Idle No More, a grassroots protest originating in Canada and founded by four Indigenous and non-Indigenous women in early October, began to capture national and international attention by December 2012. The founders, Sheelah McLean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam and Jess Gordon hail from Saskatchewan, a Canadian province with a longstanding history of both Indigenous protest (such as Louis Riel) and progressive politics (it’s the birthplace of both the radical Saskatchewan Women Grain Growers and Canadian medicare).
The Saskatchewan four began offering local “teach ins,” a tactic dating at least to the 1960s, to foster resistance to the federal Conservative Government’s omnibus Bill C 45 (2012). This “unilateral and paternalistic” (1) piece of legislation seriously threatens Canadian environmental protections and Indigenous control of reserve lands, in effect a direct violation of Treaty agreements that are the legal and moral foundation for the Canadian state. By passing Bill C-45, as well as seven other pieces of legislation, without proper consultation with Indigenous peoples, the Conservative Party (with a mandate from less than 40% of voters in the last federal election) violated Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Analysis of Idle No More reveals three key issues, namely grassroots democracy, treaties between Canada and Indigenous nations, and Indigenous sovereignty. These causes remain at the heart of an escalating movement, although it now goes far beyond one prairie province in Canada and is gaining support in United States, New Zealand and Australia. The very name, ‘Idle No More’, chosen by the four leaders, promises a popular awakening in the spirit of the slightly earlier but contemporaneous Occupy Movement with its invocation of the no longer silent ‘99%’.
Arguing that Bill C 45 threatens not only Indigenous peoples but the environmental heritage of all Canadians, Idle No More activists employed social media to spread the message of potential disaster. After declaring 10th December 2012 as a National Day of Solidarity, the movement expanded rapidly to include rallies, marches and protest in places as diverse as Texas, Hawaii, New Zealand and London, UK. Its message of environmental solidarity proved especially powerful in the context of growing evidence of the dire effects of climate change (Superstorm Sandy had only recently devastated the east coast of North America for example) and poor environmental stewardship (Canada’s federal government for example has been busily dismantling critical research capacity on the environment).
Within short months of its founding, Idle No More has been characterized by diverse supporters and demonstrations. Especially notable is the presence of women as leaders and participants. Indigenous youth and their allies are also taking leadership roles in organizing and demonstrating. A skillful and immediate use of new social media reflects a generational shift in global protest. Events such as round dance “flashmobs” in shopping centres and active twitter feeds are very much of the 21st century even as blockades of rail lines and transportation routes running through Indigenous territories and of Canada-US border crossings, are tactics that date to the 19th century building of Canadian railways through Indigenous lands. In the spirit of Gandhi, Idle No More has remained resolutely non-violent. As of January 2013, its disruption of the economy has also been minimal.
As Idle No More grew, founders distanced the movement from the National Chiefs of the over-whelmingly male Assembly of First Nations (AFN). Committed to grassroots mobilization, they issued a statement thanking individual chiefs for support but reiterating determination to work outside of “systems of government.” This plan of action includes supporting local education forums, building relationships with partners across Canada and internationally, including the United Nations, and supporting creative acts of Indigenous resurgence and allied support. Such strategies resonate directly with the founding inspiration of the populist Occupy movement.
In December 2012, Idle No More became inextricably linked with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, just in sight of the federal Parliament Buildings. The leader of a small Indigenous community, which had been in the news for over a year after she declared a state of emergency because of food and housing shortages in 2011, began her hunger strike on December 11th to demand that the prime minister and the governor-general honour treaty obligations and address the systematic failure to deal justly with First Nations. Revealing longstanding tensions within Indigenous communities, Chief Spence, asked the Saskatchewan founders to cease ‘shaming’ the chiefs, “who are, after all, our people” and to unite in opposing the Harper government (2). The Idle No More leaders did not respond directly but reiterated the movement’s commitment to work outside systems of government.
Until January 4th 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper preserved a familiar hard-line in dealing with opposition. In contrast, many politicians and public figures, including Green Party Leader and M.P. Elizabeth May, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo, Liberal leader Bob Rae, longtime feminist activist Judy Rebick, and contender for the Liberal leadership, Justin Trudeau, issued statements of support. Rebick’s rabble.ca has provided some of the most progressive commentary on Spence and Idle No More, and Trudeau took to twitter, distributing an Idle No More information pamphlet written by Indigenous scholar Taiaiake Alfred and PhD student Tobold Rollo. At least as important was the huge response by social justice organizations, including Amnesty International, Lawyers Rights Watch Canada, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Seemingly sensitive to widening support, Harper suddenly agreed to meet with First Nations leaders, including Chief Spence, on January 11th.
The response to the Idle No More movement from the Canadian public has been deeply polarized. While many Settlers of diverse origins have supported the cause, others misunderstand and fear the movement. With some exceptions, the mainstream media has used Idle No More as an opportunity to mobilize pervasive racist stereotypes. This includes National Post, Globe and Mail and Toronto Star journalist Christie Blatchford, who went so far as calling Indigenous political movements “horse manure” and questioning the legitimacy of Indigenous cultural survival and resilience. Racism is also visible in twitter feeds and newspaper comments sections which clearly believe that Indigenous communities have failed to take up the opportunities offered by the modern liberal project and which ignore its recurring privileging of European males (on liberalism’s shortcomings see David Moscrop).
In contrast, some observers have offered more nuanced and sophisticated responses, connecting Idle No More to a complex and diverse Indigenous renaissance and allied political movements of recent decades (see further sources). As scholar and member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Glen Coulthard concluded, Idle No More is part of the same heritage of Native resistance, namely Cree Chief Elijah Harper’s 1990 filibuster of the Meech Lake Accord, the 1990 Oka conflict between the Canadian military and Kanesatake Mohawk, and the struggle of the Lubicon Cree against oil and gas development in Alberta, which forced Canada to establish the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1991.
The phenomenon of Idle No More suggests that many Indigenous people and their supporters no longer believe the promises or the leadership of official representatives, whether chiefs or governments. It also exemplifies the significance of female leadership in many Indigenous communities and the continuing inspiration for feminist engagements. Idle No More’s call for decolonization puts it in direct conflict with the neo-liberal political agenda embodied in Bill C 45 with its prioritization of global resource exploitation, indifference to environmental degradation, willful disregard for founding Treaty relations and denigration of local democracy.
Please note that Idle No More is a rapidly changing movement. As such, this post reflect the situation when published on January 8th, 2013.
2) “Attawapiskat Chief Spence urges idle No More to unite with leadership, says chiefs ready to ‘humble themselves’”, APTN National News, 2 Jan. 2013.
For background on the founders:
Peter Wilson, “First Nations’ culture shared by Sask. Author”, The Star Phoenix (8 March 2010) on Sylvia McAdam, who holds a law degree and is a member of the Big River First Nation and author of Cultural Teachings: First Nations Protocols and Methodologies.
Leah Davidson, “’Indian head’ logo raises controversy in Saskatoon,” Canadian University Press, 7 November, 2011, on Sheelah McLean, “a doctoral student at the U of S and a Saskatoon public school teacher”.
For further academic sources, please see “Defining Settler Colonialism”
Further Information on Idle No More
Idle No More Official Blog idlenomore.ca
“Canada’s indigenous movement gains momentum,” Al Jazeera, 2 Jan. 2013
Further Commentary on Idle No More
Alfred, Taiaiake and Tobold Rollo, “Resetting and Restoring the Relationship Between Indigenous Peoples and Canada” (December 19)
âpihtawikosisân, “The natives are restless. Wondering why?” December 11, 2012
âpihtawikosisân, “Idle No More: Where do we go from here?” December 26, 2012
Coulthard, Glen “#IdleNoMore in Historical Context,” Janurary 7, 2013
Moscrop, David. “Chief Theresa Spence may fall victim to liberalism’s blind spots,” Globe and Mail, 4 Jan. 2013.
Rebick, Judy. “Idle No More, a Profound Movement that is Already succeeding” January 8, 2013
Simpson, Leanne “Aambe! Maajaadaa! (What #IdleNoMore Means to Me)”, December 21, 2012
Walia, Harsha “Debunking Blatchford and other anti-Native ideologues on Idle No More” December 30, 2012
Resources for Settler Allies
Irlbacher-Fox, Stephanie. “#IdleNoMore: Settler Responsibility for Relationship” December 27, 2012
Rollo, Tobold. “I AM CANADIAN! (Because of treaties with Indigenous Nations)” January 1, 2012
Sjoberg, Kate. “I am a Settler”
Walia, Harsha “Decolonizing Together” Briarpatch Magazine, January 1 2012