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Idle No More: Women Leading Action for Indigenous Rights in Canada

FRIDAY FILE: Idle No More (INM) is a Canadian resistance and protest indigenous people’s movement that kicked off last year. AWID spoke with Dr. Lynn Gehl* (Gii-Zhigaate Mnidookwe), an indigenous human rights advocate, about the movement.

By Gabriela De Cicco

Idle No More calls on all people to join in a peaceful revolution, to honour Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect the land and water". The vision of INM is to continue to help build sovereignty and resurgence of nationhood, to pressure government and industry to protect the environment and to build alliances in order to reframe the nation-to-nation relationship, by including grassroots perspectives, issues, and concerns.

As Lynn Gehl, who has participated in some Idle No more (INM) actions says, “Indigenous people in Canada have been resisting colonization for a very long time. It is really important that I point out, that indigenous resistance predates this concept (1). Idle No More, though, is a new name to describe what we have been doing. It is great that we have this new construct as it is invigorating new life and giving us new energy in directing our agency forward.”

Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean, and Nina Wilson gave birth to the term in the western Canadian province, Saskatchewan, as they discussed the impact that some State policies, advocated by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, could have on the country’s First Nations.

Lynn Gehl explains that Stephen Harper, who is a conservative, is responsible for passing bills and legislations through the Canadian Parliament, which attack treaty rights, water rights, indigenous human rights and the rights of all Canadians, “All Canadians need clean air, clean land and clean water, not just indigenous people, yet it was indigenous women who sparked the Idle No More movement we are currently in.” The momentum for the movement has been built through organised events, Twitter (#idlenomore), and others actions such as Lawyer Pam Palmater who began blogging about indigenous peoples' rights, and writing for newspapers. Gehl goes on to say that last year’s Assembly of First Nations elections saw, for the first time, four women running in the election, which has further added to the momentum occurring in Canada.

The founders of INM rallied to provide information on Bill C-45, which was an attempt to modify the Indian Act without prior consultation with the First Nations. They also provided information on a set of proposed laws affecting environmental protection. Meetings were replicated in other communities as the importance of rising together to claim their inherent rights as a sovereign nation became evident. A National Day of Solidarity and Re-emergence took place on December 10, 2012. This large event was momentous due to the number of Nations and the diversity of groups that were involved. Since then, actions including, teach-ins, demonstrations and rallies have continued to grow across Canada, inspired and called by the Idle No More Movement.

On how the movement organized and spread the word, Gehl and others have credited that to social media revolution. She notes, “Social media has revolutionized our relationships. For example, I have never met the four founding women, yet we communicate through Facebook. People use social media differently, and in the Idle No More movement we’re using it for political purposes. It is phenomenal”.

Winds of change?

As Pamela D. Palmater – a lawyer from the Mi’kmaq People – has said, what those involved in Idle No More want is to be free, "free to govern ourselves as we choose; free to enjoy our identities, cultures, languages and traditions”. According to Palmater, the INM movement is part of a broader indigenous people’s movement that has been exposing the clear assimilation agenda – to assimilate First Nations into existing federal and provincial orders of government - coming out of the conservative government, while also planning a response should the Prime Minister carry his plans forward. Palmater states that through intimidation, Harper managed to impose his assimilation plans "onto the First Nation agenda with hardly a squeak of opposition at the political level”(2).

Idle No More demands that legislative changes be implemented as a result of “nation to nation” agreements between the Government and the First Nations. In their manifesto, they say, “The spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources”.

But Gehl explains: “Canada lacks the political will required for meaningful change to occur, and this will not change unless Canadians insist that the government begin to honour indigenous treaty rights. For example, the Algonquin Anishinaabe of the Ottawa River Valley are in the process of a land claims and self-government settlement. Canada refers to this as negotiating a treaty, but it is no such thing. The Canadian Parliament resides on Algonquin Anishinaabe territory yet the offer recently tabled consists of a mere 1.3% of our traditional territory and a $300 million one-time buy-out. This offer is both insulting and arrogant. Canada is not respecting our jurisdiction to our land and resources, yet this is the only way we're going to live as self-governing people.”

Nevertheless, Gehl, points to a positive change based on her knowledge and experience of the long history of colonization, not only in terms of land but also culturally speaking: “I think there has been a change. Because the Canadian education system teaches state nationalism many Canadians do not understand indigenous issues and rights, and they don’t understand that our rights are their rights too. Through this Idle No More movement a lot of non-indigenous people have been awakened. Along with teach-ins, the INM movement is producing art, songs, videos, podcasts, and blogs that people are accessing via social media and the Internet. Also, one of the founders − Sheelah − is not indigenous, she is an important ally who is a Canadian. This has shed light on the need for principled alliances that are rooted in genuine solidarity rather than false solidarity. Succinctly, we need to follow the turtle or the most oppressed in any movement forward. This shift in thought is an important shift.”


Let the grassroots voices be heard

The founders of the IDM Movement are convinced that grassroots voices need to be heard. This requires supporting and encouraging communities to create and manage their own discussion and learning spaces, where they can learn more about indigenous rights and their responsibilities towards Nationhood, through teach-ins, assemblies, on-line courses and social networks. For them a key strategy is to build relationships with allies throughout Canada and to carry out actions that contribute to building relationships with international bodies like the United Nations that can help to expose the conditions under which indigenous people have been oppressed and to affirm their sovereignty at the international level.

Using new communication platforms, blogger and educator âpihtawikosisân, of the Cree Nation, convened an Idle No More Women’s Townhall that took place on January 26, 2013. An interesting exchange of collective knowledge took place during the videoconference, and some of the suggestions and ideas shared during the event were grouped by the blogger on a post on her blog. One of the debates was about indigenous languages as a way to re-emerge and keep culture alive. Participants shared their experience of “Language Nests”,that work on the premise that young children acquire language naturally in immersion settings, learning from community members including Elders, parents and grandparents.

Communication and the flow of information were also discussed in the Women’s Townhall. The movement has grown dramatically in a short time on social networks, but the challenge is how to deepen the communication between the communities and the broader Canadian population. A point of concern was that the use of new technologies makes INM seem an urban phenomenon, even though many actions have been carried out in rural communities. The use of other media like community radio or leaflets will be important to address the lack of access to Internet or social networks by some communities.

* Dr. Lynn Gehl (Gii-Zhigaate Mnidookwe) is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley, Ontario, Canada. She is a learner-researcher, thinker, writer, Black Face blogger, and an Indigenous human rights advocate for 27 years.


1) “An important point of rebirthing and revitalization of the movement, was in 1969, when the Canadian government turned out the White Paper, whose intent it was to eliminate indigenous people's rights. And that moment there was a great solidarity movement of indigenous people across Canada. So 1969, is often cited as another important point in indigenous resistance.” To read more about the White Paper:

2) Article Idle No More: What do we want and where are we headed?

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