by Zig Zag, Warrior Publications, Dec. 12, 2012
On Dec. 10, 2012, several thousand Native peoples rallied across Canada as part of a national day of action dubbed “Idle No More” (INM). The protests targeted Bill C-45 and the policies of the ruling Conservative Party. In Edmonton, as many as 1,500 turned out, one of the largest. A reported 400 people attended in Calgary and Winnipeg, with anywhere from 100 to 300 participating in Toronto, Regina, Saskatoon, North Battleford, and Vancouver.
What is Bill C-45?
Bill C-45 is an omnibus bill meant to put into law parts of the Conservative Party budget introduced in early 2012. It is also known as the Jobs and Growth Act. Its full bureaucratic title is Bill C-45: A Second Act to Implement Certain Provisions of the Budget tabled in Parliament on March 29, 2012 and Other Measures.
As an omnibus bill it includes changes and revisions to a wide number of federal laws and regulations. These include the Fisheries Act, the Canada Grain Act, changes to MP’s pensions, the handling of hazardous materials, and a new bridge to Windsor, Ont., from Detroit, Michigan. One of the more controversial provisions are proposed changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which remove thousands of lakes and streams from federal protection under that law.
Some of the changes proposed under Bill C-45 have been criticized by
environmentalists and Indigenous peoples resisting mining, oil & gas projects, as well as proposed pipelines:
“Together, the changes proposed in the omnibus bill would further weaken Canada’s environmental laws, remove critical federal safeguards, and reduce opportunities for the public to have their say about projects that could threaten the air, water, soil and ecosystems on which all Canadians, and our economy, depend.”
(“Open Letter to MPs regarding Bill C-45,” West Coast Environmental Law, November 21, 2012)
For Indigenous peoples in particular, along with the threats to land and water, are proposed changes to the Indian Act including an amendment to change the rules around what kind of meetings or referenda are required to lease reserve lands. The aboriginal affairs minister would also be given authority to call a band meeting or referendum for the purpose of considering an absolute surrender of the band’s territory.
“The amendment allows the federal government to call a band meeting or referendum in order for the band to decide on releasing reserve land. [Sylvia] McAdam sees the amendment as furthering the push to privatize reserve lands [McAdam is one of the organizers of INM].
“Bill C-45 also removes the protection of water, exempting major pipeline and interprovincial power line projects from proving they won’t damage navigable waterways.”
(“Bill C-45 rally,” by Shari Narine, Sage, Vol. 17, Issue 3, 2012)
During the second reading of the bill, on Dec. 6, 2012, amendments proposed by opposition MPs were blocked by the Conservative Party majority. That afternoon, Indian Act chiefs made a public show of attempting to enter the House of Commons, for about 30 seconds. They were refused entry by security guards and the minor scuffle became headline news.
Once the bill receives a third reading in the Commons, it will move on to the Senate with the expectation that it will become law before the end of the year.
What is “Idle No More”?
Corporate media, as well as their Native counterparts, have painted INM as a truly grassroots movement, with some commentators even asserting it could be a sort of “Arab Spring” for Natives in Canada. According to a press release from INM,
“The movement, under the banner “Idle No More” (#IdleNoMore) emerged within the grassroots less than four weeks ago in Saskatchewan. It began as an effort to educate First Nations people on the multitude of legislation being put forward by the Harper government that they feel is a direct attack on the rights of First Nations. The organizers Sylvia McAdam, Jess Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sheelah Mclean began by organizing “teach-ins” to inform people.”
(Idle No More Press Release, Dec. 10, 2012)
From these humble beginnings, #IdleNoMore proliferated through social media and in a short period of time helped mobilize several thousand Natives across the country.
But was it all grassroots? Indian Act chiefs and band councils, the Assembly of First Nations and its regional branches, Aboriginal service organizations, and organizations such as the Confederacy of Treaty 6 Chiefs, all contributed to the mobilization of Dec. 10. None of these entities can be considered grassroots as they all receive funding and support from the colonial state.
In fact, along with their power struggle for political control over Native peoples, the Indian Act Indians are angry that their government funding was recently cut.
On Sept. 4, 2012, the federal government announced that core funding for Aboriginal political organizations and tribal councils would be cut by 10 percent or see a $500,000 limit on funding. The Manitoba AFN for example, a provincial organization, will see its funding cut from $2.6 million annually to $500,000.
In addition, Aboriginal service organizations were also hit with cuts:
“In September 2012, the federal government announced it was slashing the budgets of numerous aboriginal groups. For example, the Assembly of Manitoba’s funds were cut by 80%; the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations budget was reduced by 70%; and millions of dollars were additionally cut to regional tribal councils in aboriginal communities from coast to coast to coast.”
(“Academics say cuts to Aboriginal organizations are hurting crucial research projects,” Canada News Wire, Nov. 22, 2012)
The cut backs and lack of consultation have angered the chiefs, including Shawn Atleo, head of the AFN. On Dec. 10, Atleo used threatening rhetoric in describing the government’s actions and the potential for Native unrest:
“When our people see no movement from the government to work with us, when they see backsliding, undermining and continuing threats and pressures on an already burdened population, the flames only grow stronger,” Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said last week.
“Our people will not stand for it. Rightly so, there is growing anger and frustration.”
(“Omnibus Budget: Bill C-45 To Deliver Profound Changes For Environment, Natives,” by Heather Scoffield, The Canadian Press, Dec. 10. 2012)
There can be little doubt that the “Idle No More” protests were exploited by the chiefs to create greater political pressure on the federal government, using their standard tactic: raising the spectre of Indigenous revolt unless the government concedes to their demands.
The shortcomings of being idle
By definition, to be idle is to be not working, to be ineffective, useless, and without purpose. As a precursor to an Indigenous “resurgence,” the title “Idle No More” is itself an ironic statement, especially for Indigenous grassroots people who have been fighting for many years against land theft, destruction of their territories, missing and murdered women, etc.
Have the Mohawks at Tyendinaga or Kanehsatake been “idle”? What about the people at Six Nations? The thousands who have mobilized against proposed pipelines and oil tankers in BC over the last few years? Were the Tahltan “idle” as they blocked mining and gas corporations, or the Secwepmec and St’at’imc resisting ski resorts?
Perhaps it can be said that our Brothers and Sisters on the prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have been a little more “idle” than Natives in the rest of the country. If so, then it is an appropriate title for that region, but hardly for Indigenous people in Canada as a whole. Overall, in fact, INM was largely based in the prairie region. This is where it originated and where the largest numbers participated. It also explains the emphasis on treaty rights in INM organizing (just so you know, most indigenous nations in occupied BC don’t have treaties).
Comparisons of INM to the “Arab Spring” reminds me of its bastard child, the Occupy movement. Like Occupy, INM has mobilized a significant number of people who have little experience in social movements and resistance in general. Looking at the Facebook sites where much of the rallies were organized, it is evident that many participants thought that a few thousand Natives protesting would “make history.”
And here was the first reality check: peaceful parades do not in and of themselves have a significant impact. They are in fact routine and serve to reinforce the illusion of democratic rights. What does impact the state and corporations is economic disruption, actions that stop the flow of capital and industry. But it is highly unlikely the Indian Act Indians will promote such a strategy as it would be political suicide on their part (aside from a few public relations stunts).
Like Occupy, there is also a sprinkling of new activists who think pacifist methods are the only acceptable forms of protest, and that it is of paramount importance to get positive media coverage. One of the organizers for Winnipeg’s rally, Jerry Daniels, was quoted as saying “They are trying to make us look like radicals but that’s not what we stand for.” Really? You don’t want to see radical change to an oppressive and genocidal system?
Prominent in the call outs for INM rallies on Dec. 10 was the imposing of pacifist doctrine under the slogan “peaceful rally.” But here INM organizers went a step further, using spiritual ceremonies as a club to pacify the protests by claiming that whenever a sacred pipe was present, people had to be peaceful.
Sylvia McAda, one of the original organizers of INM, posted an article on the group’s website the night before the planned rallies outlining the “traditional rules” people were expected to follow:
“Pipes will be lifted for the Idle No More gathering; this will signify peace between two Nations and with the Creator. The presence of a pipe at any event is followed by the pipe laws of gentleness, compassion and mutual respect.
“As well, the ladies attending are “encouraged” to honor the Ancient Indigenous Women’s Sacred Teachings of honoring woman’s empowering gift of creation by wearing a dress to the length of their ankles”
(“Sacred Protocol is Invoked,” Amendment: Sunday, December 9th, 2012, www.idlenomore.ca)
Here in the Pacific Northwest Coast we had neither pipe ceremonies nor woman’s dresses down to the ankles. This use of ceremony and spirituality to control people’s behaviour will be an ongoing obstacle to effective Indigenous organizing in the future, and one that will need to be overcome by genuine grassroots movements. A public protest, an occupation, or a blockade, for example, are not ceremonies. They are actions taken to defend people and territory. Nor is a social movement a church in which religious codes can be imposed upon participants.
Another person, going by the name “Harmony King,” posted on multiple INM Facebook sites a Youtube video showing a Native male shaking the hands of a cop in Saskatoon, portraying it as an example of respectful protesting. Like numerous Occupiers, there is a pro-cop sentiment that arises from naivety and ignorance as to the actual role of police in oppressing and controlling indigenous peoples.
Just as in Occupy, there are numerous contradictory images and slogans arising from INM. One graphic, with a raised fist holding a feather in front of a Canadian flag proclaims “Indigenous Rights Revolution.” Another shows a picket sign with “Indigenous sovereignty in action” written on it, held up in front of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. These graphics imply militancy but are bound up in colonial imagery and confuses a struggle for human or treaty rights with revolutionary change.
While the Indian Act Indians are undoubtedly pleased with the INM rallies, since it serves their interests, this does not discount it as a whole. In fact, the significant mobilization of Natives in the prairie region is perhaps the most inspiring aspect of INM, and hopefully a precursor to even greater acts of defiance and resistance to come. Ultimately, however, mobilizations that spring largely from disaffected Indian Act chiefs, their political organizations, and service agencies, does not a grassroots movement make.