“Idle No More”: Canada’s First Nations start a global movement

Canadian PM will meet with First Nation leaders, but what's next for protestors in the U.S.?

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence speaks with journalists about her hunger strike in a teepee on Victoria Island in Ottawa December 27, 2012. (Reuters/Chris Wattie)

After a three-week hunger strike, a First Nations’ activist got her wish: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to meet with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence on Friday, January 11.

But Spence now declines to meet with Harper. Her refusal comes just a few days after a damning audit reveals Spence was likely mismanaging millions of federal dollars administered to the Attawapiskat.

What sounds like a Canadian soap opera is actually an unexpected twist in a growing grassroots movement, a movement that began in Canada, spilled over the border into Native American communities in the U.S., and then on to sympathetic protestors around the world.

After subsisting on fish broth for 24 days, Spence’s refusal to meet leaves the nascent “Idle No More” movement at a crossroads, with adherents around the world waiting to make a move.

A sustainable Occupy?

In the movement’s own words, “Idle No More calls on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water.” Canada’s First Nations’ citizens are tired of what they say is a lack of communication from the Harper government, and are calling their movement a kind of awakening and call to action — hence the name “Idle No More.”

The catalyst for the movement was an omnibus budget called Bill C45, a “legislative assault against First Nations people,” Tanya Kappo of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation tells the Digital Journal. The budget, Kappo says, strips First Nations’ of their land and water rights:

In regards to lands, the changes are to the Indian Act….What it will really [means] is that the reserve lands are far more accessible for development and developers than ever before and the likelihood of losing the lands altogether (for the First Nations) a very real possibility.

In regards to the water, the changes to the Navigable Waters Act remove protections from bodies of water across the country…most likely for resource development and extraction. Many First Nations communities are located on the banks or the shores of rivers and lakes across the country.

After thumbing through the 400-page document, four women in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan held a teach-in at a community center. From there, the movement spilled onto the streets — featuring rallies, marches and flash mobs throughout Canada. Anxiety built when Parliament passed the budget on December 14, 2012 under the name the “Jobs and Growth Act, 2012.”

Social media allowed Idle No More to move beyond the Canadian border. Tanya Kappo, quoted above, was the first person to use the the Twitter hashtag #IdleNoMore, which quickly went viral; and, as of Friday morning, the Idle No More Facebook page had almost 68,000 followers.

Idle No More’s themes of aboriginal rights, social justice and environmental protections have resonated among Native Americans and environmental activists in the U.S., who have staged protests in San Diego, Alaska, Syracuse, Maine, Minneapolis and more. Protestors have shut down bridges between Canada and the U.S. to draw attention to their cause. And Idle No More has sympathizers as far afield as Palestine, with messages of solidarity being posted to YouTube from New Zealand, Bolivia, Mexico and France.

Check out this rally in a Minnesota Mall of America just before New Years:

No money, mo’ problems

While the disparate movement has no true leader, Theresa Spence is as close as it gets. Her symbolic hunger strike and sit-in in an Ottawa teepee has galvanized protestor across the world behind the “Idle No More” banner.

But Spence is now in a very awkward position. After calling on Harper to meet with her, he finally agreed. But after hours of conflicting statements from her staff, Spence now refuses to meet with Harper because several other key politicians will be absent from the meeting.

To add to the confusion, on Monday the Canadian government released a damning audit of the Attawapiskat nation’s finances, which showed millions of federal dollars unaccounted for. Spence accused the Harper government of acting in bad faith, but Spence quickly lost the faith of many First Nations’ leaders.

Native protesters chant during an Idle No More march at the Peace Arch border crossing between Canada and the U.S. in Surrey, British Columbia January 5, 2013. (Reuters/Andy Clark)

“I admire what Spence is doing, but it’s tough to defend those numbers,” Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon tells the Montreal Gazette.

On Friday, Harper will meet with a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations, which represents First Nations’ citizens in Canada. But it’s hard to say what the outcome of this meeting will be for Idle No More protestors both in and out of Canada; with no official leadership, the movement has no true affiliation with the Assembly of First Nations.

While the movement has coalesced around themes of aboriginal rights, social justice and environmental protection, some wonder if, like the 2011 “Occupy” movement, its goals and activists are too disparate for it to be sustainable.

It’s hard not to compare Idle No More with the Occupy Wall Street movement. And while Idle No More has some outspoken critics in Canada, it is probably an overstatement to liken the movement to Occupy, as it actually has deeper cultural roots and a handful of discernible goals: namely, reversing changes made to the Indian Act, Navigation Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act.

And, most important, Idle No More is frustrated with what they see as their inability to participate in the political process. After tomorrow’s meeting, Assembly of First Nations’ leaders will indicate if they are any closer to opening up the lines of communication. With Spence’s publicized hunger strike eclipsed by her financial problems, and the meeting between Canada’s establishment and indigenous leaders over, protestors in Houston and Los Angeles will have to decide why they are still idle.