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Idle No More: A profound social movement that is already succeeding

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I haven’t written about Idle No More yet because I am inspired by the plethora of Indigenous voices that we are finally hearing across the country, including of late in the mainstream media. If I learned anything from the women’s movement it is that we have to speak for ourselves, not be represented by others, however well meaning and supportive. Instead I have devoted my support for the movement to sharing the many brilliant and informative articles, the announcements and reports of events and the beautiful graphics and photos from Idle No More to my rather large social media network. The spurious attacks against Chief Theresa Spence over the last couple of days have made me decide to speak out.

I don’t know if Theresa Spence is a good chief. It seems to be that is up to the members of Attawapiskat to decide. Others, more informed than I, including most eloquently Chelsea Vowel who writes the blog âpihtawikosisân, have countered the attacks against her by pointing out, among other things, that most of the problems reported in the audit happened before she was elected chief in 2010. A fact that most media is ignoring.

What I do know is that Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has inspired a generation of Indigenous youth to stand up, organize and speak out. “She is prepared to die for us,” one young man explained. Whether or not she is a good chief to her reserve is irrelevant to the fact that she is a courageous and inspired symbol for her people. What’s more, she has accomplished what no one else has been able to do, including the premiers. She has forced Stephen Harper to do something he didn’t want to do.

The other thing that is driving me crazy is this constant questioning of whether Idle No More is a movement, whether it is the new Occupy, what it can possibly accomplish. Yes, Idle No More is a movement. I’ve been part of and studied social movements all my life and it fits the description of a movement perfectly. Of course, it looks different than the movements people of my generation, like journalist and environmentalist Terry Glavin, are used to. It is a 21st-century movement decentralized and deeply democratic in the sense that much of the initiative belongs to the grassroots. In that way, it looks like Occupy but as Pam Palmater, now a spokesperson for Idle No More, has explained, it is a movement of a group of people with a common identity and despite the different history and cultures of their nations, a common history in relation to Canada. In this way, the Idle No More movement is better compared to the civil rights movement and women’s movement.

As to whether they will effective, my answer is they have already been effective. First and foremost, they have mobilized Indigenous people, the most oppressed group in our country, by showing them that they can organize and make change; that many non-native people will join them; and that their culture is beautiful and worth celebrating.

This is always the most important feature of a social movement. This was what the black liberation movement, including both the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, did for African Americans. They did not achieve full equality but who amongst us would claim they didn’t achieve anything. Similarly with the women’s movement of my generation. The most important change we made was not the rights we won or the laws we changed, however important they are, but the change in women. When I was young, women didn’t think they could be politicians, journalists, musicians, artists, carpenters, lawyers, doctors, professors. We were supposed to support men to do all those things. It was when the women’s movement started organizing and demanding equal rights, that our consciousness was changed. The consciousness-raising groups of the late ’60s and early ’70s, much ridiculed in the media at the time, showed us that what we thought were personal problems were really political and social problems and that women were capable of solving those problems collectively.

Oppression only works when the oppressed internalize the idea that they are inferior to the dominant group. Breaking out of that paralyzing internalized oppression is central to any movement. Idle No More is breaking out of internal oppression, both through celebrating Indigenous culture and through providing hope of change.

For the first time I can remember we are hearing and seeing multiple Indigenous voices in the media. Last night TVO’s the Agenda had a panel of four speakers, three of whom were Indigenous. They had many agreements and some differences but it was a great discussion and I learned a lot. On the same night, the National had a panel with two Indigenous people, promising the first in a series in the “countdown to Friday.” I have seen individual Indigenous leaders in the media, usually the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, but I never remember hearing from this many Indigenous people. That’s another accomplishment of Idle No More.

Idle No More is being led by women, which is amazing and wonderful. Perhaps they are also providing a direction of change for the women’s movement. It may be time for women to move much more into the lead of bringing change to our communities, our countries and our planet. I think the mostly female leadership has provided a very different approach than men often do. The unity they have achieved, the non-violent nature of the actions and the focus on relationships all reflect this difference.

What Idle No More wants is as significant, if not more significant, a change to our culture and our country as the black liberation or the women’s movement. And just as white people and men have to recognize their privilege and how they benefit from the oppression and discrimination of black people and women to be true allies, so we settlers have to recognize the great privilege each of us has, as a result of the colonial exploitation of First Nations historically and today. The problem of the relationship between First Nations and Canada is not just a government problem, not just a problem of a right-wing philosophy, it is all of our problem. This means trashing the stereotypes, learning the history and the real economics of the relationship between Canada and First Nations. This too Idle No More is accomplishing by inspiring through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, articles and teach-in as well as alternative and mainstream media coverage. I have provided some links at the end of this article.

Idle No More builds on a proud history of Indigenous struggle for self-determination at a national and international level. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal, Section 35 in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are all the result of those struggles upon which Idle No More is building. The American Indian Movement, the struggle led by George Manuel for Section 35 to be included in the constitution, the successful battle to defeat Meech Lake, inspired by Elijah Harper and Oka as well as numerous local and regional battles. But so far, the achievements of these movements and struggles and the laws and reports produced have not fundamentally changed the conditions of First Nations or their relationship with Canada. Idle No More is saying ‘enough’. The time has come to end the broken promises and recognize the rights of the first people of this land. I must say that Idle No More is much more generous to us settlers than we in the women’s movement were to men. As a result, the support from progressive Canadians has been extraordinary and hopefully will grow.

The other reason there is so much support from non-native Canadians is because Idle No More is posing the struggle as in our interests as well. As Pam Palmater has said so eloquently, “Canadians need to realize that we are their last best hope at saving the lands, waters, plants, animals and resources for future generations because our Aboriginal and treaty rights are constitutionally protected.”

It is Jeffrey Simpson and others who support the current neoliberal economic system that are living in a dream palace (whatever that is). They believe that we can continue exploiting the planet in the interest of profit, putting economics before survival. If that isn’t living in a dream world, I don’t know what is. We have to make a sharp turn away from the politics of Stephen Harper and his like not only by electing someone else the next time but by changing our relationships to each other and to the planet. From what I’ve seen, Indigenous people whether in Bolivia or in Canada seem to have a better idea of how to do that than anyone else. If that makes me a romantic, so be it.

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