Activist group Idle No More gets busy again in Canada

Indigenous tribes of Canada plan day of protest for Monday, vow they're just getting started

One of the 1,000 Idle No More protesters who gathered on the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ontario, last January and blocked traffic for several hours.
Geoff Robins/AP

In the past few weeks, First Nations groups in Canada have set up a blockade to stop shale-gas exploration in New Brunswick, marched outside the Ontario premier's house to protest high mercury levels and forced a coal-mining company in British Columbia to delay exploratory drilling.

The protests are part of a growing First Nations activism that took root in Canada last winter with the powerful movement known as Idle No More. The mass protests, which drew thousands to snow-lined streets across the country, have gone quiet in recent months, but activists insist the fight is far from over.

On Monday they will try to take that message to the wider public, with 50 events planned across Canada and the United States, along with an estimated 10 other countires, including England and India. That day marks the 250th anniversary of the British Royal Proclamation, which led to the founding of Canada.

"We must collectively send a clear message that our movement will not stop intervening in Canada’s attempts to conduct business as usual," says a statement from the group declaring Oct. 7 a Day of Action.

Activists are now hoping for a reset on the relationship between aboriginal and nonaboriginal people. Monday coincides with the arrival of the United Nation's special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, who will begin a week-and-a-half-long tour investigating the plight of the country's aboriginal peoples.

Planned events for the day range from a flash-mob round dance in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to a picnic in Toronto to a protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

'Perfect storm' of outrage

An Idle No More supporter blocks Highway 2 as part of a planned national day of action in Edmonton, Alberta last January.
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press/AP

Idle No More began, the story goes, with a flurry of emails among four women in Saskatchewan.

They worried a new piece of federal legislation — Bill C-45 — would erode indigenous rights and strip environmental safeguards that protect water, land and air quality. The hefty piece of legislation, known as an omnibus budget bill, meant changes to the Indian Act, the Navigation Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act.

In November 2012 they held a meeting with local activists. Soon after that, one of the women, Jessica Gordon, sent out a tweet with the hashtag #IdleNoMore. It would remain a trending topic in Canada for much of the winter.

After the first nationwide Day of Action last December, flash mobs, railway blockades and street demonstrations began to pop up across the country.

Activists developed a set of demands as the protests continued to grow. Idle No More called for the federal government to honor historic treaties between Canada and First Nations and move toward peaceful coexistence.

Meanwhile, Theresa Spence, chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, went on a hunger strike over the housing crisis in her community. The result was a cross-country aboriginal protest movement that many described as unprecedented.

Chelsea Vowel, a well-known First Nations blogger, attributes the unrest to a "perfect storm" of outrage.

"There was a lot of anger about the stereotypes and prejudices being displayed, and then on top of it there were these very intrusive pieces of legislation," says Vowel, a 35-year-old Métis woman who lives in Montreal.

The future of Idle No More

Idle No More protesters demonstrate outside the British Consulate at College Park in Toronto last January.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press/AP

After a winter of frenzied protest, however, Idle No More started to fizzle out.

"The energy that came out of that, fundamentally, is not sustainable," said Clayton Thomas-Muller, national campaigner for Idle No More, explaining the slowdown.

Spence agreed to end her strike in January after Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with a group of First Nations leaders. Most of Idle No More's demands weren't met, and the legislation passed anyway.

Planned actions through the summer months, coined Sovereignty Summer on a slick website, drew far smaller crowds and rarely made the headlines.

Vowel, though, believes a foundation was laid for further activism.

She explains that online tools like Twitter and Facebook have helped bring together aboriginal activists scattered across Canada. She adds that there are encouraging signs the terms of debate have shifted at least a little since Idle No More began.

"Over the past year, there has been more of a representation in the media of our voices," says Vowel, who works as an educator in Montreal. "I think it's become less common for people speaking on our behalf, and that was the norm before for a really long time. People weren't willing to listen to our issues unless a white person said them."

The women of Idle No More

Idle No More protesters marching toward the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ontario, last January on a national day of action.
Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press/AP

If Idle No More appears to have slowed, there's still plenty of action behind the scenes.

One evening late last month, Melissa Mollen Dupuis gathered with a dozen First Nations women in a Montreal university classroom to lay out their plans for a day of protests.

Dupuis, a 35-year-old Innu woman who lives near Montreal, started the Quebec chapter of Idle No More last winter. She wants to focus more on educating the public.

Her group is pushing for changes to the province's high school history curriculum to better explain the devastating impact of government policies like the residential school system. Thousands of aboriginal children were forced into church-run institutions, where many suffered mistreatment and abuse.

Across the country, pockets of First Nations activists like Dupuis are working toward the same goal. Many of them, observers have noted, are young, educated aboriginal women — a fast-growing segment of Canada's population.

In Canada, there are more than 1.4 million aboriginal people, making up 4 percent of Canada's population. Poverty, however, is an issue. A study released this summer found that half of Canada's First Nations children are living below the poverty line — triple the national average.

There is also a disproportionately high number of missing and murdered native women in Canada. The apparent lack of action by law enforcement to take on the issue is a major concern among protesters.

Despite those grim numbers, Thomas-Muller sees cause for optimism. He's encouraged by events like a reconciliation march in Vancouver last month, which drew an estimated 70,000 people despite rain. He contends that Idle No More will one day be looked upon as a "turning point" in Canadian history.

"We have been forced into a situation where a line has been drawn to stop harmful projects threatening our air and our water and our clean earth," he says.

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