It seems that with the prevalence of the grassroots First Nations movement known as Idle No More, many non-Indigenous people have suddenly become aware of their expertise on First Nations issues–and more importantly what this movement means for the grassroots people (Indigenous or not). This opinion piece is a rejection of the article “A Car Left Running in Idle Invites Thieves: Idle No More and the Limits of Mass Protest” by Nathan Pinkoski, but it is more than a rebuttal- it is a primer for all Canadians. I must throw my hat into the ring, but I begin by acknowledging where I diverge, by stating, first and foremost, that I am not an expert on First Nations politics. Aside from focusing my entire undergrad career in political science to many of the pressing issues facing First Nations people, not one person can lay claim to understanding the myriad of differences that make up the First peoples of Canada. This is what Idle No More has proven in recent weeks.
The movement was born out of the concerted efforts of four courageous women, who could not stand idly by while the Harper government assaulted upon the rights of Indigenous people across what is called ‘Turtle Island.’ However, the organizational structure of Idle No More ended there. It took on the face of peoples, not the people. It has humble origins that come from the grassroots, made up of a culturally diverse collection of First Nations people, with one common connection–the policy-driven assault on their democratic rights (ones set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).
This diversity is something that is not truly taught in the Canadian education system, but rather from living amid the actual myriad of differences that make up Canadian First Nations. The character of this group is more diverse than you actually think. In Alberta alone, there are at least six different groupings of First Nations peoples, marked by unique traits such as language, which can then be further differentiated by culture, tradition and region. Now apply this understanding across Canada and you have a range of 600 First Nations, made up of many more differences than those found in Alberta. For Pinkoski to assume that there are only reformers and tradionalists among First Nations is a gross overgeneralization. Like any ethnic population in Canada, there are differences in politics, language and culture. To outline all these differences here is not possible, but it is obvious that the essentialist dichotomies used in the article are largely inaccurate. There is a lot hiding under this ‘idling car’ hood than one actually thinks –-which makes this movement far more compelling because of the immediacy drawn from the diversity of First Nations people across Canada. Heck, when the Mohawk joined in support of the movement, Indigenous people knew that this meant business (perhaps Oka and Caledonia ring some bells?)
This brings the first point of contention I have for Pinkoski’s article, Chief Theresa Spence. She has never, not once, been able to claim being the public face of the Idle No More movement, insofar as not one Chief (not even National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo) has been able to become a public face for the movement. Idle No More’s own website states that the faces of Idle No More, began with, and will continue belonging to the grassroots people–not to one particularly interested politician. This means that those Chiefs, such as Allan Adam and Derek Nepinak are acting independently from the movement by suggesting blockades and violence to media, and they should not be used to generalize participants of Idle No More. (However, it is difficult to agree with Pinkoski when he suggests the welfare of residents from Fort MacMurray as being affected if a blockade of Highway 63 occurs when millions of Indigenous people have been making do for centuries).
Regardless, where the confusion about public faces in the movement must arise should be attributed to the media, which very obviously lend associations of Chief Spence to Idle No More, simply because the fast is coincidental to the movement’s events. Let’s face it though–most Canadians, including the media, think the affairs of Indigenous people, especially First Nations, are their realm of expertise and is the reason for such an overgeneralization as this.
It seems that everyone has an opinion on ‘Indian issues’ today, myself included, but in reality they all end up failing. Why? Because not one person truly stops to ask those affected by the ministry and policies how they think they can help themselves. It is widely apparent that Pinkoski is not a part of the grassroots movement nor has he asked an Indigenous person what Idle No More really means, but is instead watching from the sidelines in his Ivory Tower, while the ‘Indians’ battle it out beneath. If he participated, it would have been reported in his article that there is no ‘public face’ for the movement. It has been the fabrication of the media, and the swallowing up and regurgitation by armchair critics. Even more detrimental are those reporting from abroad in the heart of Canada’s colonial origins. It is time for colonialism to be addressed for the benefit of First Nations in Canada, there is, without a doubt, that anyone other than First Nations, cannot truly speak to what should or should not be done in Indigenous politics. Support for this opinion can be found, legislatively, in the ‘Duty to Consult.’ Proof lay in its absence for the latest round of omnibus bills, for it has influenced the essence of this movement in quite a substantive way. If unilateral action was not taken by the Harper government, this specific movement would not have even begun, and judicial action could have been avoided.
Secondly, Attawapiskat’s audit did scathe Chief Spence, for which she has no excuses. She will be punished accordingly by her own people, especially considering the crises that face the people of that nation–the same can be said of other Chiefs who have audits that prove fiscal mismanagement. Yet, it is still unusual that the Harper government can continue to go unscathed by the public for the same issue, building fake lakes with the public’s tax dollars? To infer that we, as outsiders, have any say over what must or must not happen in Attawapiskat is illogical.
In a healthy democracy, we need to place our faith in the institutions that exist (including the very democratic public protest), and allow them their natural course. If her people demand her removal, then so be it. Dictating what should happen, makes outsiders no better than the bygone ‘Indian Agents.’ The community members of Attawapiskat have free will to do what they deem necessary, and it is time to shed the colonial way of thinking which believes that First Nations need management and direction–they have always been more than capable at coping with their needs. Which brings to the discussion again the ‘Duty to Consult,’ and how important it is in progressing First Nations into the future; under this duty, the government has a legal obligation to consult with bands that may be affected from land and/or resource development. Under the omnibus bill C-45, reserve lands are at stake–and there was certainly not any consultation regarding this change to the Indian Act.
Thirdly, the idea that Chief Spence had demands that evolved throughout the fast is completely unfounded (as is her diet, which remains fish broth, water and tea). Her demands from the outset were to meet with the Prime Minister and the Governor General. Yes, for some political scientists like myself, this is a difficult thing to grasp –the constitutional separation of monarchy in Canada is necessary for the government to perform its duties. However, her demands had always included the Governor General, and the reason behind it lay in her First Nation’s signature on Treaty Number 9.
Treaties across Canada are documents signed hundreds of years ago by the Canadian Government in the name of the reigning monarch, which in the case of Treaty 9 was King Edward VII, with Indians in northeastern and central Ontario. Treaty ‘Indians’ have and will always contend that the monarch was who their ancestors signed Treaty with, and the Canadian government will always remain in a position to facilitate funds that are supposed to flow from said contractual agreement. It was not a sort of ‘sensationalist display’ for Chief Spence not to attend the meeting with the Prime Minister, but a meaningful stand on principal for the plight of not only her people in Attawapiskat, but for all Treaty people across Canada–an identity which does not stop at the reserve boundaries (you, too, are a Treaty person!). Her demand to meet with both the Prime Minister and the Governor General is therefore not coming from way out of left field–it was always in the ballpark.
Finally, the fast can only be considered akin to historical protestors because of very real historical injustices (something we need not even begin to discuss – but I am more than sure you know which). To demean the fast, and to even ignorantly call it a ‘joke’ that she perish, is disrespectful, and in my opinion stems from an air of entitlement that is not befitting of university educated people (the same privilege that the Wanderer has addressed and the responsibilities attached with it).
It is also apparent that the article is specifically targeted to the middle-class, suggesting critical self-reflection before lending support to the cause. I, too, beseech you to do just that middle-class. Ask yourself if you are a supporter of equality, fairness and/or justice–although if none of those appeal to you, then what about breathable air, clean water or an undisturbed environment?
The opinion from the article came as a surprise though, of how one could become such an armchair critic of Idle No More and Indigenous politics. This has definitely become one of the more unusual outcomes of this entire movement, and it has spurred quite an interesting portrayal of Canadians from social media. It is quite evident that many of the radical opinions opposing the movement are derived from mainstream media, and not often from the grassroots level itself. It comes as no surprise then, that many of the major media outlets have begun to address the deep seated racism that exists in our country today (for example, the CBC and their continued concern about it and the online commentaries that ensue in articles about First Nations). No longer can we boast the basis of tolerance that we used to hold as integral to our Canadian identity. Deep down there exists a resentment toward Indigenous people of this country, that of which I thoroughly wish I were making up; If you don’t believe it, you need only look to Facebook and Twitter (wherein the former hosts a page dedicated to the resistance of Idle No More for example, and in the latter #Upsettlers are pointed out by @SettlerColonial), and more toxic are the comment sections of online articles for national and regional newspapers (although when reading you need to consistently remind yourself that this is 2013, not 1950).
Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that free speech (not hate speech), is just as much a cornerstone of our democracy, as are the public protests, and this is why Canada has been able to achieve some of its greatest accomplishments. To suggest that one should not protest in a democracy, is to suggest that one should only disapprove by standing in line and checking off a box, hoping the politicians get the message. Free speech is what allows me to provide an honest rebuttal to Pinkoski’s opinions, and to address the flaws in his article’s logic and the misunderstandings. In addressing the misgivings, I must also address that there is some merit to the article, in addition to his courage in offering his critique of Idle No More. He effectively defines and affirms that Idle No More is a mass protest through his definitions 1 through 4 (which is great), and although his cynicism masks the true intent of the movement, he does prove to be interested in equality for Aboriginal people (albeit I’m sure he means First Nations). In his closing statement he discusses the reformers of Indigenous politics, like National Chief Shawn Atleo, and pits him against traditionalists.
Traditionalists, Pinkoski suggests, live an expired way of life – to which Indigenous people, and surely First Nations, will disagree. It is guaranteed that National Chief Atleo would defend against such base claims of his traditional way of life. He has always been a proud supporter of traditional languages, practices and ways of life. If Pinkoski were ever to read a manuscript from Atleo, or read one of his columns in one of the national newspapers, it would be evident that despite being a reformer, he still retains his traditions. It is the cornerstone for all First Nations people, and it is the original fuel for the disapproval and contempt, which is found deep within the hearts of the grassroots people for the Harper government’s unilateral actions in his recent omnibus bills.
Nonetheless, this is something you can only learn on the ground within the movement; it is what will separate the armchair critics such as Pinkoski, from his ‘three camps’ that support the movement (of which, I have yet to see any attending the rally–Black Bloc sure has not been very visible!). It allows the individual to transcend the mainstream media, and will provide them with an honest understanding of what is truly happening within the movement–to really understand that violence is not what Idle No More supports.
To see real Indigenous politics, will remove barriers, stereotypes and prejudices of First Nations people, and will show more than what the media portrays – actually seeing Indigenous people for who they are, instead of a statistic, or a thirty-second clip. On the ground, one will see the treatment of First Nations by angry uninformed nut-bars; such as the one who racially assaulted a First Nations woman and family with hot coffee from a passerby while Boxing Day shopping at Kingsway Mall in Edmonton, or the protestors of the Queen Elizabeth II Highway on January 16th–who were being pushed by a motorist without any regard for safety, driving through the rally. By putting a human face to the movement you will gain a great deal of understanding why First Nations people are protesting; a genuine demand for equality, fairness and justice that has been long overdue.
Idle No More is about the rising up of a marginalized group of people, who have little to show than numbers in the attendance of these gatherings, and their use of those numbers should be seen in a positive light, instead of negatively (which means one must transcend what is propagated by mainstream media). Looking at the movement from a person-to-person point of view, you will see that violence will never be the answer. It is an absolute last resort, one that might have to happen to open the eyes of Canadians everywhere–and it only takes one event to change it all(think Ipperwash and Dudley George). Indigenous people are not only standing up for themselves and the beauty and protection of the environment–they are also standing up to protect the democracy that the forefathers of all Canadians stood up for many years ago. It is time for Canada to realize its full potential to also protect democracy, to support the right side, the Canadian side.
Brooks Arcand-Paul is a Cree, who graduated from the University of Alberta in 2012.