In the Margins No More

Idle No More’s Female Leaders Stand Up for Native Women

600 missing and murdered Native women in Canada since 1990, prompting a vigil in downtown Montreal last year.    Photo Sam Slotnick
600 missing and murdered Native women in Canada since 1990, prompting a vigil in downtown Montreal last year.    Photo Sam Slotnick

Tanya Kappo received a Facebook message in late January from a woman she had never met, confessing that she had once not felt strong enough to leave her abusive husband.

The author of the message had heard Kappo speak at a teach-in days before, a solidarity rally for the grassroots Native rights movement, Idle No More.

The movement had changed her, she divulged. And she had finally left her husband.

According to Kappo, one of the first to spearhead the Idle No More campaign and the creator of the #idlenomore Twitter hashtag, the movement’s largely female leadership is actively changing the lives of Native women across Canada—though perhaps unintentionally.

Unintended Matriarchy

Born in Saskatchewan out of discussions between Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean and Nina Wilson, Idle No More has evolved far beyond a simple teaching initiative in opposition of the federal omnibus budget Bill C-45.

By Dec. 10, 2012, the movement saw streets fill with massive round dances and bannered demonstrations across the country.

The following day, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began her much-publicized 44-day hunger strike in support of the movement.

Spence demanded a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston to discuss Native land rights promised in historic treaties signed between aboriginal peoples and Crown representatives.

Roughly a month later, on Jan. 11, the prime minister and other officials met with members of the Assembly of First Nations.

Kappo, who studied law at the University of Manitoba, became involved in the movement in November after organizing a teach-in on the Louis Bull reserve to break down Bill C-45 and its predecessor, C-38.

She noticed that as the movement spread, a similar quality was underscoring the leaders of the movement.

“Although there are a lot of really excellent male organizers, the trend still remains to be that it’s still the women who are taking the lead on this,” Kappo said.

In Quebec, two women—Widia Larivière and Melissa Mollen Dupuis—co-founded the province’s Idle No More chapter.

The consistent growth of Idle No More has allowed for many interests to join the movement’s discussion and demands—but the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Michelle Audette, says Native women are far from being forgotten within the movement.

“With Idle No More, we have two aboriginal women and two [non-native] women who decided one day to start a movement that was the dream of many people,” she said.

“I am proud to say this is a women’s movement that’s bringing a social movement, a social change.”

Though Idle No More is still only a few months old, its community-organized approach and female leadership is not new to aboriginal protest, explained Audette.

“Women walked all of Canada to denounce the murdered and missing native women, we marched from Quebec to Ottawa [to oppose Bill C-31],” she added. “It’s always women marching, so Idle No More has existed in a way that is consistent with that, because it was women who mobilized to denounce [Bill C-45].”

According to the NWAC, over 600 indigenous women have gone missing or been killed since roughly 1980.

Aboriginal women are also five to seven times more likely than other women to die from violence, according to a special report produced by Amnesty International titled No More Stolen Sisters.

Bridget Tolley is all too familiar with this reality, having lost her mother Gladys, who was struck by a police vehicle in 2001.

When seeking answers and attempting to open an inquiry to explain why a relative of the officer who had struck her mother was supervising the investigation, Tolley said she was largely dismissed by authorities.

In 2005 she founded the Sisters in Spirit organization to push for a full public inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of native women in Canada.

The organization was in the midst of compiling a database of cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women in the country—as well as variables detecting patterns or similar factors—when it lost its federal funding in 2010.

“[The government] doesn’t want to have a public inquiry,” Tolley said. “There’s no bills saying anything about the missing and murdered women.”

Slow Progress

To Ryan Bellerose—an Idle No More organizer in Calgary, whose father, Mervin Bellerose, co-authored the Métis Settlements Act granting land rights to the Métis in 1989—the obstacles still facing aboriginal women are daunting.

“When you look at the history of the way aboriginal women have always been treated—they may actually be the most marginalized group in Canada,” he said.

“I think that it’s actually an outstanding thing that not only are Native people finding their voice, but the fact that [the movement] is actually being led by women—I think that speaks to the fact that the movement is a lot deeper than people think.”

And Idle No More is still standing strong—at least it is in Quebec, according to Mollen Dupuis.

On Feb. 10, at least 100 demonstrators marched on downtown Montreal streets, donning red feathers and dancing to drums and rattlers.

At the front, holding the large red banner leading the charge, were women.

But for lost Native women, Tolley says the struggle is still hidden, as a large number of abductions and killings remain undocumented or unsolved.

A memorial march is planned for Feb. 14 in Montreal. The demonstration is sponsored by local organization Missing Justice, in tandem with Concordia’s 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy and CKUT, McGill’s campus radio station.

This will be their fourth annual event, held in commemoration of the country’s missing and murdered Native women.

Tolley will speak at the demonstration, following a vigil and luncheon in Ottawa with government officials planned for ­­­earlier that morning.

As for Kappo, however, she’s unsure as to the extent that conditions are actually changing for Native women.

“There are these two extremes going on right now,” she said. “All of these missing and murdered women, and now suddenly this movement, this resurgence being led by women.

“I’m not sure quite yet what to make of it, but I know it means something. I just don’t know what.”

A March for Missing & Murdered Women is being held Feb. 14, starting at Metro St. Laurent at 6 p.m. more info