Have media helped or hurt most Canadians’ understanding of Idle No More?

Who speaks and acts on behalf of Idle No More?

It’s hardly an idle question. For weeks now, a variety of ideas and actions pursued in the name of Indigenous peoples and rights have streamed forth across the pages and screens of Canadian media:

  • The week-after-week series of rallies right across Canada (and beyond) that, since mid-December 2012, have made the Idle No More movement part of the national conversation (if not always flatteringly so), a movement self-articulated as a grassroots-driven effort to “help build [Indigenous] sovereignty & resurgence of nationhood… to pressure government and industry to protect the environment… to build allies in order to reframe the nation to nation relationship”
  • Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s 40-day-plus “sacred fast,” i.e, a “hunger strike… [that] Spence originally said she would not end until both [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper and [Governor General David] Johnston agreed to meet with First Nations leaders across Canada.” Although her goals have not been met, she does appear set to end the strike after securing other forms of political support (although APTN National News reported yesterday that Spence was told by her band council that either she “end her fast or face removal as chief of the community”).
  • A joint lawsuit filed earlier this month in Federal Court by the Mikisew Cree and Frog Lake First Nations that “argu[es] that two omnibus budget bills [Bill C-38 & Bill C-45]… reduc[ing] federal environmental oversight violate the government’s treaty obligations to protect traditional Aboriginal territory.”
  • On Jan. 8, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that 200,000 Métis and 400,000 non-status Indians in Canada should be considered as ‘Indians’ under the Constitution Act, a “decision [that] helps to more clearly outline Ottawa’s responsibilities toward the two Aboriginal groups” (the Canadian government is expected to appeal, however, thereby extending the 13-year legal battle that many more years)
  • The recent Jan. 11 meeting between Harper and some (but not all) chiefs acting as representatives of the Assembly of First Nations banner — including AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo. A meeting Atleo portrayed shortly thereafter as a “frank exchange” that “won [us] a commitment to political oversight and direction from the highest level of government — from the Prime Minister, his senior officials and those of the Privy Council Office.”

Taking it all in, I note with amazement just how much has happened in a seemingly short period of time. Of course, it’s quite arguable that much of this was already simmering and stewing beneath the surface; that, in fact, it may be the case that what we’re witnessing is just the tipping point of something that’s actually long been in the works.

And yet, as often happens in my profession, there’s been a tendency in the media to distil this whirlwind of voices and visions, to compact it into the most concise form possible, as if to say, “Hey, all you Indians, in a soundbite or two, what is that you guys want?” As if there could only be one answer.

But look: I get why the media does this. There’s only so much space and time you’re allotted to tell any story. You can’t quote everybody. And, lest we forget, constantly looming over the heads of reporters and editors are some unforgiving daily deadlines. Nuance and shades of grey don’t necessarily fare well under these conditions.

Yet what may be coincident in time isn’t necessarily coherent in purpose and practice. For, when it comes to what’s driven Spence — or Atleo — or the four women (two Indigenous, two not) widely seen as founding Idle No More — or the many intellectuals (from Taiaiake Alfred to Pam Palmater) inspired by these events — or the made-for-YouTube round-dancers who’ve flashmobbed malls on both sides of the border — or the blockaders of railway tracks and roads — or those two litigious First Nations in Alberta — they each need to be taken in turn and considered separately, not thoughtlessly lumped together as one amorphous brown mass that speaks with one hive mind.

By not properly differentiating between these actors, and their respective interests and ideas, one risks contributing to a larger sense of confusion as to who and what Idle No More is actually about — not least among Canadians at large, some of whom may even share the broader goals and ideals of the movement’s founders.

Now, I have to confess, the full force of this potential for misunderstanding INM only really hit me last week. It came in the aftermath of a conversation I had with a Calgary-based pollster, an opportunity I had courtesy of my job as a radio host for CBC Edmonton. We asked the pollster to help put into perspective the results of a Jan. 15 opinion poll (carried out by a separate firm, Ipsos) that, inter alia, asked Canadians “a number of questions to gauge the credibility of the various players involved in last week’s events… [in order to measure] overall approval of how the various groups/people have been dealing with First Nations issues.”

According to the Ipsos survey, Idle No More scored a national approval rating of just 38%, placing them behind more established national Aboriginal leaders like AFN’s Shawn Atleo (51%) as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper (46%). Here’s what Return On Insight‘s Bruce Cameron had to say about what these results could mean for the movement (clicking on image launches player):

Not long after that interview aired, as I turned over in my mind the course of our discussion, it suddenly dawned on me: if the media elects to report on Canadians’ opinions of Idle No More, shouldn’t we as reporters first establish a sense of Canadians’ actual working understanding of the movement? In other words, does the way Canadians define Idle No More’s goals match up with how those active in the movement define them? Returning to the question I opened with — the question of who speaks and acts on behalf of Idle No More — how many of those Canadians surveyed by Ipsos would know the answer?

See, I would be pretty willing to bet that, for a good if not substantial chunk of Canadians who rely on what the media has conveyed to them about Idle No More, it’s likely been perceived as something of a moving and gelatinous target. ‘Moving’ in that, for those outside the movement, the wide array of Aboriginal actors in the news of late have probably come across to Canadians as this steady flow of unfamiliar and undifferentiated faces. It’s somewhat ‘gelatinous’ in that INM is, in some respects, like the proverbial jello that won’t be nailed to the wall in some neat and tidy way: lacking a central, single leader, INM event organizers are left to their own devices.

So if Canadians don’t necessarily have the firmest grasp on the movement, wouldn’t that in turn raise all sorts of questions as to the greater utility and purpose of measuring their opinions on the subject? (Of course, it’s entirely possible that all surveys suffer from such issues.)

But if Idle No More confuses those Canadians with only a passing familiarity of its goals and personalities, it’s apparently confounded many a mainstream opinion-maker, individuals in an arguably much better position to get to know more about the movement. Frustrated by an alleged lack of unity among INM’s adherents, national columnists have thus chalked it up to — and written INM off as — being supposedly plagued by ‘factionalism’ or ‘divisiveness.’ Here’s the thing: if INM’s stated raison d’être is as incoherent, “simplistic” and “absolutist” as the pundits would have you believe, then what is it that has so consistently and eagerly brought out those thousands of people in so many different places? That’s some “dream palace” they’re living in, as one screed so memorably put it.

For the answer to that question of why INM is such a draw for some, one logical place to start would be at one of those rallies or rounddances, where you could easily go up and ask participants, Why are you here? What do you understand to be INM’s goals, and which of them speak to you the most? Does everything done in INM’s name (say, blockades) align with your beliefs and principles? Why or why not?

And here’s something else to consider when weighing the consternated invective some opt to hurl against Idle No More: Who among them even saw it coming? Admit it — like me, Idle No More took you by surprise. Hell, I bet you many of INM’s early organizers and participants themselves were blown away by how quickly and widely it caught on. So if none of the pundits had the foresight (i.e., had no clue whatsoever) that something like INM was even possible, just how much credence and value are we supposed to attach to their opinions about it now? They didn’t see it coming, yet now they’re somehow experts on why it’s irrelevant. Hmmm...

As a media maker, Idle No More has reminded me, yet again, just how daunting it can sometimes be to try and meet the challenge of capturing and conveying a meaningful slice of large-scale events and ideas like those mobilized by this movement. If the slice is right, you’ve left your audience better off. If not, well, clearly you’re doing it wrong.

And, yes, INM may yet soon fade or fizzle from view. And the cynical side of me wonders whether a certain chunk of the attention it’s gotten has been due to what I might call the winter media ‘deadzone,’ that time of year — roughly mid-December until mid-January — when many in the newspaper and broadcasting business go on Christmas vacation. You’ve heard of slow-news days? Those four weeks are kind of a slow news month. So, when INM first came along Dec. 10, it was a fill-in reporter’s dream, one that conveniently and colorfully presented itself, camera-ready, to a press corps hungry for content.

Then again, as someone who freely admits that he too failed to see it all coming, I’m feeling less than qualified to say where the movement could ultimately end up. Still, I think Murray Dobbin has it fairly right when he lays out the kinds of questions Idle No More advocates must soon come to grips with:

As the movement continues to grow, we can only speculate on what its longer term outcome will be. Many movements begin with such spontaneous explosions of pent up anger and frustration. The successful ones find their feet quickly and are able, through collective leadership, to focus their energy and passion on a unifying vision and on some organizational form to press for its realization. Idle No More will be no different.

[ Photos: Overpass Light Brigade ]

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