grassroots, ill-defined, powerful and spontaneous movement for all the reasons it has become successful, and ungovernable.

But Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has been steadfast in his support for the grassroots Idle No More movement that is apparently flourishing without appointed, elected or paid leaders. Atleo said Thursday, on the eve of a meeting with federal government officials, "We are absolute in our convictions and in our determination to achieve our rights." Atleo cited the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Aboriginal women all across Canada. "This is what our people are saying. That poverty is killing our people. That the history of colonization and unilateral action on the part of governments will stop now."

With discussions still underway as to what talks will take place between federal and First Nations officials on Jan. 11, Lillian Howard was waiting quietly at home, gathering her strength, and preparing to pick up the drum for the next stage of Idle No More. "Too much is at stake to stop now," says Howard. "People's lives are on the line. Listen to your elders and reach out to other groups who want to help."

Howard also advises activists drawing on her 40 years' experience: "Accept that you will be targeted. "You're planning and organizing and upsetting the establishment. They will target you and come after you. Don't be intimidated or scared, because we are all fighting for each other."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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