At this present time, only the most fanatical ideologues will be touting unreserved and uncritical support for the Idle No More protests. While its most visible public face, Chief Theresa Spence, initially attracted national attention by declaring a hunger strike for the purpose of securing a meeting with the Prime Minister, the course of events has steadily sapped the intellectual contribution of both her and the protesters gathered under the banner of “Idle No More.”
The fall of Spence has been well publicized. Initially, Chief Spence’s willingness to face death made her hunger strike appear as a dramatic testament of her devotion to her cause. But despite her spokesman’s claims (repeated throughout the last few weeks) that she could only survive a few more days, and doctors (who had never examined let alone met Spence) giving CBC interviews on how near Chief Spence was to expiring, no such event has occurred. This is because her hunger strike consists of a diet of fish broth, medicinal tea, and select vitamins: a diet that through all these means provides a regular intake of protein, fats, and nutrients. Calling this prolonged fast a hunger strike is not just factually inaccurate. It is also a disservice to historical protestors who actually were willing to commit to a hunger strike (and its consequences) in order to draw attention to perceived government injustices. Chief Spence is a bit of a joke beside Bobby Sands.
Second, Chief Spence has fallen victim to an audit of her band, Attawapiskat First Nation. The audit, which was due to be released in the second week of January but appeared in the first, exposes gross mismanagement. For the record, Attawapiskat received $104 million from the federal government between 2005 and 2011, which amounts to approximately $73,000 a person. Spence, deputy chief since 2007 and chief since 2010, presided over the band while the paper trail for this money simply vanished. In any normal organization, let alone a government one, this would constitute grounds for at the very least resignation and probably prosecution. Spence must have known this audit was coming: she started her fast a month before the release of the audit, probably hoping that she could succeed in her plan before the audit was released.
Third, Spence’s ever-evolving demands have provoked much embarrassment amongst those with a rudimentary familiarity of the Canadian constitutional order. In the annals of Canadian politics, itself replete with the ridiculous, few occasions can provoke much more astonishment than this: at the moment when her demand to meet the Prime Minister was granted, she turned around and declared she wanted to meet with the Governor General as well. Spence confused her understanding of Canadian government by precisely 146 years: the whole point of having a Prime Minister in Canada is that public policy stems from his office, and must be kept distinct from the symbolic power vested in office of the Crown, represented in Canada by the Governor General. If at any point the Crown becomes involved in public policy decisions, then Canada would be rather like a monarchy. Whatever Spence’s confusions, it has become evident she is not really interested in dialoguing with the Prime Minister, but is more interested in some sort of sensationalist display. This is hardly proper ground for productive discussions.
Such is the character of Spence. Those involved in Idle No More, many of whose intentions are pure, deserve a better public face. For this reason it is no surprise that several prominent aboriginal chiefs– Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, and Grand Chief Doug Kelly of B.C.’s First Nation Summit—are urging Spence to call an end to her protest. Unfortunately the Idle No More protest will no longer find their respectable leaders at the grassroots level.
The vein of the protests now taking place have moved away from honourable crowds drawing attention to aboriginal issues but to actions that are effectively sabotage, such as sending small groups to seize and blockage railway lines. This is no longer an attempt to bring legitimate grievances to the public eye: it is nothing less than an attempt at extorting the government to surrender through coercive measures aimed at disrupting the ordinary work of Canadians. Just recently in Edmonton, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation has warned that he will shut down Highway 63 to Fort McMurray if the federal government does not repeal its legislation. While some might disagree with the way in which oilsand development takes place, Highway 63 is crucial not only for economic reasons but for subsistent reasons: the workers up north depend upon that highway for a regular supply of basic necessities. Stopping all traffic even for 48 hours would be tantamount to putting roughly 75,000 people under a state of siege. Just to attend to the welfare requirements of all those men and women would tax the emergency resources of Alberta and Canada to the utmost. Such is the state of the Idle no More movement: its theory of protest owes less to your local chapter of Occupy Wall Street, but more to African paramilitaries.
The old leaders are exposed as sensationalist and corrupt, and downright scary radicals are now setting the rhetorical agenda of the protest. Those who sided with the initial spirit of Idle no More out of honourable intentions on the plight of Aboriginals in Canada are caught in aporia. How did this happen, and what to do?
Attending to the first question, I want to emphasize a number of points about mass protest movements. Simply put, middle class Canadians who become involved in mass protests expecting particular policy outcomes fail to understand what exactly mass protests can accomplish, and what their natural limits are.
1. Mass Protests mean peoples, not the People.
a. While it may be rhetorically clever to imagine all protests as struggles of an imagined “people” against the particular foe of the occasion, basic sociology should be quite to dispel this notion of some sort of “us vs. them” political engagement. Mass protests draw together people of diverse backgrounds, all of whom do not necessarily share the same positive doctrines, even if they can be united by the same negative commitment on the particular occasion of the protest. Their cooperation is only a cooperation of a those who are upset at a particular decision or event. It is not the overlapping normative consensus necessary to derive a more robust identity as a “people”. Without the specification of the consensus, those protesting will continue to have disparate motivations and intentions hindering genuine unity.
2. Mass protests lack clear leadership.
a. As they are disseminated across large swathes of population and territory, mass protests require local organization in every area in which they operate. The leadership in one area, however, will not necessarily be in a subordinate relation to the leadership in another area. This has two practical consequences. On the logistical level, it means planning is dependent almost entirely on the local leadership, who have considerable leeway to take the protest in the direction they want. It means action will always take place in a decentralized way, as action is utterly dependent on solving local organizational problems. On the theoretical level, it means that the leadership in one area is constantly in the process of interpreting what it thinks the protests means, leading to competing ideas as to what the purpose of the movement is, acting out the “spirit” of the movement in dramatically different ways. This leads to the second practical consequence:
3. Mass protests lack clear, concretized ideas.
a. The constant reinterpretation of the purpose of the movement spells doom for any attempt to define clear and distinct public policy proposals. Attempting to articulate clear plans leads to confronting the reality of 1). In the parlance of mass protests, this leads to “horizontal violence,” wherein the participants of the protest begin bickering among themselves rather than engage in the “vertical violence”—the battle against the foe of the occasion. Division and schism results. In order to avoid this, the organizers do not bother to articulate specific ideas, relying upon inspirational and sentimental slogans to mask the deep divisions that may exist in the camps.
4. Mass Protests Have a Finite Life.
a. Mass Protests have an ideology that exists with substantive content thick enough to garner media attention. They will get headline attention, interviews and plenty of stories in the 24-hour news cycle. But media attention is not the equivalent of policy transformation. The intellectual content of mass protests is too thin to be of substantive use in the debates at hand toward public policy. On the grounds of 1) and 2), no one who has effective decision-making power (e.g. a particular government official) will try to negotiate with the movement as a whole, since that would be impossible. They are always going to negotiate through particular individuals. But these individuals representing the movement will have to actually contribute something to the table, and given 3), they likely will only have half-formed ideas that are not of much service to public policy concerns. Thus when discussions actually begin, and specific policies have to be worked out, the mass protest is no longer relevant to what is actually occurring, except insofar as it keeps the media cycle alive.
Given this character of mass protests, two principal problems emerge:
5. The Problem of Bad Leaders
a. Given the dispersed nature of leadership and inability to effectively manage the entirety of the planned event, leadership is a great vacuum. But when it does occur, it happens by those who take dramatic initiative in order to receive recognition both inside and outside the movement. But that these emergent leaders are bold does not mean they are the best. The one who is capable of the greatest publicity stunt will be king or queen, and that has nothing to do with their capacity to actually direct the protest in a meaningful way. Rashness often goes hand in hand with folly.
6. The Problem of Hijackers
a. The decentralized nature of mass protests and the lack of clear policy objectives makes them vulnerable to smaller, well-organized factions seizing control. They proceed to take advantage of the ideological ambiguity of the protest to allow it to serve their own ends. This problem is exacerbated by the way in which leaders emerge within mass movements: the ones that do often find themselves side-lined by their more public, more organized factional rivals, or they simply find that they become effectively irrelevant in terms of what events actually take place. It is often the ideological extremists who the better organized, which is why mass movements can suddenly discover themselves to have radicals as their representatives, who have little to contribute constructively to public policy discussions.
The above trend should be noted for a number of events, no simply Idle No More. For example, there are parallels to Occupy Wall Street and their collapse into irrelevance through an inability to say something meaningful to governments looking at financial regulatory reform; to the Arab Spring in Egypt and how the army used the protests in Cairo as a front distracting international attentions to effect a palace coup removing Mubarak. I do not pretend that these above points on the character of mass protests are fully theorized here, but if even some of these points are true, then your average middle class participant in mass protests should have several imperatives for immediate reflection whenever he or she wishes to jump upon the bandwagon of a mass protest. For if mass protests are unable to actually direct public policy discussions in a meaningful way, they are never useful as a means to concretize policy reforms, except insofar as they advance the agenda of the leaders and factions who manage to exploit the masses to their ends. The particular factions that end of controlling mass movements rely upon the average supporter remaining unreflective, not pausing to enquire as to what specifically the label under which he is protesting actually entails.
In the particular case of Idle No More, its popular support depends upon the alliance of at least three camps: the professionalized anti-establishment protesters and their well-funded cabal of friends and relations, the noisy zealots of the anti-Harper camp, and the bourgeois sentimentalists who carry with them an imagined idea as to what aboriginal life should be like. None of these camps are particularly inspiring or for that matter offer particularly valuable policy contributions, which is why they are only capable of speaking thirty-second clips on radio or television, and not of directing or offering helpful commentary to sustaining the complex conversation necessary to improve government and Aboriginal relations. In light of that, those who actually care about Aboriginals in this country should cease aping media talking points or standing obediently behind an increasingly extremist political movement and start supporting the hard and unpopular work of those who are actually promoting a meaningful and productive conversation. Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is one of these people: despite walk-outs and boycotts and criticisms, he is pursuing what could be the first aboriginal and federal government engagement in decades that is willing to reassess the first principles structuring contemporary aboriginal relations. The task will be long and arduous. But for the first time in modern aboriginal history, there is a majority faction of aboriginal chiefs who believe that the path forward for their people is to seek to remove the obstacles toward participating within Canadian society rather than to cling to an expired way of life. Behind the media charade of the Idle No More protests, the real battle being fought, as journalist Andrew Coyne has pointed out, in the aboriginal world itself. It is between the modernizers like Atleo and the fundamentalists who want to fight him tooth and nail. The line is drawn for a hard battle that will likely become violent in the coming weeks. But the time has come for Canadians to understand what is really happening, and make the choice for supporting the right side.
Nathan Pinkoski is currently an MPhil Candidate in Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He graduated from the University of Alberta in 2011.