Idle No More: What happens next?
Drummers help to pump up the crowd before commencing the march from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill on Dec. 21, the first Idle No More rally in Ottawa. The movement seems to have died down over recent weeks but two Idle No More co-founders and organizers say it is in transition as organizers regroup and re-strategize. Idle No More began began in the dead of winter and co-founders Jessica Gordon and Sheelah McLean look forward to seeing more participation and direct action in the spring and summer months.
On the surface, it appears that the Idle No More movement is waning in its support and momentum.
Following a flurry of activities in December and January that involved rallies, round dances, marches, flash mobs, blockades, fasting, and national days of action, February is quiet. Very quiet.
The top hit of a Feb. 11 Google news search, after two months of the movement making headlines with rallies, fasts and blockades, was a report that showed online activity related to Idle No More dropped by 84 per cent in the last four weeks.
But the lack of media attention and online activity is not indicative of where the movement is currently at, says one of Idle No More’s co-founders.
“If we’re talking about corporate media space, Idle No More looks like it’s not going too well,” said Sheelah McLean, one of the four women from Saskatchewan who began the movement.
“If we’re talking about what I’m hearing about what’s activating communities, and coalition building, and how it’s just starting globally in different spaces…it’s growing and becoming more powerful.”
The idea that the movement is dying leaves some organizers in Winnipeg “bemused.”
Michael Kannon is one of more than a dozen activists who organizes events in the Manitoba capital in the name of Idle No More. Speaking to Wawatay News on Feb. 7, he noted that the last national day of action was Jan. 28.
“That was 10 days ago,” Kannon, a 47-year-old member of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, said with a laugh. “We still have our active participants and we’re expanding.”
Indeed, in media terms, 10 days feels like eons, especially after the frenzy of activities that followed a month after the first Idle No More event in Saskatoon on Nov. 10.
McLean, Jessica Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sylvia McAdam organized a teach-in weeks after they learned that Bill C-45, also known as the second omnibus budget bill, was introduced into the House of Commons.
They were worried it would impact First Nations treaty rights since it changed aspects of several acts that affect First Nations. They also learned the bill was written with little to no consultation with Aboriginal communities.
Wanting to raise awareness about the bill, they organized the teach-in and turned to social media to spread the word. They created a Facebook page and called it “Idle No More.” A movement was born.
A month later, rallies and events adopted the name in various cities across Canada as part of a national day of action.
The next day, on Dec. 11, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began her hunger strike. Citing poor living conditions and the pain she sees in the youth, she called on the prime minister and the Crown to meet with First Nations leaders to talk about their treaty relationship.
Over the following weeks, thousands of community members across the country, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, joined in on rallies and blockades. Many had taken up Spence as a figurehead or icon in the movement.
Organized over social media, flash mobs and round dances occurred seemingly everyday in malls and other public places during the holiday shopping season.
The rallies culminated on Jan. 11, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with a small contingent of chiefs in Ottawa to discuss First Nations issues. Harper had agreed to the meeting without mentioning Idle No More nor Spence’s hunger strike, and Spence boycotted the meeting since the governor general would not be present.
Thousands rallied that day in at least 30 Canadian cities, and more in smaller communities. In Ottawa, more than 3,000 people marched to Parliament Hill and converged around the building where Harper was meeting the chiefs.
The meeting did not produce any positive or concrete results.
Less than two weeks later, Spence ended her fast.
A global day of action took place on Jan. 28, but most would say not with the same fervor and zeal that accompanied earlier rallies.
Now, a country waits to see where the movement goes from here.
Impact of hunger strike
When Idle No More began to gain momentum, it garnered criticism from media and politicians for its lack of focus and direction.
Being a grassroots movement, there was no central voice or base for organizers to follow.
And then Spence began her hunger strike.
Though she never spoke for or organized an event in the movement, Spence would be indelibly linked to Idle No More over the course of her fast.
Idle No More supporters saw a figurehead to rally around. Many showed up to rallies and events with signs expressing support for Spence and thousands made the pilgrimage to Victoria Island to see her.
But Spence also provided politicians and pundits a figure to attack and discredit in hopes of negating the rising intensity of the movement.
Two of the movement’s co-founders have mixed feelings about Spence’s hunger strike and its impact on the movement.
Both McLean and Gordon agree that Spence was instrumental in bringing some of the issues behind the Idle No More movement to the national spotlight.
“For her to ask Harper and the governor general to meet with chiefs and have a dialogue...it was essential to see how that consultation process isn’t happening,” McLean said.
But as people questioned the validity of her fast and her leadership’s financial accountability, Spence brought some negative press to the movement.
“The downfall of her hunger strike is the targeting of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal stereotypes,” said Gordon, a member of Pasqua First Nation, located in Treaty 4 territory The co-founders also feel that Spence’s fast nearly overshadowed the movement.
“While I think it was essential, it started to look like it wasn’t a movement of thousands of people,” McLean said. “I don’t think (the Canadian public was) easily making connection between her callout to address these issues and the same callout by grassroots people.”
When Spence ended her fast, many wondered how the movement could sustain without a figure to rally around.
But Gordon feels the end of the fast has re-empowered grassroots people and given them the opportunity to examine themselves and their role within Idle No More.
“It’ll push people to look on their own inside,” she said. “What are the issues that I hold dear? What should I do?”
The Idle No More movement is a mere four months old and Gordon feels the movement is still developing.
“It’s always so far been in its baby stage,” she said. “We’re slowly building up, figuring out better structures and how to mobilize people.”
One of the co-founders of the Thunder Bay chapter of the movement agreed that Idle No More is regrouping.
“The movement is now strategizing, in tandem, with organizers from across Canada,” said Robert Animikii Horton, a member of Rainy River First Nations. “We are not divided, but actively diversifying our strategies.”
That is not to say the movement has been inactive since the Jan. 28 rally. Horton recently travelled to several communities in Treaty 3 territory in northwestern Ontario to provide teach-ins about “the legislations, our sovereignty and treaty rights that protects the lands we share from massive environmental degradation.”
Meanwhile in Winnipeg, Kannon said there are always three to four active members of the local group leading teach-ins within the city.
The founders have called for Feb. 21 to be National Indigenous Rights Education Day, when they hope grassroots organizers will hold teach-ins about indigenous rights.
A look at the events listed on the Idle No More website show a number of events are planned in various cities and communities across the country.
The movement is also building alliances, as environmental and activist groups press to support the cause.
But Kannon emphasized that despite many non-Aboriginal supporters joining the cause because of its focus on environment issues, Idle No More at its core is an indigenous movement.
“It’s about First Nations using constitutional rights and duty to consult to stop the Crown,” Kannon said. “It hinges on First Nations rights to help protect the environment, which affects everybody.”
And while Bill C-45 has since been passed, Horton said there are more bills being read.
“Canada is completely forgetting or downplaying Bill S-6, The First Nation Education Act, Bill S-2, Bill S-207, Bill S-212, Bill C-428, Bill S-8, and Bill C-27, which all function together like a jigsaw puzzle that takes direct aim at First Nation people, our sovereignty, and our treaty rights,” Horton said.
The movement also appears to have branched off in some areas of the country.
Angela Bercier was asked to help organize the Dec. 21 rally in Ottawa, but the 31-year-old from Long Plain First Nation was committed to helping Spence in her hunger strike.
And while she would help to organize the Jan. 11 rally in the city and other events, Bercier said her experience on Victoria Island with Spence was a “spiritual awakening” and felt that Idle No More is more than the legislation being discussed on Parliament Hill.
“It’s about Chief Spence and that spiritual awakening and carrying on her work,” Bercier said.
Idle No More maintains that it is a grassroots movement and some organizers in different regions have eschewed the participation of elected chiefs in their events.
But during her fast, Spence said the grassroots people and the leaders need to unite, together with the youth, in order to achieve their goals.
Bercier had helped to organize a youth summit in Winnipeg on Feb. 5. It was initially under the Idle No More banner but as the summit approached, its name was changed to Indigenous Nation Movement Youth Forum to better fit with Spence’s vision, according to Bercier.
The organizers had invited chiefs to the forum to engage the youth.
“I respect what the (Idle No More) founders are doing, keeping it grassroots,” Bercier said. “But we all need to all work together. We can’t exclude leadership and show division.”
Bercier said any events she plans in the future will be in line with Spence’s work.
Looking to spring
When Idle No More began to emerge, some compared it the Occupy movement that began in September 2011 in New York City.
Most involved in the Idle No More felt it was not a fair comparison, including Kannon.
“The Occupy movement died down as winter set in,” he said. “We started in the dead of winter.”
The upcoming spring has many excited for the movement, especially the founders.
“If we’re able to mobilize this quickly, and this big in the dead of winter, can you imagine spring is going to look like?” Gordon said. “There’s going to be tons of people out there.”
McLean said grandmothers have told her they would be more active when temperatures warm up, while noting that classes will end in April, enabling more youth to be more involved.
Gordon said she is looking forward to seeing what actions and activities the movement will take in the upcoming months.
“I really like the rallies and round dances, but we should target more places like industries, banks and corporations,” she said.
The founders have never spoken for or against direct actions like blockades, so long as they are peaceful.
“It always comes down to people and their heart, what they feel is best for their communities,” Gordon said. “It’s not us to say yes or no. I’m sure when the time is right, it will be time for certain actions.”
Idle No More timeline of events:
Oct. 18: Bill C-45 is introduced to Parliament with the title, “A second Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 29, 2012, and other measures.”
More than 400 pages in length, it is also known as the second omnibus budget bill and changes the legislation contained in 64 acts or regulations, including the Indian Act, Navigation Protection Act, and the Environmental Assessment Act.
Late-October: Four women in Saskatchewan (Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams and Nina Wilson) begin exchanging e-mails about Bill C-45. They express concern that the bill would erode indigenous rights.
They decide to hold an event in Saskatoon to protest the bill and turn to Facebook. They call the page “Idle No More” as a motivational slogan.
Nov. 4: Gordon is the first to use the #idlenomore hashtag on Twitter. Within weeks, it trends on Twitter and spreads over to other social media.
Nov. 10: The first Idle No More event, a teach-in, is held in Saskatoon.
Mid-November: More events are held in Regina, Prince Albert and North Battleford, Sask., and Winnipeg.
Dec. 5: Bill C-45 passes third reading and goes to Senate.
Dec. 10: National Day of Action. A month after the first Idle No More event, rallies are held in cities across the country, including Vancouver, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Regina, Whitehorse and Winnipeg.
Dec. 11: Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence begins her hunger strike on Victoria Island in protest of Harper government eroding treaty rights. Demands meeting with prime minister and “the Crown,” represented by the governor general. Spence is only aware of the Idle No More movement but is not an organizer or spokesperson.
Dec. 14: Bill C-45 is passed and receives royal assent. It is now known as the “Jobs and Growth Act, 2012.”
Dec. 21: Ottawa holds its first Idle No More rally, with a march that begins on Victoria Island. Rallies are also held in different parts of Canada.
Meanwhile, members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation in southern Ontario blockade a CN railline in protest of Bill C-45. They later announce support of Idle No More and Spence and declare blockade will end once Spence’s demands are met.
Mid-late December: Events continue over Christmas holidays, with many flash mobs and round dances taking place in malls during the shopping season.
Dec. 27: It is reported that there had been 30 Idle No More protests in the United States, and solidarity protests in Stockholm, Sweden, London, UK, Berlin, Germany, Auckland, New Zealand, and Cairo, Egypt.
Jan. 2: Idle No More founders release mission statement and manifesto. The movement declares First Nations to be sovereign and that treaties were made on nation-to-nation basis; that First Nations receive unequal share of benefits from resource development; and that resource development leads to “poisoned water, land and air.”
Jan. 3: After two weeks and after two court injunctions are filed, the Aamjiwnaang rail blockade is dismantled.
Jan. 4: Prime Minister Stephen Harper agrees to meet with a small group of First Nations leaders on Jan. 11 but does not mention Spence or Idle No More. Spence announces she will boycott meeting since the governor general is not involved.
Jan. 5: Protests shut down multiple border crossings throughout Canada, including Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, International Bridge in Cornwall, and the Peace Arch crossing in Surrey, B.C.
Jan. 11: Rallies are held in cities, towns and communities across Canada and various parts of the world.
In Ottawa, marchers gather outside building where Harper is meeting with chiefs but the rally proceeds peacefully to Parliament Hill. Spence and chiefs later meet with governor general. Spence leaves unsatisfied with meeting and continues hunger strike.
Jan. 12: Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow, author/activist Naomi Klein, and singer Sarah Slean return their Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medals as a sign of solidarity with either Spence, Idle No More or both.
Jan. 16: The Journey of Nishiyuu begins. Six youth from Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuaraapik, located along the Hudson Bay coast in Quebec, set out on a 1,500 km journey to Ottawa in support of Idle No More.
Jan. 24: Spence officially ends her hunger strike after 44 days after she and First Nations and federal opposition leaders sign 13-point declaration of commitment to press government to address longstanding issues.
Jan. 28: World Day of Action. Rallies are held in at least 30 cities. In Ottawa, the rally gathers outside Parliament Hill as MPs return to the House of Commons after a month-and-a-half break.
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