Indian Act Chiefs and Idle No More: Snakes in the Grassroots?

by Zig Zag, Warrior Publications, Dec. 14, 2012

"Grand Chief" Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Idle No More Rally in Winnipeg, Dec. 10, 2012.

“Grand Chief” Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Idle No More Rally in Winnipeg, Dec. 10, 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.

"Grand Chief" Shawn Atleo of the AFN with PM Harper during Crown-First Nations Summit, Jan. 2012.

“Grand Chief” Shawn Atleo of the AFN with PM Harper during Crown-First Nations Summit, Jan. 2012.

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.

Dec. 4, 2012, AFN chiefs make a symbolic effort to enter House of Commons in Ottawa; chief Nepinak can be seen second from front.

Dec. 4, 2012, AFN chiefs symbolic effort to enter House of Commons; chief Nepinak can be seen on right.

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.

Long before Bill C-45, the tar sands in north Alberta was killing Natives and the land.

Long before Bill C-45, the tar sands in north Alberta was killing Natives and the land.

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.New Chief raw

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.

Samson Cree Nation band council blockades highway near Edmonton, AB.

Samson Cree Nation band council blockades highway near Edmonton, AB.

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:

How the Indian Act Made Indians Act Like Indian Act Indians

Resist the Assimilation of First Nations


Posted on December 14, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Your articles are very well written and very well thought out. But it seems what you write is solely based on what you are finding in the media and social media. And I will say that even just based on that, there are some criticisms I agree with, but others that are not fair. Perhaps this could be attributed to you not speaking to anyone who has actually been involved in any of these efforts at any time. Who knows, maybe you did. I can only speak for myself in knowing that you have not contacted me directly at any time. Or maybe you did and I didn’t realize it was you since you are not identified by name to your writings. On that note, should you wish to offer some thoughts, criticisms, suggestions directly to me, I am not hard to find.

    Tanya Kappo

  2. I too am ready to clear any misinformation u are spreading Jessica Gordon

  3. Thanks for writing Tanya. I am not a journalist, rather my articles are intended as analysis and critiques of this recent mobilizing. I’m not simply making stuff up, I am using your group’s own press statements and articles, as well as those from AFN, AMC, etc., along with discussions occurring on INM Facebook sites, as well as corporate media accounts. If there are unfair criticisms please clarify what these are. As for my thoughts, criticisms, and suggestions they are contained in this and other articles posted on this blog. They are intended for our people as a whole, not only individual organizers. I appreciate the work you and your group are doing as it has spurred many “Idle” Natives into some form of action, and that’s great. But action without analysis and thought can be detrimental as well, especially in the murky world of politics which the Indian Act Indians swim in.

  4. You are always going to have these opportunistic parasites, like cameco/brad wall playing the very generous Santa Clause with alterior notifs, Unfortunately we do have some Indian Act chiefs playing the same decieptive games. They will use the grassroots movement for their personal gain. Their vision only extends as far as the bank. They view “Mother Earth” as money in the bank. These psycho/sociopaths have no vision for future generation and protecting “Mother Earth”. It’s really sad, that many very young People will have to go to bed hungry and with out warmth. Be strong Women of the “Idle No More” movement. You are a big threat to the old boys club and harper and his cronnies.
    Emil BELL
    1 (306) 829-4311

  5. I find all this very interesting as i am out of the loop and seem to need to catch up with all the issues but truth can be heard on all comments so lets air it all al out and dig deep for all the faxts and truths or lies what ever the case it creats talks and interesting thoughts in my mind. Thanks Dixon

  6. Greetings Friends! I have been most concerned about all the recent Bills that the Harper government is introducing in Canada and how they will affect the Environment and First Nations. I support the Idle No More movement in Canada that has developed in response to these changes, even though many of us have not been “idle” in our communities. There have been many protests and more blockades planned by First Nations Groups. I have some major concerns, as a Blood Tribe member who was arrested for protesting against Big Oil and Hydraulic Fracturing on our lands last year. The previous council under the direction of Blood Tribe Chief Weasel Head leased out two thirds of our reserve to Murphy Oil and Bowood Energy without any referendum or consultation with the people. It is ironic now that Chiefs accuse the Federal Government of not consulting the people. I attended a “Teach In” in Moses Lake on the Blood Reserve last night that was organized by students and Grass Roots people. All of Blood Tribe Chief & Council were seated at the front of the room as well as Tribal Government staff, most of whom have known about these changes since March of 2012. I am concerned that these “leaders” are using this movement and our young people to fight the battles they helped to create through their collaboration with Prime Minister Harper. They even went so far as to bestow on him a sacred head dress and make him an honorary member of the tribe! Some of these “disaffected” Chiefs are mobilizing in order to protect their financial resources because they have become dependent on Government. Many people on and off the reserves have learned to survive on their own and have not sold out. I do not wish to see our young people put in harms way by blocking highways. I think it should be Chiefs & Councils who should be on the highways if they truly want to protest these bills. If they are not run over or arrested then perhaps the people will join in and be IDLE NO MORE!

  7. Chief Txsuu, Clifford C.W. Morgan, member of Gitwangak Band, B.C.

    Some of our indian leaders especially those who give support to treaty organizations, and few band councils chiefs, councillors here in the nw B.C., as they are against opposing forces to what they had already done, making agreements, signing documents that will devastate our First Nation people, and these leaders are agreeing with mining and LNG coming through their traditional territories, and are getting big bucks for their own pockets. Our four bands in Gitxsan Nation fired the negotiators and their treaty society, for doing as such. Leaders must be ousted, and immediately who are to blame for our opposition to Bill 35, Bill 45, and other reasons, such as allowing mining and LNG gas coming into our territories, these are so devastating and dreadful to our whole nw environment of B.C.

  8. Tena koe from Aotearoa/New Zealand.
    I just wanted to say thank you to the author for this article. It sounds much like indigenous affairs here at home.
    I realise this might not be your thing but could I suggest you start up some conversations with the INM group and supporters to make them aware of the trap they seem to be getting caught in? Rather than letting the movement fall when people understand what’s going on, they/you/we could redirect it again. If some chiefs are willing to put their lives on the line, focus on them and build good strategies so that the corrupt chiefs lies are drowned out as the movement gets bigger and stronger.
    My apologies if this is obvious.
    In solidarity.
    Kia kaha, kia toa e te whanaunga.

    • The movement has expanded at a very fast rate, many of the mobilizations such as the flash mobs aren’t being carried out by the band councils, so the overall perception is that this is a huge grassroots uprising. At the same time, many of the large rallies occurring would be much smaller without the councils backing them up and providing logistical support. Many of the chiefs obviously have their own agendas, but at this point it’s extremely difficult to engage in any critical discussion with the formerly Idle Natives. They are emotionally invested in this mobilization and seem unable to think rationally. I think over time a more balanced debate can occur, but at this point in time it’s not really happening.

  9. HaifischGeweint

    Reblogged this on HaifischGeweint.

  10. Here we go again where one article throws a monkey wrench into uniting our people. Are we not Iyiniwak of this land and with equal rights whether or not we are elected leadership or plain grassroots people? This movement is finally a means of getting our voices heard as a united people yet we start pointing fingers on who is an Indian Act leader. We do not have time for this if we are going to save Mother Earth so our children will be able to enjoy fresh air, water, lands, etc. for generations to come. Why does it matter who gets recognition for this movement as long as we continue to show the government we are Idle No More ? Analysis of everything is our white brothers way of doing things but I was told all my life that loving, respecting, caring, kinship and all virtues we live by is how what we show to all mankind, animals, plants and so on. This is what we use in order to accomplish a better future for generations of all colours to come! Ekosi!

    • Here we go again where, in the name of some vague “unity” we are to forget the historical and ongoing role of the Indian Act chiefs. One of the main reasons Natives have been so idle, and why we are at the point where we are now, is because of the Indian Act band councils. In many areas they are working hand in hand with the corporations & government to exploit natural resources, but to save Mother Earth we need to unite with this Aboriginal business elite? Native people aren’t stupid, and our ancestors weren’t, but here you are preaching ignorance as if it was a traditional virtue.

  11. Very good article, well written and Right on!!!

  12. The fire you kindle for your enemy often burns yourself more than him.

    To kill an enemy, make him your friend.

  13. Da würde ich doch wirklich vermuten, dass dieser Text “Indian Act Chiefs and Idle No More: Snakes in the Grassroots? | Warrior Publications” von mir verfasst wurde
    so exzellent wie der geschrieben ist. Alle Daumen hoch und weiterhin viel Erfolg weiter so !

  14. Zig Zag, I am still riffing on your image! Tell me I am on the right track.. or not!

  15. Dear Zig Zag, here is one more … Its the Neoliberal Economy Stupid! … so much of my thinking on Canada and beyond has been provoked by your work …

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