Ghosts of Indigenous activism past, present, future: #IdleNoMore’s transformative potential

Idle No More rally on Blood (Kainai) First Nation in Standoff, AB

Earlier this week, from Goose Bay to Yellowknife, thousands of Nehiyaw, Dene, Metis peoples (joined by Canadians supportive of them) gathered in front of provincial legislatures, constituency and Aboriginal Affairs offices. They sang honour songs, danced jigs, and waved their flags and homemade protest signs out in the cold and the wind.

This hash-tag movement known to some as #IdleNoMore (#NativeWinter to others) is challenging manifold issues in the Indigenous-Canadian relationship. Among the more critical:

  • the move to strip environmental protections from most of this country’s waterways
  • a lack of consultation on amendments to the Indian Act
  • the chronic failure to maintain and uphold treaties
  • the continued refusal to acknowledge the rights of those still without treaties
  • repeated calls for a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women

We’ve protested before; in fact, we do it often. At the very earliest origins of Canada as a country, Mississauga leaders (concerned by continued European encroachment) diplomatically expressed their frustration this way:

“You came as a wind blown across the Great Lake. We received you, we planted you, we nursed you. We protected you till you became a mighty tree that spread  throughout our Hunting Land. With its branches you now lash us.”

When diplomacy failed, protest gave way to active, physical resistance throughout the late 1800s by Metis and Cree peoples on the Plains, the Tsilhqot’in and others in B.C., and the aforementioned Anishinaabe in Ontario.

With incidents of violence followed by more heavy-handed government suppression, appeals were made directly to individual Canadians. In 1923, Cayuga leader Deskaheh would complain,

“We are tired of calling on the governments of pale-faced peoples in America and in Europe. We have tried that and found it was no use. They deal only in fine words — we want something more than that. We want justice from now on.”

The pan-Indian political organization The League of Indians was formed soon after, sharing some of the same goals as Deskaheh. The Canadian government responded by banning the League: in fact, the time would soon come when all such Indigenous organizing would be prohibited under the Indian Act.

Eventually, returning World War II vets and victims/survivors of residential schools did get organized. They forced changes to both the school system and the Indian Act throughout the 1950s in what was becoming the so-called ‘Red Power’ movement. Their efforts culminated in a powerful response to the White Paper in 1969-70. And yet it wasn’t enough to prevent ongoing dispossession. Once again, Indigenous forms of protest evolved into more provocative confrontations, at places like Gustafsen Lake, Oka, Ipperwash and highways and rail lines during the 2007 National Day of Action.

The efficacy of these movements should not be discounted. They are directly responsible for the fact that our peoples still have some semblance of culture and lands remaining today, as well as legal rights (however limited). Still, those earlier movements also failed in many ways. Ultimately, we’ve been largely unsuccessful at wholesale, widespread change. This outcome is partially a consequence of the effective suppression by AANDC, obfuscation by the mainstream media, and appropriation of these movements by do-nothing leaders.

But I think the most significant factor, especially in more contemporary efforts, is our reactive posture, leaving us always on the defensive. When Canada introduces policy, legislation, or funding changes, we respond with outrage that the mediocre status quo might be upset. In the best-case scenario, the offending legislation is shelved. The danger of this reactive activism is that it can actually serve to solidify some of the institutions we’ve come to accept, despite the fact that it is those very institutions that make up a large part of the problem. For instance, while rallying against the First Nations Transparency Act or the potential First Nation Land Ownership Act is important, it also means defending the existing Band Council system and/or land tenure arrangements on reserve — even though we know that both are extremely problematic and require fundamental change. But instead of working out the shape of that change, we inadvertently entrench an inherently flawed system. So as we move one step forward, we also effectively take one step back, mistaking inertia for movement. Such unwitting, stubborn idleness allows Canada to push its agenda.

So this new and compelling movement presents a unique opportunity. Firstly, it allows us to build on the momentum already created in creative and committed ways to continue raising our collective consciousness (the hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence as an active example). Secondly, it offers the chance to channel energy into considering alternatives. Speaking recently with Anishinaabekwe writer Leanne Simpson about where we go from here, she advocates that we bring together Anishinaabe academics, activists, community members, leaders, etc. to talk about what we want and how we’ll achieve it. Generally, this means spending genuine time together to foster national movements and re-assert a real concrete plan, not just repeat rhetoric.

When the League of Indians, Deskaheh and Great War veterans started causing trouble in the early decades of the 20th century, Indian Agents responded by calling it “annoying” and “advising Indians to have nothing to do with it.” When the current Aboriginal Administrator John Duncan was asked about Idle No More, his curt response — “That’s social media, so we’ll just have to see where that goes” — echoed the same dismissive and arrogant tone of his predecessors.

Canada expects (and hopes) this movement will melt away. Making it sustainable and meaningful requires reflecting on past and current trends in activism among Mushkegowuk, Algonquin and Lakota peoples. That means honoring and being thankful for them, but also absorbing their lessons.

Photo: Blaire Russell Photography (on Facebook and Tumblr)

10 thoughts on “Ghosts of Indigenous activism past, present, future: #IdleNoMore’s transformative potential

  1. “When Canada introduces policy, legislation, or funding changes, we respond with outrage that the mediocre status quo might be upset. In the best-case scenario, the offending legislation is shelved. The danger of this reactive activism is that it can actually serve to solidify some of the institutions we’ve come to accept, despite the fact that it is those very institutions that make up a large part of the problem.”

    Nice to have the history mapped out, Hayden, so that current efforts are put in larger perspective. And your point about the perpetually defensive posture many Indigenous leaders take — ‘reactive activism’ — makes me think we should coin a new term: “reactivism.” 🙂

  2. Great commentary, important for people to remember that Natives in Canada haven’t been “idle” for the last few hundred years, or even decades. One question I have is why you refer only to Mushkegowuk, Algonquin and Lakota peoples?

  3. Sure, I’m just an old white guy, with a Reserve-time Queens commission, and a reserve-time spirit name, who spent 25 years of nights, on the streets of the aboriginal murder capital of Canada, so you won’t understand Canada as I do. Once upon a time, I grew up, and worked up North, wore a Canadian uniform with pride overseas, and dedicated my time, and life, to Canada’s youth, so imagine my surprise when I realized that Canada, is just the new Africa. We’ve got the government to prove it, and they’ve got their sights set on Burma next. The Hudson Bay Company, was just a re-branding of the old East India Company, and is now, “re-branded” as the new improved Northwest Company/Zellers/Target, or where ever the stick-handling takes them. Canada, is also the capital of shell companies, in the stock market shell game. Much like Canadian 3 party election vote-splitting. Vote right, you get Stephen Harper, vote left, you get Stephen Harper.

    What Canadians don’t know, is what some count on. I recognized PM Stephen Harpers’, Romneyesque/Boehner/Republican, “fiscal cliff” moment in some old Liberal election literature, from former Liberal MP Paul Szabo. Coming soon to an economy near you, as those holding back the stimulus funding, buy up free enterprise, cheap. The only sustainable development that they’re interested in, is their own.

    I’m probably a few years of neglectful, negligent, exploitive
    Conservative government ahead of many of you, and you have to get in on the
    joke. Canada, is only business. Always was. Don’t get sucked into the
    PR hype. Anything worth fighting for, was mediated by the Liberals,
    and the world was presented with a kinder, gentler facade of democracy,
    opportunity, and hope.

    CEO Stephen Harper’s Canada, security will escort us to the door, and
    kick us out into the cold cruel economic world, of part-time job
    slavery, and bust any ideas of organizing unions.

    the House of Commons, the party Whip, tells MP’s what the party line
    is, and they WILL toe the line, and do as they’re told. (If you’re
    familiar with the term, “pussy whipped,” or just, “whipped,” it means to
    cower like a whipped dog, and that’s the typical Conservative
    leadership style.) You don’t work with them, and share in any benefits,
    you work for them, and accept what you get, like a slave.

    in Canada, is set up to ensure power and control, and Stephen Harper
    seems to have a disrespect for government, Canadians, First Nations, the
    environment, etc., and is only concerned with benefiting, his concept,
    and his people. It shows a lack of respect, as he bulldozes his way
    through history, and proves that Canada, is nothing but a banana
    republic, third world country, living a lie beyond it’s means.

    with a trained leadership background, has an appreciation for those
    that make the world go round, and will see that those who seem to lag
    behind are brought up in the world. Where this concerns sharing the
    benefits of natural resources, the First Nations will never see the
    light of day, and any responsibility for their current condition, will
    be denied.

    Isn’t Canada a wonderful place.

  4. Thanks for the comment!

    When I write generally I try to avoid general terms like Aboriginal and First Nation because I feel that it reduces very complex and diverse nations. So the strategy I’ve employed for a while now is to include actual nations involved, which in a sense reminds people of the fact that we’re talking about numerous peoples. And if you note, I do this throughout the article, not just at the end.

  5. I appreciate the point of building on what has happened, I see an emerging and educated heat consisting of artists and academics, within five short very fast years the en-acted Landless State of Canada will sever all funding and resources to Aboriginal programs. I got a taste of life pre-Dances with Wolves when it was not cool to be NDN. My uncle a Northern Plains Cree knowledge keeper one of the last with the original songs and origin teachings of the ceremonies has stated clearly for years having defended Treaty 6 for going 50 years has stated how we as the Original People have fallen into the trap of the occupiers and oppressors. To him the greatest act of resistance is speaking and more importantly thinking in the language, that every time you attend a ceremony, even in observation you are free for that brief moment in time, in that you know who you are. I remember a sign in a band office a couple years back that shared, There will be no sweat Lodge this week as the funding from the Healing Foundation did not come in from Ottawa!” Imagine for a moment if we had commentators, reporters, television hosts that spoke the language, thought in the language knew who they were what a different perspective they would share? Maybe you would hear them say in all the teachings and information that has been passed forward from my ancestors not once have heard fighting for Rights from Ottawa has ever really benefited us other than the satisfaction of brief moments of rebellion, resistance in protest where the State has not been able to tell us what to do or where to go! Me and my Uncle are committed to Idle No More as it is entirely coordinated by Indigenous woman. It is the single biggest threat to the State ever mounted by the Original People and Caretakers of the Land. It has shown that whatever happens to the Land, and the Species happens to all that dwell here. Linkages are being made to the non natives Canadian citizens, as they have seen that even they are not being duly informed and have their consent to the recent sale of resources and trade deals with China for instance. This really holds for the north where both groups of people have co-existed when emergencies such as forest fires, floods and natural disasters happen they both chip in and do their part for the people and the environment. Their is discussion of a 4 million woman march! Prisoners are being activated, change is on the horizons from coast to coast to coast, what is looked over is the many Ceremonies that have been happening on December 10th Sacred fires were lit the night before when the sun set from coast to coast a first for the Original Peoples however predicted long ago! These are the signs, they are the burning bushes that are awakening the Spirits in many and warming the hearts of all involved. The biggest asset to maintain the Great Peace that both our ancestors fought for from ancient times on Turtle Island up to the world wars. Violence will only bring further hardship for everyone as this Sate is prepared to use force upon the Original People and the occupiers at the nearest possible opportunity. It is my hope that writers, reporters continue to share articles like this one and that our voices are not shuttered or contained! The artist are awakened may we hear clearly, and especially the woman as we are all, Idle No More <3

  6. Nation to Nation??

    I believe there is a CRUCIAL issue that needs to addressed by the
    Indigenous people of this land. We must start to think on a Nation to
    Nation basis. How do we as Indigenous nations relate to each other? WE
    have to start with ourselves as well as thinking about the relationship
    with the Nation of Canada. It has cultural and needless to say political
    implications! Once we can get our thinking/hearts around this issue it
    will have tremendous strategic and tactical implications….We need to
    look to pre-contact protocols as to how we related to each other on a
    Nation to Nation basis.One important model is that of the Bowl – Naugon
    Treaties. One such Bowl treaty was between Anishinaabe, Ongweoneh,
    (Iroquis) Cree and Cherokee of the Eastern Nations of Turtle Island, As well the wampums strings and belts can help us to remeber how to relate to each other.

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