“This Is Not an Isolated Movement”

The Search for Long-Term Solutions & Idle No More

Graphic Paku Daoust-Cloutier

Something had to give.

That’s the sense that you get when you look at the Idle No More movement, the scope of which now encompasses hunger strikes, spirited demonstrations across the country, a range of hash tags and continued coverage from news sources nation-wide.

But whatever the outcome—however long it retains its hold on the headlines—Idle No More can’t be ignored by the rest of Canada.

Canada’s indigenous population has our attention now. And they deserve it.

Faced with long-running, complex and seemingly intractable issues, with no immediate hope in sight, a marginalized group has found its collective voice and began to air its grievances.

After gaining momentum online thanks to a strong social media presence, the movement began to garner national coverage, leading to both wide-scale support—and an inevitable backlash.

The four founders of Idle No More—activists Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah Mclean and Nina Wilson—have outlined a list of bills passed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that they see as threatening the welfare of aboriginal people and communities in Canada.

But Harper’s reaction to the Idle No More movement—so far, largely denying its importance, if not its existence—is but the latest in a long history of ill-considered and mismanaged relations between Canadian political leaders and the First Nations people.

Harper’s Response

“I grew up with no running water, no power. We lived 34 km off the highway,” said Ryan Bellerose. “But I don’t want to go back to living like that. And we shouldn’t have to.”

Bellerose, an organizer for Calgary’s Idle No More chapter, is clear on what aboriginal Canadians need to do to be able to prosper—but he isn’t sure the rest of the country sees it the same way.

“It honestly feels that one of the largest problems facing aboriginals right now is that people don’t believe that we are capable of being partners,” said Bellerose. “And I believe that’s one of the key issues in Canada—we need to be treated as partners, not wards of the state.”

Bellerose, whose father, Mervin Bellerose, was one of the authors of the Métis Settlements Act in 1989, which granted land rights to Métis in Alberta, agrees that the Conservative government’s recent policies are a key issue.

“Part of the problem here right now is that we do have a government that doesn’t demonstrate an interest in resolving this. Basically—and I voted Conservative, just so you’re aware—Stephen Harper has got this attitude now that he can pretty much push through whatever laws he wants,” Bellerose said.

“Native rights should never be a partisan issue. Native rights and the environment, neither one of those should ever be something that’ll depend on who’s in power in the government.”

On Jan. 11, when Harper met with a selection of Assembly of First Nations chiefs to discuss matters relating to aboriginal affairs in Canada, he drew criticism from Liberal and New Democratic Party Members of Parliament, when he claimed that the Conservatives’ record showed they’d made significant improvements in the lives of aboriginal Canadians.

“We have made unprecedented investments into things that will make a concrete difference in the lives of people,” Harper said to the House of Commons in late January.

The emergence of Idle No More, however, seems to suggest that there’s a residual frustration for many of Canada’s aboriginal peoples that have yet to be addressed.

Chelsea Vowel, an Albertan Métis working alongside Montreal’s Idle No More movement, also noted that Harper’s dealings with AFN chiefs might not amount to much with regards to actual progress.

“If Harper is speaking to the AFN,” she said, “then he is dealing with representatives to a small portion of people who don’t all feel that the AFN is a legitimate representation, because these are people who are elected under the Indian Act, to circumvent traditional governance.”

A Long Time Coming

Regardless of restricted official representation, the Idle No More movement brings together an array of perspectives, qualms and voices that don’t belong exclusively to those considered to be status-Indians by the government.

“It’s really difficult to stop a grassroots movement, because it is a movement of the people,” said Bellerose. “But the problem is […], pretty much anybody can step up and say, ‘Hey, I’m a spokesperson for this group,’ and there’s not a whole lot the group can really do.”
While Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s 44-day-long hunger strike frequently held the media’s attention; the blockading of passenger and commercial rail lines along the Windsor-Quebec corridor in December also made headlines.

“The entire point of Idle No More has always been to be non-adversarial, non-confrontational and peaceful,” Bellerose continued. “That’s why some of us have been very, very vocal about saying blockades are not what we’re here for. We don’t want to alienate these people—we want to educate them and get them to our side.”

Still, if diversity of tactics is something that might hinder the movement at times, Vowel thinks that one of Idle No More’s strengths is its breadth and depth.

“What we have here is something that is multi-generational,” she said. “We have youth coming out and pushing forward, we have elders and older people that are bringing forth their wisdom and their experience.”

She also noted that, if the flourishing of Idle No More came as a surprise to some, it was a manifestation of something that had been long building in the aboriginal community.

“This is not an isolated movement. It is a movement that has been birthed from movements that have been going on for a very, very long time. We have a broad group of people that are coming together to share their inspirations and their aspirations.”

The movement has faced more than its share of detractors. There have been barbs—and worse—lobbed from outsiders; as much of the commentary on Idle No More has shown racism and xenophobia towards Canada’s aboriginal population.

But for Bellerose, whatever the immediate outcome—or lack thereof—the strength of Idle No More may be in changing the way aboriginal communities handle political involvement, by inciting people to take action.

“I’ve been to band meetings where literally there are 12 people on the entire reserve that show up to the band meeting. And now all of a sudden you have places where there’s 300 or 400 people showing up,” he said. “Idle No More itself is leading to a lot of these changes, because people are actually speaking up.”

Vowel, too, is looking past the immediate when it comes to the way aboriginal Canadians are perceived and treated in their country.

“It’s also focused on long-term thinking, on indigenous resurgence,” she said of Idle No More.

“We are not just talking about having a few little movements here and there. We are saying here, now, you really have to do this. We have to have these deeper discussions and we need to fix this relationship issue.”

—Additional reporting by Andrew Brennan & Megan Dolski