High time for Ottawa to embrace Idle No More

By Andrew Cardozo

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The lives of Aboriginal people are just as diverse as the lives of other Canadians, they care about employment, income levels, education, health care, the environment, pipelines, global warming, transportation, culture and language. The concerns are rooted in Nunavut, Great Slave Lake, Attawapiskat Winnipeg and Toronto. They are old and middle aged and young.

“Idle No More movement fizzles out, analyst finds” declared a Calgary headline last week. Mark Blevis who is a digital public affairs strategist tracked the amount of digital traffic – on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, online forums and online news – and found an 84% drop over four weeks.
The thing is, that’s really not news and that drop doesn’t say a whole lot about INM. It just means their social media traffic is down, and very likely, for just a while.

Idle No More reached a peak in December and then took a break over Christmas, with sharply decreased traffic, and then picked right back up in early January with a couple of key events and then the traffic slowed again.

Then on March 25, a group of six young protesters who have become known as the Cree Walkers, arrived on Parliament Hill, having begun the long trek from James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Quebec, in January – the dead of winter. They were joined by others along the way and numbered some 400 by the time they reached Ottawa. Once again, social media use spiked.

The comparisons to the Occupy movement are useful, primarily because while INM benefited greatly by social media, like Occupy, it did not try to have never-ending tent cities across the country. Some felt that the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence dragged on too long after the January 11 meetings of the chiefs with the Prime Minister and the Governor General. Spence, a chief, was not really part of Idle No More, which is first and foremost a grassroots movement, the kind Canada has rarely seen before. Perhaps never. The chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations – which is the alliance of all the reserve chiefs from across Canada, were latecomers to the party.

The 17th century French politician, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, is reputed to have said, “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” That was the position in which AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo found himself. “His people” had gotten way out in front of him and he was struggling to lead them – at least at first, and to some extent driven by the mainstream media. Until he found a more realistic position which was that the AFN was, but, one part of the Aboriginal movement. The band councils on reserve, the chiefs from across Canada and the National Chief are elected by on-reserve residents in a system organized under the Indian Act, and much as the structure is respected in the Aboriginal community, it also has strong pockets of resistance.

And while Idle No More was definitely not a creation of the Indian Act, it did not exclude those whose roles were defined by the legislation, namely band councils and chiefs. It is grassroots first, but also inclusive. And it is across the country, originated by women, enjoys huge and enthusiastic support of Aboriginal youth who have never felt so proud to be part of anything like it. All in all it packs a huge emotional wallop which is what makes it so powerful.

Mark Blevis’ observation that digital traffic is down is just that: an observation of a four-week trend. In reality what Idle No More has done is to incite a sense of pride combined with frustration and outrage that will not diminish. It will constantly wax and wane. People do have to get on with other aspects of their lives, their schooling, their jobs, their voluntary work….their regular life.

What is different now as compared to say thirty years ago, is that there is a huge young and well-educated cohort arriving on the scene. Half the Aboriginal population is under 25 and about half live in towns and cities. They do not accept the status quo, not from government and not from the band councils. They want to be self sufficient and know they can be, but recognize the barriers in their way and recognize the barriers in the way of many of their fellow Aboriginal Canadians who cannot hope for a better life.

Idle No More gives voice to that sense of pride combined with anger, and it is multifarious. There isn’t single and easy top priority. They are kind of like the Parliament of Canada, which rarely speaks with one voice, and with five political parties, has at least five perspectives on any public policy issue. And if MPs really could speak their minds and had free votes we would see a lot more than five perspectives.

The lives of Aboriginal people are just as diverse as the lives of other Canadians, they care about employment, income levels, education, health care, the environment, pipelines, global warming, the cost of transportation, maintaining their culture and language, and more. The concerns are rooted in Nunavut, and Great Slave Lake and Attawapiskat, Haida Gwaii, and Winnipeg and Toronto. They are old and middle aged and young.

So if INM does not have a single and totally supported leader, and an agenda of three things to do, look no further than our federal or any provincial legislature to see if they have a diversity of opinions and priorities.

Politically, then Liberal leader Bob Rae was correct to get right in there and help develop an dignified way for Chief Spence to end her hunger strike in late January.

New Leader Justin Trudeau made a strong and pointed reference to Idle No More in this victory speech on April 14, 2013, staking out the political turf that others are either treating gingerly or eschewing: “We’ve met young Aboriginal leaders from all across this country, from Tk’emlups to Whapmagoostui, who are simply tired of being forced to the margins of this country. With the courage to walk 1600 kilometres through a Canadian winter to make the point that they will be Idle no More.” He also visited Chief Spence during her hunger strike in December, something his leadership counterparts in other parties did not.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair might have been playing it a lot more cautiously than any of his predecessors would have, and instead had a representative join Rae, the AFN and others in signing a pledge to carry on raising the issues that started Spence on her quest in the first place.

Prime Minster Harper and his ministers have kept their distance from Idle No More, following a generally successful strategy of ignoring what they don’t want to deal with and instead. Interestingly, someone did try to undermine Chief Spence by leaking her band’s bookkeeping records, the week before the meeting that she forced the Prime Minister to have. In addition, then Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, also made some nasty and condescending comments about Spence when she was on strike – but then he faced issues of his own. The government needs to recognize that what INM has done already is to empower a new generation of confident Aboriginal young people. (To his credit the new Aboriginal Affairs minister did meet with the Cree Walkers in late March.) They ain’t going nowhere. Rather they are emboldened to fight for what they believe in and now have found social media, the means to communicate widely and speedily.

As we go forward, our national politicians can either embrace the movement or be at constant logger-heads with it. You can be the Richard Nixon always at loggerheads with the civil rights movement or you can work with it. Of course ignoring it only gives the movement a lightening rod to focus on and in some ways helps the movement be focused and together. But this story can have a good ending.

Andrew Cardozo is president of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Policy and is a Lecturer at Carleton University.

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