In 2012 a bright spark appeared in the increasingly dismal news from Ottawa. It is the Idle No More (INM) movement, which has spread rapidly across the continent and beyond.
In 2011, despite receiving a minority of Canadian votes, the Conservatives formed a majority government. Emboldened by this, Stephen Harper spent much of the next year running a bulldozer over environmental protections that had been decades in the making. Gone: environmental assessments; gone: research scientists; gone: Experimental Lakes Area. Also on the Harper agenda: a major onslaught against indigenous rights, in violation of treaty obligations and rights upheld in the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights. Key to this plan were two Omnibus bills, one introduced in June and one in September, Bills C-38 and C-45.
Idle No More was started by four women in Saskatchewan with teach-ins to educate the public on what implementation of these bills would mean. This quickly galvanized others into a front line indigenous-led grassroots movement that brought tens of thousands of Canadians into shopping malls, out onto the streets, and even on blockade lines through the harsh Canadian winter.
Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat felt moved to undertake a fish broth fast, beginning on December 10, International Human Rights Day. She camped on Victoria Island, in view of the Parliament Buildings, for 45 days. The terrible conditions on the reserve gave her resolve. Although Harper and the Governor General did not meet with Spence, her witness inspired and strengthened the growing INM movement, and brought about much greater awareness of the current realities of life in indigenous communities. All the major churches and thousands of Canadians wrote letters of support. The fast brought about an accord for action endorsed by the Opposition political parties and national chiefs.
INM and Chief Theresa Spence are offering all Canadians both an invitation and a challenge.
The invitation was to put the values of life, community and the Earth front and centre—and to come out in public and show this support in a round dance, a friendship dance. The challenge was to stand up for these values, to express a commitment to act, to make a difference through solidarity. Photos of people holding signs: “We are All Treaty People” and “Idle No More” were widely circulated by Internet and Twitter.
Using both social media and street presence, INM is committed to widespread nonviolent action. On the web site, resource links include Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of nonviolent resistance. Several rail blockades were held. A 13-day blockade of the rail line crossing Aamjiwnaang Reserve drew attention to the toxic pollution suffered daily by this community, which is surrounded by 63 chemical plants, and showed support for Chief Spence.
What is most remarkable is the spirit of INM. Many have remarked that it is about love, and it is truly a movement built on grassroot human connections. It is also based on prophecy that at a critical moment when pipelines threaten to cross the continent and pollute every waterway, people of all nations would rise up together, as warriors of the rainbow, to stand for life before death, people before profit, and water before oil, recognizing Earth as the sacred source of life itself.
INM and Chief Spence have faced a barrage of racist backlash in print and on the air by right-wing columnists, bloggers, and on-line comments. This level of racism may have surprised some of us who think of Canada as a multicultural society. However, it really just exposed the presence of this vein of thinking. Canada is still colonizing indigenous lands for resource extraction with very little consideration for the lives of the original people living on the land. This backlash would not have come as a surprise for indigenous people who have grown up experiencing dangerous and demoralizing racism. Their courage to stand up despite this, and to call out to others to become allies, is a truly extraordinary step. The response to their courage has been impressive; huge crowds, including many peoplewho had never before been out on the streets, have come out in the bitter cold to sing, dance, and hold banners together.
What will matter in the future is whether we take seriously this role of being allies and hang in for the long term action required to make fundamental and lasting change happen. Will we choose to become ancestors who will make a difference for future generations?
Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University and an indigenous activist with Idle No More, wrote in December 2012:
“The failure of Canada to share the lands and resources as promised in the treaties has placed First Nations at the bottom of all socio-economic indicators — health, lifespan, education levels and employment opportunities. While indigenous lands and resources are used to subsidize the wealth and prosperity of Canada as a state and the high-quality programs and services enjoyed by Canadians, First Nations have been subjected to purposeful, chronic underfunding of all their basic human services like water, sanitation, housing, and education.
“First Nations, with our constitutionally protected aboriginal and treaty rights, are Canadians’ last best hope to protect the land, waters, plants, and animals from complete des-truction — which doesn’t just benefit our children, but the children of all Canadians.”
— excerpts from article in the Ottawa Citizen, Dec 28, 2012
Idle No More is a movement of major significance. Building on the momentum of the Occupy movement and Quebec’s Maple Spring—which showed North Americans we can rise up—and which themselves built on the Arab Spring, we are seeing a global resurgence of people power.
This new movement couldn’t have come at a more crucial time in human history. Will we be able to forge a worldwide global powershift capable of stopping industrial exploitation and despoiling of the planet? Will we form a consensus for a new way of governing, one that acts in harmony with the earth? And will we be able to do it in time?
The answer lies within us.
Lyn Adamson is a Toronto-based activist and peacebuilding trainer.