Idle No More: Indigenous people mount a high-profile challenge to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s policies

Since last November, a grassroots, indigenous-led movement has swept Canada and drew the world’s attention to new initiatives from the Canadian government that threaten the environment and indigenous communities. Of particular concern is Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s changes to Bill C-45 which would strip protections under the Navigable Waters Protection Act of 1882. On January 10, the movement outlined its vision, which “revolves around Indigenous Ways of Knowing rooted in Indigenous Sovereignty to protect water, air, land and all creation for future generations. The Conservative government bills beginning with Bill C-45 threaten Treaties and this Indigenous Vision of Sovereignty.”

The Idle No More movement has made effective use of contemporary flash mob protests and traditional round dances across Canada. Here is a moving video of an 11-year-old girl addressing an Idle No More rally in Courtenay, British Columbia. — Faye Brown & Jay Walljasper

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Supporters of Idle No More do a round dance in front of city hall in Kingston, Ontario, one of many actions across North America in support of indigenous rights and environmental protection. (Photo by Jonathon Reed under a Creative Commons license from

The Idle No More movement is part of a larger Indigenous movement that has been in the making for several years now. Indigenous activists all over Canada have been monitoring the political and legal scene at both the federal and provincial levels to make a concerted effort to help inform First Nation community members and leaders about potential threats. We noted a clear assimilation agenda that emerged within Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

We, of course, worked very hard to try all the usual channels to address our growing concerns, which included lobbying, letter-writing, testifying before Senate and Parliament, endless meetings with Members of Parliament (MPs), Senators, government Ministers and others—all to no avail. The Harper government was not interested in talking to us, let alone getting our consent.

At the co-called Crown-First Nation Gathering (CFNG) in January 2012, Harper promised First Nations his government would not unilaterally amend or repeal the Indian Act. After the CFNG, he broke that promise and proceeded with an aggressive legislative agenda that will include upwards of 14 bills which will devastate First Nations in various ways. In other words, Harper managed to bully his assimilation plan onto the First Nation agenda with hardly a squeak of opposition at the political level.

Harper’s proposed legislation posed an imminent threat and required immediate mobilization. That is how the Idle No More movement was born. The early activities included teach-ins, which helped explain the legislation’s potential impacts on First Nations and more importantly, what we could do to oppose it.

Idle No More, initially started by women, is a peoples’ movement that empowers Indigenous peoples to stand up for their Nations, lands, treaties and sovereignty. This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy that determines what any person or First Nation can and can’t do. There are no colonial-based lines imposed on who joins the movement and thus issues around living on & off-reserves, tribal status and non-status, treaty and non-treaty, man or woman, elder or youth, chief or citizen does not come into play. This movement is inclusive of all our peoples.

To my mind, the true governing power of our Indigenous Nations has always been exercised through the voice of our peoples. Our leaders were traditionally more like spokespeople. In this way, the Idle No More movement, led by grassroots peoples, connects very closely to our Indigenous traditional values.

We had teach-ins at the Louis Bull and Saddle Lake Reserves and other First Nation communities. We have posted information, publications and videos online for all to access. We have engaged the media to help educate the public about why this impacts them as well as us. The Chiefs organized a protest to oppose the legislation. Chief Spence went on a hunger strike to stand up for all First Nations and their treaty rights, which Canada has forgotten. Kids in schools have held Idle No More Rallies and there have been marches, protests and temporary traffic and railway slow downs. The core unifying theme to all of it has been that they are peaceful activities meant to help educate Canadians about how stopping this legislation is in everyone’s interests.

We are organized, we work very closely with one another across the country to strategize—and we are growing. Our allies increase every day as more and more organizations are joining the movement. Now we have widespread international support. You will see more and more prominent figures stand up to put pressure on the Canadian government to come to the table in a real, meaningful way.

Gaurdians of the Earth
To me, Idle No More is a responsibility to live up to the sacrifices of our ancestors, to the duty we have as guardians of the earth, and to the expectations that our children and grandchildren have of us to protect them. Regardless of our situation, I believe that we all carry that responsibility from the very moment the Creator blesses us with our first breath until our last.
This responsibility means that it is not good enough to work hard, get an education, find a job, and provide for one’s family. These are important things, and our ancestors did their best to ensure that we would have a prosperous future. Many even negotiated these provisions in some of our treaties. But, it is not good enough for us to simply be comfortable, at least not as long as we have brothers, sisters and community members who live without food, water or housing. Right now, many of our Indigenous peoples are facing multiple, overlapping crises that require emergency attention. The very grassroots people standing on the front lines of this movement are there because they are the ones without clean water, housing or sanitation and the politicians have done little to address this.

Unlike the Occupy movement, this movement involves peoples with a shared histories, experiences, goals and aspirations. We as Indigenous peoples are all related, we all care about each other’s futures and we share the same responsibility to protect our rights, cultures and identities for our seventh generation. This movement also has a special spiritual significance in that this was prophesied—that the seventh generation would rise and restore the strength of our Nations, bring balance and see that justice was restored to our peoples. 

This movement is also unique in that it includes Canadians as our allies. Just as the early days of contact when the settlers needed our help to survive the harsh winter months, and seek out a new life here, Canadians once again need our help. They need our help to stop Harper’s destructive environmental agenda. First Nations represent Canadians’ last best hope at stopping Harper from mass destruction of our shared lands, waters, plants and animals in the name of resource development for export to foreign countries. Why? Because only First Nations have constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights which mandate that Canada obtain the consent of First Nations prior to acting. These rights are also protected at the international level with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

When First Nations organize in Idle No More to oppose this legislation, they do so to protect all of our interests – First Nation and Canadian alike. The most precious resources in the near future will be farmable lands and drinkable water. If there is no clean water, this impacts everyone. We are standing up not only to protect our lands and waters, but we are also standing up to restore justice for First Nations and democracy for Canadians. We can work together to defeat this threat to Canada and find a way to share the lands and resources as the treaties envisioned. 

When asked what do we want, that question can be answered in two parts:

(1) In the short term, Canada must withdraw the suite of legislation impacting First Nations, amend those omnibus bills which threaten our lands and waters, and restore the funding that was cut to our First Nation advocacy organizations and communities;

(2) In the long term, Canada must set up a Nation to Nation process whereby First Nations and Canada can address many of the long outstanding issues related to the implementation of treaties and sharing the lands and resources.

Ultimately, we want to be free—free to govern ourselves as we choose; free to enjoy our identities, cultures, languages and traditions; i.e., to live the good life as we see fit. This means Canada must respect our sovereignty and get out of the business of managing our lives. Given that Canada has worked hard to put us in the situation we are in, Harper will have to come to table with some good faith and offer some solutions to address the current crisis facing many of our communities in relation to the basic essentials of life – water, sanitation, housing, and education. 

What Idle No More means to me is the coming together of Indigenous peoples from all over Turtle Island to work together to restore pride in our peoples, to stand up for our rights and live up to those responsibilities we have to one another and Mother Earth. 

It is inspiring hope, when many had lost hope that anyone would ever stand on their behalf. 

It has inspired pride in who we are as Indigenous peoples because our peoples and the ways of our peoples are beautiful and something to be cherished and defended. 

It has inspired leadership in those who thought they had nothing left to offer their Nations. 

It has inspired a reconnection of youth to elders, citizens to leaders and men to stand beside their women. 

It has inspired the most oppressed peoples to stand up and exercise their voices. 

We are alive again and the spirits of our ancestors are walking with us on this journey. 

I believe in the power of our peoples — we can do this!

Dr. Pamela D. Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, has been an indigenous activist her whole life. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads their Centre for Indigenous Governance. She is honored by the request of the Idle No More Founders to be one of their organizers and spokespersons. Working within this movement was a natural extension of the work she already does in First Nations with leaders and citizens.