On Feb. 21, 150 people took over the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City with drumming, singing and dancing. Staff and state troopers watched sternly from above, leaning on the second story railings, as drum beats and chanting echoed to the lofty ceiling. Then, Francois Paulette — an indigenous elder and activist from Canada’s Athabasca region in Northern Alberta — stepped forward with a megaphone that filled the building with his soft-spoken voice as he declared, “If you begin to exploit those tar sands, in a very short time you’re going to ruin your history, your children, your future, and live with that every day.”
Paulette should know. His home is downstream from Canada’s vast tar sands mines, and he has seen high rates of unusual cancers plague the local indigenous communities. He now fears the same will happen in Utah, where the first U.S. tar sands mine may open later this year. That is why Paulette came to Salt Lake City to share his years of firsthand experience working to stop the tar sands mines of Athabasca with the soon-to-be impacted communities of Utah.
The event at the capitol building was organized under the banner of the Idle No More movement, which sprang into action in Canada several months ago as a response to the Harper government’s continued abuse of indigenous rights and environmental protections. Holding flash mobs where people drum, dance and sing has become the movement’s signature form of protest, spreading the call for indigenous rights around the world in the process.
Through Idle No More, many of the communities experiencing the most extreme environmental injustice are demanding their rights be recognized and upheld. While many indigenous communities have never relented in this struggle, Idle No More has amplified the environmental justice movement’s voice and attracted more participants.