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From Occupy to Idle No More

Idle No More protest in Winnipeg on Dec. 31, 2012. (WNV/Matt Sheedy)

Idle No More protest in Winnipeg on Dec. 31, 2012. (WNV/Matt Sheedy)

My first experience with the Idle No More phenomenon came on Dec. 21, 2012, at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square. The sight of round dances and the sound of drum circles offered a stark contrast to the flashing lights and billboards that surround the city’s commercial epicenter. (Think Times Square.) While the action that day — marking the end of the ancient Mayan calendar — was one of the more publicized INM events to date, it represents only one of literally hundreds of mobilizations by this growing movement, which has produced rallies, teach-ins, sacred fires, blockades, hunger strikes and occupations since its humble beginning among four aboriginal women from Saskatoon early in October of last year. From there, it has grown to become the largest and longest peaceful aboriginal uprising in Canadian history, with events being held in solidarity around the world.

Since December 21, I have attended several INM events after returning to my home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, including a sacred fire in front of the provincial legislature and a large gathering on New Year’s Eve, where upwards of 1,000 people converged on the city’s main intersection.

As a member of Occupy Winnipeg, and a long-time activist and academic with an interest in social movements, what is most striking to me about INM is how it has been able to galvanize people from across the nation in a way that was lacking during the many Canadian occupations during the latter half of 2011. At Occupy Winnipeg, for example, where upwards of 60 tents held their ground in Memorial Park across from the provincial legislature between October 15 and December 21, one of the biggest challenges was building ties with the city’s large aboriginal population. While First Nations people were active participants in the movement, the two months of this novel experiment in direct democracy and horizontal decision-making were hardly enough to bridge the gaps caused by centuries of abuse, mistrust and segregation. When the eviction of Occupy Winnipeg finally came, some saw it as a sign of failure, while others took the lessons they had learned to strengthen their ties with like-minded communities around the city, the country and the world.

In the months that followed, Canada bore witness to at least two national movements that carried on the Occupy movement’s spirit. The first was the Quebec student mobilization, which, at its peak on May 22, 2012, saw as many as 500,000 people march through the streets of Montreal in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. After nearly seven months of protest, the movement won a victory when the Liberal Premier Jean Charest lost to Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois, who promised to scrap a proposed 75 percent tuition hike as part of her election campaign. While attention was largely focused on this electoral victory, more important was the rejuvenation of the political left in Canada through a clear example of how a popular movement can change things for the better, or at least prevent the worst from happening. More than this, however, was how the Quebec students were able to reignite the province’s long history of grassroots organizing and horizontal decision-making.

A lesser-known movement also emerged in the spring of 2012, calling itself the National Stop Harper Campaign. The name came from a widely reported event in Canada in June of 2011, when a young woman named Brigette DePape held up a homemade stop sign reading “Stop Harper” during session in the Senate in Ottawa. Her message spread on T-shirts and stickers, which helped to spur a growing meme around the country against the Conservative prime minister. While the group held two national events, including rallies in 17 cities on Sept. 17, 2012, perhaps its greatest contribution was in helping to give Canadians a more relevant symbol of national resistance than Wall Street ever could. After all, Canada had not suffered a housing crisis nor a massive bank bailout like that in the United States. But the prime minister represented many of the same forces of corporate rule and the erosion of democracy.

Beginning quietly in early October, four aboriginal women held rallies and teach-ins in Saskatoon to spread awareness about new legislation regarding the violation of treaty rights and environmental protections in the Harper government’s massive omnibus budget, Bill C-45. The bill, which later became law, makes it easier for companies to exploit the natural resources in tribal areas and facilitates the construction of a planned tar sands pipeline. The movement gained national momentum on December 10, and it has since become a phenomenon like no other in the country’s history.

Unlike Occupy Canada or the Quebec student movement, Idle No More has been able to combine both nationwide appeal and mass participation, while at the same time pointing toward a concrete symbol of resistance in the figure of Stephen Harper. It has been made all the more powerful by the high-profile hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who since December 11 has occupied Victoria Island, a tiny land mass just beneath parliament in Ottawa, demanding a meeting with the prime minister as the main condition for ending the fast.

While INM began as and remains a First Nations-led and First Nations-focused movement, it has the potential to represent more than an awakening of Canada’s most oppressed and maligned peoples. First, as INM spokesperson Pamela Palmater pointed out in a recent interview on Al Jazeera,“First Nations, aboriginal and treaty rights, which are constitutionally protected, is the last best defense that all Canadians have to protect these lands and resources.”

Here she is referring to how the Harper government, in its quest to kick open the door to private oil, gas and mining interests, recognizes that existing treaty rights represent a significant impediment to achieving their goals. In perhaps the most shocking example of this, recent legislation saw the number of federally protected lakes, rivers and streams go from over six million to just over one hundred.

Second, whereas the Occupy movement sought to create a politics of mutual aid and solidarity in the face of a divided, apathetic and individualistic consumer culture, it had neither the time nor the opportunity to fully address the deep fissures created by class domination and racial discrimination. Where Occupy fell short, Idle No More has succeeded in bringing those most marginalized both into the fold and into roles of significant leadership.

While it is not at all certain where Idle No More will lead, nor what will happen after Chief Spence meets with Prime Minister Harper as planned on January 11, INM marks an important and powerful stand against the domination of corporate and government elites that is literally poisoning our wells. Canadians, and indeed all people, should recognize this struggle as their own and as a crucial opportunity to organize and build relationships to sustain the long fight ahead.

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