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Idle No More: From Grassroots to Global Movement

After sparking a massive movement of First Nations people and allies in Canada, Idle No More is building a global movement to challenge a global ecological crisis.

An Idle No More #J28 day of action in Kingston, Ontario, on January 28, 2013.

Part of the Series

When Jessica Gordon first created a Facebook page titled “Idle No More” to communicate with three other women educators and students in Saskatchewan about Canada’s Bill C-45, she had no idea she had chosen the name of what would become a global movement within two months.

“It just absolutely spread like wildfire as we were contacting people we knew that were passionate about these issues, and they said, “Yes absolutely, we’ll have a teach-in; we’ll have a rally; we’re going to spread consciousness,'” says Idle No More co-founder Sheelah McLean. “It has become something that is so dynamic and so huge that I have a terrible time keeping up.”

She, along with the other three women who founded the movement, wanted to use the page to foster a dialogue that would raise awareness about Canada’s second omnibus budget bill and why it remains so damaging, not just to aboriginal peoples, but to all Canadians.

Bill C-45 was introduced by the Stephen Harper government on October 18, and changes Canada’s Indian Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act. The changes allow for easier privatization of treaty lands through a referendum vote, giving Canada’s aboriginal affairs minister power to call a meeting to consider surrendering reserve territory.

“This country, and really this continent, was supposed to be built on a nation-to-nation relationship. Indigenous people, before contact [with settlers], had governance systems, they had laws and justice systems about how to live with the land, and they had communities that were built on ancient systems knowledge that have been totally decimated by [the] colonial power seize of this government,” McLean says.

For First Nations people, the bill represents the culmination of hundreds of years of colonial attacks on Indigenous sovereignty, a sovereignty that is fundamentally tied to the use of treaty lands. But the Idle No More movement is quickly reaching out to form alliances with what are predominantly white settler environmental groups and labor unions across Canada as changes sought by the omnibus bill seek to whittle down the environmental assessment processes for major energy projects across the country.

Changes to Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act were made last year when the first omnibus bill was passed, giving ministers more approval power over energy and pipeline projects. Bill C-45 makes further changes to the act, so that only major projects will undergo environmental evaluations. The bill also overhauls the Navigable Waters Protection Act, exempting pipelines from the assessments that come with the law and leaving less than 1 percent of Canada’s waterways protected.

Idle No More’s first national day of action in December combined with the onset of Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence’s six-week-long hunger strike that ended Thursday, January 24, became the flint on the stone of Indigenous resistance in Canada. But the blaze that Idle No More has become is not just a product of its birth across social media platforms and apt timing.

“This movement has been built on love and spirituality. It’s been built in a peaceful way,” McLean says. “There are so many ceremonies and prayers that are part of the rallies and part of the flash-mob round dances, a part of the movement.” McLean believes it’s this power of ceremony and ritual as well as the articulation of long-suppressed truths about the relationship between colonization, oppression and ecology that has drawn the outpouring of love for the movement.

It’s that love that drove Indigenous organizers to blockade a major highway leading to the most environmentally destructive mega-project of all — the Alberta, Canada, tar sands — as well as to shut down rail lines and the site of the busiest border crossing in North America.

While the blockades weren’t officially sanctioned by the Idle No More movement, McLean says she isn’t totally opposed to the use of nonviolent direct action tactics so long as it remains a last resort in defense of the land. She told Truthout she fears the use of blockades could become reactionary and non-inclusive of the children and the elders within the movement.

After Canadian Prime Minister Harper finally agreed to a meeting with Chief Spence after 24 days of her hunger strike and weeks of protests, a small group of Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chiefs met with Harper and other government representatives for more than four hours January 11 in another global day of action that saw thousands protesting outside Harper’s office and across the world.

But many First Nation chiefs, including Spence, boycotted the meeting with Harper because Canadian Governor General David Johnston was not in attendance. Spence did attend a separate ceremonial meeting with Johnston that Friday, however.

McLean told Truthout that that some of the chiefs within the AFN do not support the Idle No More movement because they did not ask for the repeal of Bill C-45 during the meeting and because many are in support of non-renewable resource extraction.

But some chiefs are considering leaving the AFN altogether as Manitoba chiefs met in Winnipeg, Canada, last week to consider doing just that. Many First Nations leaders are questioning the structure, authority and mandate of the organization designed to negotiate treaties on behalf of First Nations provinces.

But despite the noted divisions within the AFN, more meetings are planned for Ottawa, Canada, and Idle No More is plunging ahead with its most recent global mass action yesterday. Idle No More organizers asked the public to stay home from work at least one business day, Friday, January 25, before parliament resumed Monday.

“We’re encouraging people of all cultures and backgrounds to renew their relationship with what’s called natural law, and conduct a fast to deny themselves of food and drink just for one day so they have a clear understanding of what’s happening with the Earth,” says Idle No More Organizer Dion Tootoosis of the Cree Nation. “The Earth is being ravaged beyond anybody’s control. If we stand up together and unify our relationship with the Earth by denying ourselves our basic necessities, we realize very quickly how dependent we are on our resources.”

Yesterday saw mass mobilizations in Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and across British Columbia, with flashmob solidarity dances and actions fanning out across the U.S. in Alaska, Michigan, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, New York, Texas, Washington State, Oregon and across other locations. More than 40 Idle No More events took place worldwide Monday in an unprecedented showing of Indigenous solidarity.

The movement continues to gain global recognition, calling the attention of the international community, including the United Nations. According to a press release this month, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, James Anaya, reiterated his concern about the current situation in Canada. He has written to the Canadian government asking authorities to provide relevant information, in accordance with terms of his mandate from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

According to McLean, Special Rapporteur Anaya has also asked to speak with the founders about the relationship between aboriginal peoples and the Harper government. The four founders of Idle No More have been invited to speak about the movement at the United Nations in May.

“The four of us built a relationship with one another very quickly. We felt a strong sense of connection and love,” McLean said.

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