by Zig Zag, Warrior Publications, Dec. 14, 2012
According to the accounts of Idle No More (INM) organizers, the mobilization began in Saskatchewan when four women met and decided to organize workshops outlining what Bill C-45 was, and the threats it presented to Indigenous peoples and lands. From this humble beginning, it transformed into a national day of action, almost entirely through social media. Or so goes the dominant narrative.
But is this movement really grassroots?
Snakes in the Grassroots
There has been substantial support, promotion and participation by Indian Act chiefs & councilors in the INM campaign. In fact, although INM originated in Saskatchewan in mid-November, and had expanded into Alberta with a Dec. 2 forum, it did not gain traction until the AFN’s Special Chief’s Assembly in Gatineau, Quebec, held from Dec. 4-6, 2012. An Idle No More press release of Dec. 10 confirms this chronology, including the role of the AFN assembly, during which the chiefs made a symbolic gesture of trying to enter the House of Commons:
“Opposition by First Nations to Bill C-45 garnered national attention last week during when 300 First Nations Chiefs marched on Parliament hill, and several Chiefs, led by Chief Fox, went inside Parliament to deliver a message to the government. This refusal to allow First Nations leadership to respectfully enter the House of Commons triggered an even greater mobilization of First Nation people across the country.”
(“First Nations to hold nationwide rallies Monday,” Dec. 10, 2012 Idle No More press release)
From this statement we can dispense with any claims that INM was completely the result of social media, or grassroots organizing, or as Edmonton INM organizer Tanya Kappo stated, “magic.”
When the chiefs attempted to enter the House of Commons in Ottawa on Dec. 4 and engaged in a purely symbolic effort to “force” their way in, they could not have been ignorant as to the extent of media coverage such an action would garner. In fact, they probably prayed that it would be so, and that it would galvanize the incipient INM mobilization.
The intentions of the AFN were made clear that same day, during the opening remarks from AFN “grand chief” Shawn Atleo:
“What we as an Executive agree and propose is the necessity to engage our peoples – recognizing the interconnectedness of our struggle, to transform what others may view as scattered protests easily dismissed, to supporting our citizens to stand together in unity and strength…
“This work, that our Executive is prepared to coordinate, is not rallies of a few but a movement of our peoples and nations…
“A movement that recalls the most poignant moments of social change like the civil rights era and the million man marches. This is our time to act.”
(AFN Special Chiefs Assembly – National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo Speaking Points, Dec. 4, 2012)
Clearly, Atleo is asserting that, through the AFN and band councils, what were previously “scattered protests easily dismissed” would now be coordinated and comprise a new movement. And that movement is Idle No More, whether this was the intention of the original organizers or not.
Perhaps out of inexperience, or ignorance, or perhaps out of a conscious understanding as to the role the AFN and band councils would play, virtually every INM rally served as a platform for the Indian Act Indians to vent their grievances against the Harper regime. While generations of grassroots people have had to contend with opposition and even oppression from band councils, these same band councils are now heralded as genuine leaders of Indigenous people, courageously taking a stand against the oppressive government.
Chiefs on Warpath… for money & power
To be sure, the AFN chiefs are not simply going through the motions. They are indeed engaged in a bitter struggle with the federal government. The proposed legislative changes contained in Bills C-38 and C-45 serve to undermine the chief’s political legitimacy and authority. They are being imposed rather than arising from genuine consultation, or collaboration (if you prefer).
Yet, there is another contributing factor that has galvanized the chiefs onto the warpath, one that is overshadowed by the alarmist calls of “termination” and the potential selling off of Native reserve lands, concerns which have been central to the INM rallies. And that is the announcement, on Sept. 4, 2012, of massive funding cuts to Aboriginal political organizations, tribal councils, and service agencies.
While the national AFN saw only a $500,000 cut from its core funding of $5 million, regional political organizations & tribal councils took the hardest hits. One APTN reporter described them as “devastating” and “crippling.” The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, a provincial arm of the AFN, saw its core funding cut from $2.6 million down to $500,000, a cap placed on all regional organizations.
Derek Nepinak, “grand chief” of the AMC, expressed his anger at the announced cuts on Sept. 12, 2012, noting that the national AFN, due to its collaborative role in working with the Harper government, suffered far less:
“At no time in the history of the AMC has there ever been such a threat to the viability of the organization. Massive cutbacks are not only happening to the AMC, our partner organizations of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), as well as the Southern Chiefs Organization (SCO), are also facing considerable cuts. In addition, all political organizations across the country, as well as tribal councils will also be cut significantly. Interestingly however, the Assembly of First Nations, as party to the Harper government’s joint action plan on First Nations people will only receive minimal funding cuts. In addition, project funding will flow to the AFN based on its key joint priorities under the joint action plan, making the AFN the big winner in all the losses to regional political efforts.”
(“Federal funding cuts threaten the viability of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs,” by Derek Nepinak, Sept. 12. 2012)
Anishinabek Nation Grand Chief Patrick Madahbee called the cuts “a political attack” and a “divide and conquer strategy,” while Nepinak further stated they were “a direct attack on the political voice of First Nations communities across the country” (“Tribal council funding cuts leave leaders fuming,” by Shawn Bell, Wawatay News, Thursday September 13, 2012).
A month prior to this, however, one corporate media report crowed about the cozy relationship between the AFN and the federal government, as if affirming Nepinak’s interpretation of the manner in which funding cuts were carried out, stating:
“The Conservative government and first nation leaders, in a historic shift from confrontation to co-operation, have agreed to launch a joint effort to transform the schools, economies and quality of life on reserves across Canada.
“If the new Canada First Nation Joint Action Plan between the Canadian government and the Assembly of First Nations succeeds, “our people will be able to feel, taste, and experience the change in a significant manner more quickly than we’ve experienced in the past,” AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo said.”
(“Ottawa, native leaders commit to sweeping overhaul of reserve life,” by John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail, Aug. 24 2012)
Four months before this, the essence of the proposed changes contained in Bills C-38 (the first part of the omnibus budget bill) and C-45 (the second part) were already known.
On March 29, 2012, the Economic Action Plan 2012 was introduced by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. It is from this plan that both bills are derived. Bill C-38 was itself introduced on April 29, 2012. In June, the AFN released a review of Bill C-38, focusing primarily on changes to the Fisheries Act and environmental review process. There is no sense of urgency or imminent danger mentioned anywhere in this, or subsequent reports or submissions regarding Bill C-38, which passed in late June. On the other hand, environmentalists were vigorously condemning the bill as the “Environmental Destruction Act” for the manner in which it would expedite major industrial projects (another main concern of INM rallies).
Today we are told that there is an imminent danger threatening Native peoples and lands, one that we must unite and fight against: Bill C-45, introduced on Oct. 18, 2012. Clearly this bill, and the overall assimilation strategy of Canada, presents threats to Indigenous peoples and lands. The chiefs, however, knew about the proposed changes as early as March, 2012, when the Economic Action Plan was introduced. But instead of sounding the alarm and calling all hands to deck, the Indian Act chiefs continued working with the government on implementing the very policies we are now told are an imminent threat to our existence as Indigenous peoples.
It was only after the Sept. 4 funding cuts that the chiefs, primarily from Aboriginal provincial organizations, began any talk about “attacks” on Indigenous peoples. As late as November 27, when the AFN made a formal submission to a senate committee in regards to Bill C-45, it focused only on proposed changes to the Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act.
It has always been the long term goal of Canada to assimilate Indigenous peoples, and the Indian Act was always intended as a temporary means to this end. Atleo and the AFN, in fact, have been calling for abolishing the Indian Act for several years now. Some of the most assimilated chiefs are promoting the conversion of reserve lands to private property under the pretext of creating economic self-sufficiency. Many band and tribal councils have already signed “self-government” agreements that remove them from the Indian Act and change their reserve lands to private property, including those who implement the BC treaty process agreements. But now we’re told it’s a policy of “termination” that must be resisted.
Since the Dec. 10 rallies, other actions have occurred, virtually all conducted by Indian Act band councils and chiefs (although some well-intentioned grassroots people are being swept up in all the hype). On Dec. 11, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike “to the death,” demanding a meeting between Harper, AFN, and the Queen of England. Then on Dec. 12, the Samson Cree Nation near Edmonton, Alberta, partially blockaded a section of highway in support of INM and Spence’s hunger strike. On Dec. 13, Ontario chief of the Assembly of First Nations Stan Beardy announced that there would be more rallies, while the Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba announced they would be blockading the Trans-Canada Highway on Saturday, Dec. 15.
Ultimately, we are engaged in a struggle against the state and corporations for the very survival of indigenous peoples, lands, and ways of life. While mobilizations may be necessary at times against specific legislation, as occurred in the Quebec student strike (which succeeded because it employed a diversity of tactics and caused considerable economic disruption to the Quebec economy), that which is currently being waged against Bill C-45 reeks of hypocrisy, opportunism, and manipulation by the Indian Act chiefs, many of whom are fighting for the financial survival of their respective organizations.
Ideally, the Idle No More rallies will stop their collaboration with the Indian Act Indians and transform into a genuinely grassroots resistance movement. To do this, participants must first realize the parasitical role the Indian Act Indians are playing in the mobilization, and understand the historical role of the band councils as agents of colonization. And, rather than portraying this recent mobilization as “the beginning” of a revolution, learn from the rich history of Indigenous resistance over the last 30 year period, a resistance that has more often than not found itself on the other side of the barricade from the Indian Act Indians.
For additional background info, see: