Monday, January 28, 2013

"Idle No More" Global Day of Action


Carolyn Mackie is a student at the Institute for Christian Studies and a Research Assistant for the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics.

January 28th marks the “Idle No More” Global Day of Action. Gatherings are planned in cities around the world, and I have decided - much to my surprise - to attend the rally in Toronto. Political rallies are not the sort of thing I usually get involved with, but, after doing a little research on the Idle No More movement, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is something I want to support, even if it’s only by adding my presence at a rally.

Begun as a grassroots movement by a handful of First Nations women in Saskatoon, Idle No More has emerged into a worldwide phenomenon, with peaceful protests popping up across Canada and the United States and in cities as diverse as Cairo, Berlin, and Auckland. Yet in spite of these impressive shows of support, it has not escaped controversy, particularly in light of Chief Theresa Spence’s recent hunger strike. A quick internet search reveals the broad spectrum of opinions usually raised by political issues, with a percentage of informed and insightful comments at what is perhaps the standard rate.

As a non-aboriginal Canadian, it can be intimidating to try to engage with the Idle No More movement in an appropriate manner. I realize that I will never be able to fully understand what it is like to experience life as a First Nations Canadian. Too often the attitudes of non-aboriginals have been based on the false assumption that we can judge what First Nations people should do and become. The truth is that First Nations people have their own unique histories, perspectives, and priorities, and this needs to be recognized in any dialogue.

But the story doesn’t have to end there. One of the exciting things about Idle No More is that, while it has been initiated by First Nations people, we have all been asked to participate. Its concerns are far-reaching, ranging from environmental issues to the ways in which Canada chooses to interact with her peoples. Rather than creating a barrier between First Nations and non-aboriginals, Idle No More is a movement begun by First Nations people for all the people. In a happy reversal, the colonizers have been invited to join with the colonized.

Unfortunately, it’s an invitation that many Canadians will not bother to accept. The reasons are many: ignorance of what the movement is hoping to accomplish and what is at stake, suspicion of its efficacy, racism, and – perhaps the most difficult force to overcome – the inertia of apathy.

Everybody knows that the problems facing First Nations people in the 21st century are enormous and need to be addressed somehow. Everybody knows that the environmental decisions we make today may have huge ramifications in the future. But the idea that “things will never change anyway” has more power over us than we may care to admit. Equally lethal is the idea that I only need to be concerned with that which directly affects me.

The First Nations have extended the invitation. We can’t rewrite the past 500 years of history, but maybe it’s time to work towards a relationship based on equality. And if anyone is uncomfortable with that idea, maybe it’s time to ask ourselves why.  

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for your post, Carolyn. I would like to overcome my ignorance in this matter. What are the specific issues the movement in Canada (or worldwide, if there is some homogeneity) is targeting? My superficial knowledge from the tidbits of things I read and hear in relation to the First Nations People's rights and the quality of their reserves can lend me a guess or two, but I am wondering if these guesses are correct and what specifically we are invited into to promote and change? "Tell me what to believe!" Haha, just kidding. But yea, could you tell me anymore about what their main foci are?

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    1. That's a great question, Sarah, and it can be a little difficult to answer. At an Idle No More event at McGill University, lawyer Aaron Detler was quoted as saying, "It’s not supposed to have a focus... if you focus something, you want to draw lines around it, control it, you want a certain message to get out and you want to deny the interconnection between all these different issues." Idle No More is a holistic, grassroots movement and it seeks to address a variety of issues. However, if I have to narrow it down, I would suggest that the two core issues are:

      1. Environmental concerns related to the use of Canada's land, water, and other natural resources, and the way in which decisions relating to these resources are made.

      2. The very basic issue of what it means to be First Nations people in relationship with the nation of Canada, and a call to return to an equality based relationship, rather than a "conquering/conquered" kind of relationship. The First Nations people were never "conquered" and, in theory, have always shared the land with other Canadians on the basis of Treaties. However, in reality, the relationship has often shifted to that between colonizer and colonized peoples.

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  2. That answers my question well - it is wide enough in scope to incorporate Detler's point (although to my pragmatic mind I think focus is a necessary prerequisite to change and collective action), and specifies the most urgent areas of concern. I think those are both very important matters, and they have my explicit support. Thanks Carolyn!

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  3. Thank you for writing this, Carolyn. It's a topic that needs addressing, and the more people who begin to talk about it, the better. I have been doing my own reading on it as well, and one thing that has struck me again and again is how the dimensions of land use/care and economic justice are so integral to the needs of the movement, and to all of Canadian society. One of the most striking comments I read was by Stefan Christoff, a writer from Montreal, who wrote, "Today, Conservative politicians openly claim that Canada has 'weathered the storm' of global financial crisis, very often pointing to the strong 'energy sector', while never addressing the intensely colonial dimensions to Canadian economics. Canada's major mining and oil and gas sectors are largely wired to totally ignore and undercut previously signed treaty agreements and Canada's international legal obligations to aboriginal people." (That article can be found here: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/20131289123344980.html) This echoes what the movement itself is saying, where it focuses in its manifesto on the way the land and resources are used without thought to treaties or to the effects of such use on the land: http://idlenomore.ca/index.php/about-us/item/120-manifesto

    We at the Centre are just now in the midst of the early planning stages of a major conference on topics of economic justice to take place in a year and a half from now, so I admit that my ear is a little more attuned to such issues than it has been in the past. Having been trained in the humanities, I was unsure how to approach thinking about economics in all the concrete details it requires. But then I became involved in working for social justice and started following some of the threads back to where they are rooted: in economic issues, which are themselves rooted in the control of land and resources. The more I look at economic justice, the more I see that it is the ground (or lack of ground) on which we all stand. If we cannot address this issue, the very ground on which we stand (both metaphorically and literally) will be unjust and, it seems increasingly, polluted beyond recognition.

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    1. I really agree with you, Allyson. Sometimes it's hard for us to see the deeply rooted connections between economy, environment, and social structures, but I think it's so important to try to discern those connections so that we can see both the factors motivating economic decisions and the potential fruit of those decisions.

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  4. Idle No More as it appears in the blog and comments sounds a lot like the Occupy movement. Radical democracy engages people but has a hard time disciplining people to act in concert in a sustained way that creates pressure for determinate change in the political structures of the day. So is the point process and popular engagement or effective pressure politics for change. Or is the hope that popular engagement will morph into an instrument of disciplined pressure toward determinate changes? How realistic is that hope? It seems to me that these are the sorts of questions that have been asked about the Occupy movement and can now be asked about the Idle No More movement. There is a difficult choice unless it can be demonstrated that one need not choose. Heretofore, we are still waiting for such a demonstration, or am I blind?

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    1. You're not alone in seeing the connections between the two movements, Bob, and a lot of people have expressed concerns like yours. Idle No More may get people excited, but is it the kind of movement that is capable of producing any lasting change?

      My hope is that Idle No More will indeed motivate people to take the needed steps to bring about actual change in the political sphere, but even if no direct cause-and-effect change happens, I am somehow reluctant to dismiss the movement on that basis. Idle No More (like Occupy) is not merely a political movement, and although I'm a little hesitant to phrase it this way, I think it's a movement that expresses the heart-need of a people group within our nation. Not only their voices but their hearts need to be heard, and my personal hope is that at least Idle No More will help a few more people to listen. Baby steps.

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    2. Speaking on the Occupy movement and those like it, Bob, I think that a few things are important outcomes, and I hope to see similar (or even more pronounced) outcomes from the Idle No More movement. Thanks for bringing this question up.

      You note a difficult choice between "process and popular engagement" and "effective pressure politics for change", unless it can be proved we don't have to chose. I wonder whether movements like Occupy are not exactly such a demonstration, though we can always hope and work for better. Let me explain.

      With Occupy's rallying cry of "we are the 99%" came a greater social awareness, I would argue, of how social inequality is not just a problem for those living below the poverty line, but across the board. And if we look back to the recent presidential election in the States, what was arguably the comment that sunk Romney's campaign? It was his assertion about the "47% of Americans" who just think of themselves as "victims," and who he doesn't have to think about. (This quote, by the way, recently earned Romney the top spot for "most influential quote of the year" as released by Yale Law school: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/09/mitt-romney-47-percent_n_2267422.html.) So my question is, would that remark have been more than just a blip on the campaign trail without all the priming from Occupy? Would Mother Jones have even broken that story as big news? Would people beyond those who already wanted nothing to do with Romney have cared? Of course we cannot say for certain, but I can imagine how, in a world where Occupy had never happened, these things would not have gained the momentum that they did--even among people who were not part of Occupy, but could not help hearing what it was saying (perhaps whether they admit to it or not).

      Social transformation is notoriously difficult to measure or predict. Likewise with the social movements that attempt to inspire and effect it. Will Idle No More be able to force real policy change that will have important and positive effects on people within the next year, which would be the "determinate changes" I assume you are talking about? I don't know. I hope so. But whether it can bring in changes in government action in the immediate future, it will (just like Occupy) be inspiring and even training groups of people to organize, to question, to speak up, to demand change; to become more active in society and demand more justice by those who govern. Those same people may come to the conclusion that the movement they started out in doesn't have the ability to do what they want to do, and they may begin tackling the issues in other more policy-centred ways that no longer are associated with Idle No More. But those changes would still have had their birthing moment in the Idle No More movement, because it is what began to make them possible on a larger scale. Meanwhile the general public, whether it admits to it or not, will have heard the message: "this is injustice, and it needs to change." We will have to see what fruits come of that in the next years and beyond, even while we work for change now.

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  5. I think Bob asks a question that all movements for widespread social and economic change need to ask themselves at some point. On the one hand, these movements understand the systemic nature of the problems they hope to address, and are therefore justifiably hesitant to restrict their scope to specific issues. So, the consciousness raising moment is an important one that must not be bypassed too quickly. On the other hand, to effect real change, these movements cannot simply neglect or trivialize the task of engaging current political power structures. There are effective ways to politically organize so that those who currently have their hands on the levers of political power are made accountable to the people and not just too the lobbyists with the most money. My fear is that if this work is not done, or if its importance is minimized, the political moment to make real change (represented by Idle No More and Occupy) will have been missed. A great book that deals with this aspect of the problem is Jeffery Stout's recent "Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America".

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    2. The task of engaging political power structures is definitely an issue that needs to be discussed.

      I think these movements have become disillusioned with 'effective' or traditional ways of political organization. How justified is this disillusionment? I'm not sure. On the one hand I'd like to say it's simply because the movements aren't willing to be patient or focus on realistic incremental steps. On the other hand hyper political partisanship has handicapped many of these traditional mechanisms. I'm think here about the media, unionization, political parties, the arts and non for-profits. Maybe you have something else in mind when you talk about effective political organization?

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  6. Good question. What I would mean by effective political organization is a capacity to get popular buy-in and sustained pressure toward determinate changes or a coherent set of proposal for change and to deploy that pressure in ways that catch the attention and interest of those whose actual choices and actions realize change. If energy, commitment and the like is too diffuse, it fritters away; it pressures no one and change is highly unlikely. But yes the ideological model of 'effective' change creates a partisan ethos that is has little cultural traction beyond the professional partisans. So do we have to change the culture of the partisans before the marshalling of political energy and commitment behind a program and vision of change can appear seemly and attractive? How does that happen?

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  7. The "Industrial Areas Group" Network in the US (and the "Greater Edmonton Alliance" is also a chapter) have actually developed an effective method over the years for making politicians accountable. The first step is facilitating the gathering of a dispersed group suffering from a certain social ill, and helping them bring their concerns to a precise level of articulation so that they can approach those in power with specific, doable, requests. The next step is to perform a power analysis in the particular political region, and find out which politicians need to be engaged. Then, these politicians are approached and asked whether or not they would support the proposal being put forward by the newly organized group. Then follows a period of polarization, where those politicians/ power brokers who say they will support the proposal are kept accountable to that promise, and those who refuse support are engaged as opponents. Afterwards, no matter how the issue is resolved (or not), the group engages in a process of depolarization so that lines of communication remain open going forward. The entire method is community-based, and not dependent on partisan politics. Using these methods, the Greater Edmonton Alliance was successful in organizing the farming community northeast of Edmonton to resist Oil Sands development of prime agricultural land for refineries. The group pushed the issue to the point of the City of Edmonton officially adopting a sustainable urban agriculture strategy in their official growth plan. This kind of organization and pressure might not be as fun as the street theatre of Occupy, or as intriguing as the black cloaks of Anonymous (although the Edmonton Farmers' "great potato giveaway" was inspired), but it has proven to be effective time and again. The premise is that politicians respond to pressure. The only way to apply pressure if you aren't a professional lobbyist backed by big corporate bucks is to organize. It is not easy, but it can (still) be done, imo.

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    1. Hi Ron. I'd like to offer the observation that movement-events like Idle and Occupy are more about solidarity than the issues that they seem to be championing. I don't think it's useful or even accurate to critique them as if they are attempts at organised action, and then dismiss them as "street theatre". They represent an emerging trend. Exercises of human solidarity *ought* to be "fun".

      I know that for me Occupy lost its lustre when a band of the usual lefty suspects decided to behave as if they were going to become its organisers. These were successful activists and I should perhaps have been happy that they were lending their weight and expertise, but I was not. Others expressed the same sentiment. The mood is more open than that, and consciously anti-partisan. It's difficult to see that character through the issues that people attending these movement-events rally around unless you are among them, physically present. In that light, the issues are almost entirely secondary. (and I'm sure that statement would be met by howls of protest from many involved in such movement-events)

      We think of activism as confronting power. I think it's useful to think of movement-events like these as confronting social stalemate. No one really has any expertise in that yet, but some are trying to see what can be done.

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  8. For a helpful interview with Idle No More leaders, by Lorna Dueck, "The Spiritual Side of Idle No More" on the Globe and Mail website.
    shalom,
    John Hiemstra
    See
    http://m.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/the-spiritual-side-of-idle-no-more/article8765756/?service=mobile&post_id=1518422059_346901765419203#_=_

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