By now, you’ve definitely heard of the Idle No More movement: an Indigenous-led wave of protest and demonstration in support of treaty rights and against the Conservatives’ Bill C-45. With support now growing internationally and Attawapiskat First Nation’s Chief Theresa Spence’s related hunger strike dragging on to nearly a month as of press time, the movement is living up to its name.
Much has been made of Idle No More’s connection to the Attawapiskat nation, mainly because Chief Theresa Spence is a common denominator in both. In 2011, Spence declared a state of emergency in her community of 1 500. The footage that poured out of Attawapiskat depicted derelict houses that shocked even the most staunch we’ve-given-First-Nations-enough naysayers. The Red Cross intervened while the federal government demurred. And on Dec. 11, 2012, in one of the most reported scenes of the Idle No More protest, Spence declared she was going on a hunger strike until Prime Minister Harper and a representative of the Queen agreed to meet with her.
Harper, after dragging his heels, agreed to meet with Spence and other First Nations representatives on Jan. 11, one month after her strike began. Still, Spence says that, depending on the outcome of the meeting, her strike may continue.
Idle No More’s success in raising awareness has prompted a fierce online debate — one that, like many online slugfests, doesn’t always confine itself to the rules of common decency. It’s disheartening to read the comments on stories about Idle No More posted on many Canadian news outlets’ websites. What’s particularly disturbing is the emotion behind them — the dismissiveness about the whole issue. While one could argue that you can’t extrapolate the opinions of a community at large by the inflammatory comments of a handful of online trolls, anyone who has spent time in much of Canada can verify the reality of the racist atmosphere behind these comments.
While one can find no shortage of personal attacks on Chief Spence when scanning through online comment boards, why, one could ask, aren’t there more comments being made addressing the grievances that are driving Idle No More as whole? Why are people only willing to view this issue through a European settler’s cultural lens? Why are people trying to be so dismissive about this and not putting their energies into understanding First Nations’ concerns? Maybe it’s because people would rather forget about their colonial history. That, yes, this land was actually stolen from others (and not too long ago). Maybe they find that’s all too hard to deal with, and best left forgotten.
In 2011, Attawapiskat was an anomaly — not in its chronic underfunding, but in the attention it received. In 2012, it is, at the very least, heartening to see that it is no longer the exception when it comes to media attention. It is simply one of many First Nations communities making themselves heard. And we should all be thankful for that. Idle No More isn’t just about systemic racism —it has repercussions that will affect all Canadians.
Before C-45, more than 2.5 million lakes, rivers, streams and shorelines were protected under Canada’s Navigable Waters Act. Today, only 97 lakes and 62 smaller bodies of water are protected. As Pamela Palmater, a spokesperson for Idle No More said in an Al Jazeera interview, “First Nations, Aboriginal and treaty rights, which are constitutionally protected, is the last best defence that all Canadians have to protect these lands and resources.”
Canadians have to overcome our stereotypes, assumptions and cultural boundaries and come together against the current abandonment and future pillaging of our natural resources.