Idle No More: Canada’s Growing Indigenous Rights Movement, Fast Going Global

In October 2012, four women from Saskatchewan, Canada decided that it was time to address damaging legislation against the nation’s aboriginal peoples, lands and waters. Their movement, Idle No More, started as a simple campaign against Bill C 45, a bill which many claim violates Canada’s Indian Act. The bill is seen to limit Indigenous rights granted by previous treaties and the Indian Act regarding sovereignty over aboriginal lands, their resources, and government decisions concerning them. Yet the movement has grown, now representing all fights for indigenous sovereignty, cultural respect, and the rights of all Canadians to a healthy environment.

The Idle No More movement garnered international attention when Chief Theresa Spence of the Ontario Cree Nation of Attawapiskat went on a hunger-strike on December 11, demanding a dialogue with Canadian parliament and aboriginal leaders concerning the proposed legislation. The movement is founded on a model of non-violent cultural expression, such as flash-mobs of drum circles and traditional dances which have occurred around the country. Offshoots have taken root in other countries as well, including the United States where protesters have been arrested as recently as January 3.

In turn, Idle No More has been compared to other recent global social movements including The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. While Idle No More primarily seeks to address Canadian issues, it bears connection with the more general global problems attacked by these other grassroots movements: social, economic, and political inequality, disregard for indigenous rights, and exploitation of the environment and natural resources. Indeed it is these shared global problems which Idle No More is seeking to address and change, both in Canada and beyond.

Idle No More: what is their mission?


According to their mission statement, Idle No More “calls on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water…Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth.” Idle No More has grown from its local origins of strong defiance against specific bills passed by Canada’s government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and now rallies against the general continued social and economic conditions suffered by First Nations peoples in Canada.

The Idle No More manifesto contends that “the state of Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities (such as Attawapiskat) have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit.” Recent proposed legislation by Canada’s government seeks to perpetuate this exploitation and environmental and social degradation, and Idle No More leaders argue that the proposed changes will further devastate Indigenous communities.

The struggles faced by Canada’s First Nations are dire indeed. Aljazeera recently cited a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives which found that, in 2006, the average income for aboriginal people was under $19,000, 30 percent lower than the average for other Canadians. Additionally, the Wall Street Journal reported that the 2010 unemployment rate among Canadian aboriginals reached 14.3 percent, nearly double the unemployment rate for the average Canadian.

In February 2012, Amnesty International released a highly critical report on Canada’s human rights record, which was validated in June when the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, included Canada on a list of the world’s worst human rights violators. Among their offenses according to Amnesty International was a failure to “to ensure respect for Indigenous rights when issuing licences for mining, logging and petroleum and other resource extraction.” The report also claims that Canada’s government “continued to make baseless claims that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not apply in Canada.”


An example of such suffering can be seen in the living conditions of the Cree communities of the Attawapiskat and Kashechewan First Nations. Their remote lands are being devastated by the invasive DeBeers diamond mining operation. In an article for Indian Country Today, renowned native activist Winona LaDuke described how the operation damages local infrastructure, overloads a fragile sewage system, and chronically under-funds the communities needs. It has forced Attawapiskat First Nation families to go without homes during harsh winters, and led to a shortage of fuel which resulted in the near complete evacuation of the Kashechewan. LaDuke notes, “Kashechewan’s chief and council are poised to shut down the band office, two schools, the power generation centre, the health clinic and the fire hall because the buildings were not heated and could no longer operate safely.”

In 2007, 21 Cree youths from Kashechewan attempted to commit suicide, and that the average total aboriginal suicide rate in Canada is five times higher than the national average. “The reality is that these communities would never see the light of media attention, if it wasn’t for…facebook, twitter and social media,” said LaDuke. She continues to say, “With the help of social media the Idle No More movement has taken on a life of its own in much the same way the first. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ camp gave birth to a multitude of ‘occupy’ protests with no clear leadership.”

Idle No More contends in their manifesto that the “Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources. Instead, First Nations have experienced a history of colonization which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources and unequal funding for services such as education and housing.” The movement is now attempting to bring attention to these injustices suffered by Canada’s First Nations, and rectify them by helping to restore and uphold the right of First Nation communities to sovereignty and inclusion in federal legislative decisions.

The social movement: can it bring change?

Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, is an official spokesperson chosen by the founders of the Idle No More movement. She tells how at the Crown-First Nation Gathering (CFNG) in January 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Harper promised that the government would not unilaterally amend or repeal the Indian Act. Tthe government and First Nations agreed to increase transparency in First Nations governance, enhance educational and work opportunities for First Nations, help strengthen communities and promote economic development. In a statement released after the CFNG, the government promised to respect “the role of First Nations’ culture and language in our history and future.” The statement concludes: “The Government and First Nations committed at the gathering to maintaining the relationship through an ongoing dialogue that outlines clear goals and measures of progress and success. While some progress has been made, there is more that must be done to improve outcomes for First Nations communities across Canada.”

Palmater accuses Harper of violating his promises when he “proceeded with an aggressive legislative agenda that will include upwards of 14 bills that will devastate our First Nations in various ways.” Harper’s plan, Palmater claims, will make law out of an outdated policy enacted in 1969 called the White Paper which wanted to assimilate Indians. “We always knew action would be required at some point, but the legislation posed an imminent threat and required immediate mobilization. That is how a movement was born,” states Palmater.

The movement has grown to represent an international call for respect of indigenous rights in Canada and beyond, fought for with teach-ins, flash mobs, and peaceful blockades. “The Idle No More movement…is a peoples’ movement that empowers Indigenous peoples to stand up for their Nations, lands, treaties, and sovereignty,” explains Palmater. “This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can and can’t do…This movement is inclusive of all our peoples.”

The true impact of Idle No More remains to be seen. As protesters become frustrated with the continued mistreatment and impoverishment of aboriginal Canadians, demonstrators are beginning to make use of other forms of protest such as civil disobedience, and the leadership of the movement may be changing. Prime Minister Harper has very recently agreed to meet with Chief Theresa Spence and other aboriginal leaders on January 11, but the outcome of such a meeting is uncertain. As Palmater notes: “Given that Canada has worked hard to put us in the situation we are in, Harper will have to come to table with some good faith and offer some solutions to address the current crisis facing many of our communities in relation to the basic essentials of life.”

Idle No More seeks to change the condition of aboriginal peoples in Canada and around the world. It will not be an easily-won change as seen by the struggles of earlier grassroots movements including The Occupy Movement, but, as with previous social movements, Idle No More is at the least bringing attention to otherwise ignored social inequalities. Yet Palmater is looking for more. She explains that this movement is about more than addressing governmental injustices. It is a calling for a better world: “It is inspiring hope, when many had lost hope that anyone would ever stand on their behalf. It has inspired pride in who we are as Indigenous peoples because our peoples and ways of our peoples are beautiful and something to be cherished and defended…It has inspired the most oppressed peoples to stand up and exercise their voices.”

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