December 11thth, 2012 marked the beginning of First Nation Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike. Spence gave the country an ultimatum and in turn demanded a meeting with the government to discuss the fragile state of indigenous treaty rights, and Canada’s relationship with its First Nations peoples. After a protracted stalemate between the Prime Minister and grassroots pressures, Harper finally agreed to a meeting on January 11. Spence, referred to by some supporters as “our lady,” has become the figurehead of the Idle No More movement.
Initially triggered by Bill C-45, which undercut the protection of Canada’s waterways and reduced the number of votes required to relinquish indigenous land to development projects, the Idle No More movement has come to stretch beyond legislation, encapsulating a wide spectrum of long-standing frustration shouldered by Canada’s First Nations.
The recent social movement has enjoyed an almost unwieldy evolution with the help of social media; forms of protest have expanded well beyond demonstrations on Parliament Hill, having taken diverse forms ranging from flash mob round-dances to CN railway blockades. The message, however, has remained the same: there must be an end to “chronic underfunding of essential human services,” premature deaths, “youth suicides, over-representation in child and family services, prisons and hundreds of murdered, and missing women.” In sum, Canada must change its relationship with its indigenous peoples.
Many Canadians agree: Idle No More has met the support of public figures such as the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, and activist Naomi Klein. Across Canada and beyond its borders, throngs of advocates have been championing the #idlenomore hashtag, sustaining a constant flow of information and support through various social media sites. Indeed, a quick gloss over a comment section on a news article or on www.idlenomore.ca should leave you with a sense of pan-Canadian pride and unity.
One of the movement’s primary goals has been to “improve Canada’s understanding of the issues facing First Nations.” Internet comment boards have provided a window into the successes and failures of this endeavour. Although the medium has dispensed a space for support, debate, and critical analysis, it has also given way to polarization: having simultaneously created a corollary forum for the expression and distribution of racist counterattacks. The following is exemplary of the type of rhetoric that has been comfortably employed and defended in response to Idle No More: “The aboriginals on reserves are virtually a totally dependent group – The hunting and fishing era is over – the internet and satellite TV, Alcohol and drugs are in!” And while the comment was met with criticism at large, an Anonymous user offered their semi-confessional encouragement: “You[‘re] just expressing what everyone else is afraid to.”
Anonymous’ response conveyed an apprehension towards social admonition, but other posters are not held back by such shame. A young movement, Idle No More already faces an all too recognizable arsenal of stereotyping and prejudice—complaints over ‘handouts,’ accusations of corruption, appeals for assimilation. Although it is widely acknowledged that implicit and structural racism are still highly relevant, comment boards have unveiled a disturbing level of acceptance for its explicit and unabashed counterpart.
Certainly, Idle No More has made laudable progress in a small window of opportunity. The public is more aware, more informed, and perhaps more supportive than ever. Nonetheless, Canada’s pervasive and seemingly ‘acceptable’ perspectives on its First Nations herald a long, painful and rocky process of relearning.
– M. Polar
(Featured photo: Thien V, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 1 jonathonreed, Creative Commons, Flickr)