I think that, for most people, it is by now a given that we don’t want things to go on as they have been for — if not all — a sizeable majority of Canada’s First Nations.
I don’t believe anyone — or anyone serious — opposes the idea of native people living in better, more prosperous communities, free of the devastating problems that assail so many of them.
It only makes sense that the people who were already here when Europeans arrived should have rights over the land and resources that might get them there, and at the same time be able to take more responsibility for, and wield more decision-making power over, their lives.
So for many of us, the big question is: will the Idle No More movement that is gathering both steam and media attention across the country will accomplish this?
The other day I spoke to a friend who lives and works in a Dene community in the Northwest Territories, counting on her in-depth knowledge for some guidance. I guess what is puzzling me is the divergence I see between the movement’s grassroots vibrancy, on the one hand, and on the other, the tendency for discussions about the future restricted to the Canadian government and various leaders of existing and official organizations like the Assembly of First Nations. If neither entity has, over the past few years, succeeded in pioneering positive change, I can’t help but wonder what they will come up with now.
What’s more, as my friend D. pointed out, with the critique of the official leadership that is emerging in Idle No More, it has become obvious that for many native Canadians, there is a feeling that a lot of their official leaders are, as she put it, “in the pockets of industry and the federal government.”
Right now, the one unifying factor within the movement is its outright opposition to the Conservative government’s Omnibus Bill that, they say, will remove rather than enhance their few rights. According to D., Bill C-45’s multiple proposed provisions are both thorough and dangerous. “The amount of detail in there is incredible,” she said.
One example: reforms to the Fisheries Act that will redefine fish habitat deserving protection only as areas that are currently fished. That means areas left alone for a few years, whether to allow stocks to rebuild or whatever reason, could be open to exploitation.
It is at the grassroots, however, where Idle No More is most interesting and open-ended and potentially innovative. This is the bigger part of the picture: tens of thousands of native Canadians and Metis all over the country mobilizing and talking about the need for change. They are using social media, the traditional media and a vibrant cultural language to get their message across.
For D., the way Idle No More has got “a lot people who would never even have remotely imagined doing something like that” taking action is an example of its growing resonance.
That the message is still inchoate should come as no surprise. Maybe, like the Occupy Movement, Idle No More has not come up with a clear set of proposals outlining all the changes First Nations want to see. But we are the ones who have tended to lump together vastly different peoples, language groups and cultures into one stereotypical Indian for centuries. Having said that, some organizations, like Defenders of the Land and Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasase, have offered up some specific demands.
One of my biggest unanswered questions has to do with the hunger strike protest strategy of Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence: to be honest, I don’t agree with hunger strikes, considering them an individualist response that bars participation from others. This hunger strike, nonetheless, proved to be the main catalyst for the movement’s starting up. So maybe I am wrong, although I am still unclear about its implications.
Because one implication is that some, possibly many, Canadians will see it as a kind of blackmail. As ‘do what I want or I’ll kill myself.’ So while the prime minister finally agreed to meet with indigenous leaders last Friday, I have little faith that he will do a U-turn on Bill C-45 and his dreams of forcing our environment to meet our fiscal wish list.
And he could very well appeal instead to the side of Canadians that is racist and anti-Indian, that is convinced that the squalid living conditions, social ills and addictions that plague many native communities, are the fault of natives themselves — the Deloitte & Touche audit of Attawapiskat’s finances being one such example.
So maybe we do need some clarity. Maybe we do need to see more of a dialogue, not between leaders but among ordinary people, both native and non-native.
My research on grassroots social movements in the developing world revealed, I believe, some useful examples of what to look for. And these include the notion that the poor and disenfranchised are better and more capable of proposing and working out solutions to their multitude of problems than the state. They may work with the state but they also topple the top-down paradigm of devising and delivering improvements. The National Slum Dwellers Federation, with its emphasis on community savings, community policing, housing designed according to the needs and specifications of the poor, and value change, is one of the clearest exponents, I’d say, of this way of thinking about and making change.
The combination of short-term struggle and long-term strategies in the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil is another, while in Indonesia, I see another movement that embraces another truly vast area and plethora of different cultures united under a similar quest for rights.
So I will be watching Idle No More for the next few weeks, and hopefully longer, trying to answer the questions: what’s next for Idle No More? What’s next for Canada’s First Nations?