A peoples' movement that is Idle No More

Date of publication: 
21 December 2012

Thousands of people at rallies in small communities and big cities. Impromptu round dances at shopping centres in Regina and Edmonton. A chief from a remote community in Northern Ontario on a hunger strike in a teepee in the shadow of Parliament Hill.

Those are some of the images that have come to define the Idle No More movement since it began earlier this month, originally by a small group of Canada’s First Nations people, almost as an exercise in social media.

Its pictures and messages have gone viral in a spirit of solidarity that is probably not unlike the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street movements.

Frustrated with a lack of consultation on treaty problems and seemingly unilateral federal government decisions on natural resources and the environment, indigenous peoples are suddenly saying they will no longer sit idly by while these things are being pushed through.

In the spirit of preserving what we have always seen as a sacred tie to the land, and strengthening our culture, First Nations people across the country are banding together like never before.

It’s exhilarating. But while the images of strength and unity spread and inspire, there’s also a sharp void in the centre of the picture of where Idle No More is headed.

Ordinary people started this movement. Their voices have risen to heights that should be impossible for federal politicians to ignore.

But now it is up to the leaders — both of First Nations and the Canadian government — to take it to the next level and find an agenda that can be agreed upon. And it is not clear that they have all heeded that call.
Chief Spence

A strong handful of First Nations leaders have stepped up to support the movement and have reached out to the Canadian government.
An Idle No More rally earlier this month.An Idle No More rally earlier this month. (CBC)

The most prominent, of course, is Theresa Spence, the chief of the troubled community of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario, who just a year ago had to declare a state of emergency in her community because of the poor state of housing.

She has been on a hunger strike for almost two weeks now in the hope of meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to address critical issues like the extent of poverty in First Nation communities.

Harper hasn’t committed to meeting her yet, but if he did, the spectacle of the two could be monumental in redefining this country’s relationship with its indigenous people, if for nothing else because it would take the relationship outside of the stale meeting halls that have been the norm for these last many years.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Chief Spence twice on behalf of CBC News since she went on her hunger strike on Ottawa’s Victoria Island, the second time this week.

We chatted about what has been going on and she was thankful for all the words and gestures of support coming in.

She also mentioned that for the Idle No More movement to continue, chiefs across the country have to “put aside their differences” and join together with their people on this new path.

This is not a movement that has come from the top down, and the chiefs themselves are going to have to recognize that if they want to keep the momentum going and see this new trail to its end.
Facing history

Some chiefs have already demonstrated that spirit. While the concept of Idle No More grew from a group of native women in Saskatchewan, mostly lawyers and academics, several weeks ago, a handful of community and regional leaders have helped catalyze the movement.

While in Ottawa for the Assembly of First Nations’ special chiefs assembly at the beginning of this month, some chiefs notoriously scuffled with security in front of the House of Commons chamber.

It was a powerful visual, and First Nations citizens shared the video countless times over social media.

Days later, the first Idle No More rallies were held in some of the bigger cities across Canada. Since then, those chiefs — including Grand Chief Derek Nepinak from Manitoba and Isadore Day from Ontario’s Serpent River community, among others — have harnessed mainstream and social media to keep the volume up on the message.

Now it’s up to other community leadership to stand with them. But moving forward will obviously have to transcend the imagery of Idle No More and the powerful emotions connected to it.

I’m not a leader nor an academic, so I don’t know how to fix the laws in this country to bring First Nations people and the federal government together.

But like any citizen, I’ve been drawn to the unifying power of this movement by the profound pictures, videos and messages that have flooded my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Now that national mainstream media is catching up, the message is only getting stronger.

Modern history is largely defined by the faces of the people who make it.

When we think of the Oka crisis of 1990, we all think of that one shot of the warrior and the soldier, which instilled pride in so many First Nations people across the country.

That same potential is here. This time, there are thousands more people from all First Nations willing to put their faces on history. The interesting question will be who else joins in.