Idle No More: Understanding the growing aboriginal protest movement
Published Friday, December 21, 2012 7:00AM EST
Last Updated Friday, December 21, 2012 10:49PM EST
When Theresa Spence, the chief of the remote Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, started a hunger strike less than two weeks ago, few Canadians knew what was behind her desperate move.
But over the last 10 days, social-media-savvy aboriginal activists have changed that. Using the rallying cry of “Idle No More,” they've begun to focus the attention of both the aboriginal community and, increasingly, all Canadians to what they say is the systematic destruction of indigenous rights.
Spence has been living in a teepee on Victoria Island, not far from Parliament Hill, since Dec. 11, vowing to die unless her demands are met. She wants a meeting with the prime minister to discuss the plight of First Nations people – and won’t settle for the aboriginal affairs minister, as has been offered.
Spence wants to discuss recent federal legislation that she and other aboriginal leaders say clearly violate long-standing treaties.
So far, her demand for a meeting hasn’t been met, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper remaining largely silent on Spence’s strike. But where her campaign has begun to succeed is in drawing attention to the wider movement.
Though the fundamental issues behind "Idle No More" might be as old as colonialism, the movement is relatively new. It began almost by accident in November as a simple email exchange between four aboriginal women. The women were angry over several pieces of federal legislation -- most importantly, Bill C-45, the omnibus budget bill that is now law – and wondered why more people weren’t speaking out about it.
According to movement organizers, Bill C-45 brought changes to the Indian Act that will fast-track the process for aboriginals to surrender their reserve lands by lowering the threshold of community consent needed to hand over territory. They say the legislation also includes clauses that will cut the number of federally protected waterways, potentially jeopardizing the lands they rely on.
The women wanted to know why the legislation directly affects their communities, yet was quietly pushed through without input from native leaders.
As their anger grew, the women took their discussion to Facebook, where they created a page to organize a rally in Saskatoon, titling their page “Idle No More.”
Within weeks, the movement had taken on a life of its own, thanks in large part to young aboriginals, who knew how to harness the power of social media to spread the word through Facebook and through the #idlenomore hashtag on Twitter.
The campaign has made headlines not just in Canada but elsewhere around the world, spurring dozens of protests in the last two weeks, including a number in communities across the U.S.
Most importantly, the issue has also made its way to Parliament Hill, where all three opposition parties have voiced their support for Spence’s strike. A large protest to draw more-visible attention to the movement is to take place on Parliament Hill on Friday.
The speed in which the movement has gained traction has in part been fuelled by anger and resentment fomented by recent crises among First Nations peoples, including the deplorable living conditions on the Attawapiskat First Nation that had people angry, and the plight of missing and murdered First Nations women.
This past week of rallies has drawn together communities across the country for everything from protests at provincial legislatures, to the shutdown of the Trans Canada Highway in Winnipeg, to a flash mob at the West Edmonton Mall.
The federal government, for its part, says it’s made “significant strides” already on reserve issues such as education, clean drinking water and housing, and that the prime minister met with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo just a month ago to discuss a range of issues. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan says he is available to meet with Chief Spence at any time, but she has refused.
Spence says aboriginal treaties have been violated for too many years and she’s tired of the pain of watching her people suffer through a lack of housing and inadequate water supplies. She has said she is not afraid to die for her people.
AFN’s Atleo recently told The Globe and Mail that this movement has been a long time coming and expects it to continue to grow until real changes are seen.
“I think we are going to see a continued expression of this frustration in an effort to break a very toxic system that, in fact, in my view, is life or death,” he said. “The cycle of heartbreaking tragedies has to end, and that’s what our people are saying.”