What Exactly Is Idle No More?

By Ben Makuch

Idle No More Protestors in a Saskatoon mall.

In an era where the streets of Athens seem to be permanently burning, senseless partisanship nearly sent America off the fiscal cliff, and a delicate global economy fuels revolutions everywhere, continual political unrest is par for the course. Even Canada—peaceful, tolerant Canada—isn’t immune to widespread discontent, as seen by riots last summer in Montreal. In December, the issuing of another clandestine piece of legislation by the Conservatives in the form of omnibus Bill C-45 sparked the now international Indigenous rights movement “Idle No More,” or what the country's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, probably calls it: “a PR shit storm.”

Like many protest movements since Occupy, Idle No More is a grassroots initiative that most right-wing pundits are accusing of being directionless. Back in November, four women from rural Saskatoon (Sylvia McAdam, Jess Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sheelah Mclean) started rallies and teach-ins they dubbed Idle No More, spreading awareness about what the finer points of C-45 had in store for First Nations people and the Canadian environment. To them the bill is just another example of how, in their words: “Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water.”

Other than challenging aspects of the Indian Act, Bill C-45 made glaring deletions to the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) of 1882; as in scrapping most of it and renaming it the Navigation Protection Act (NPA). What the NWPA used to do was mandate a thorough approval process before any industrial level development could take place on national waterways, which presented a huge barrier to things like the imminent Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. The new NPA limits the consultation process to 97 lakes, 62 rivers and three oceans, leaving a significant amount of new waterways (that are largely on Indigenous lands) vulnerable to expanded industrial development and subsequent environmental damage.

To some First Nations people, the NPA has been interpreted to partly eliminate the Crown’s duty to conduct meaningful consultation and accommodation of First Nations interests regarding the use of their lands. Yet in fairness to the feds, provisions within the bill itself were made on the recommendation of First Nations chiefs. Specifically amending the way the Indian Act governs land leasing to allow bands to self-determine the renting of their lands, without the involvement of the Aboriginal Affairs department; a process that’s both paternalistic and onerous. That actually means more local Indigenous control over their waterways. Because of their misinterpretation, some critics believe Idle No More has more to do with a broader frustration with aboriginal affairs in Canada, rather than just Bill C-45. 

To make a long story short, activist Tanya Kappo started the #idlenomore hashtag in late November on Twitter that quickly popularized. From there, a National Day of Action on December 10th mixed with the debacle of Chief Spence, who is in the midst of a controversial hunger strike that’s end goal is to meet Stephen Harper, worked to galvanize the protest publicly. Since then, Idle No More exploded like an Egyptian protest in Tahrir square and has spawned mass protests, rail and highway blockades, and flash mob dances in malls.


Theresa Spence, the hunger striking Native Chief.

At the moment, organizers are adamant in maintaining Idle No More as a grassroots movement lead horizontally by the people and not First Nations chiefs. Whether it was media laziness in labelling any Native protest as the same protest or not, there’s been a conflation of the hunger striking Chief Spence of Attawapiskat and the actual movement. In fact, for better or worse, organizers are staying outside of traditional forms of government to achieve their goals, unlike Spence who wants to meet with Harper face-to-face. As reported by the National Post, some chiefs have even co-opted the protest for their own political gain, which has made organizers none too happy.

The real question is where this movement will go. Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, both an Algonquin leader and the guy who Justin Trudeau beat up, has been critical of the protests. His main point is that it involves a “gamut of issues” and avoids addressing the inherent problem of economic accountability on reserves. Without completely agreeing with him, the point is well taken; it should be a legitimate concern for Idle No More organizers that the movement not flame out because of a lack of focus or sustained, organized pressure on the government. Otherwise it will just be Indigenous rights flavoured Occupy.

To date, the January 11th meeting Harper scheduled with First Nations leaders can be partly attributed to the movement. Secretly, some First Nations activists and government officials alike may be hoping that we’re witnessing the first breaths of a drive towards overhauling the Indian Act, a set of dated legislation born out of racist ideologies (it still makes reference to Residential Schools), colonialism, and paternalism. Then again, this could be the first flare-up between a government that’s big on natural resource development and the First Nations people whose land contains most of those untapped resources. The answer may be as simple as giving bands a bigger slice of the economic pie their lands may offer.

Hopefully something tangible comes out Harper’s rendezvous with Chiefs, otherwise we might be looking at yet another protest movement that turns increasingly desperate if mounting actions by First Nations groups are any indication of things to come. Whatever the outcome, you can credit Idle No More for reinvigorating voices against the systemic problems littering the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown.
 

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