Idle No More, an exercise in fleeting infamy

A year ago, aboriginal protest captured the nation’s attention
First Nations Idle No More protestors march and block the International Bridge between the Canada and U.S. border near Cornwall Ontario, Saturday January 5 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
CP/Fred Chartrand

“There are many native Canadians who appreciate the benefits of the schools where they received an education that enabled them to cope with life outside the reserves. How about recounting some of their testimonials?”—Michael Barnes, of Haliburton, Ont., in a letter to the National Post

Fame, infamy, those precious fifteen minutes, that elusive zeitgeist—it’s all so fleeting. A year ago, all at once, aboriginal protest achieved ubiquity. Blockades, flash mobs, court fights, hunger strikes, and a fraught meeting with the prime minister managed to get the country to sit up and, for a moment, take notice of the long-standing and fundamental problems of its aboriginal people.

Idle No More’s massive mobilization of young people, and its fragile hold on the news agenda that seemed so improbable, accomplished at least that momentary eye contact with millions of people who, from dawn until dusk, never otherwise considered the plight of the Canadian aboriginal. Then, in a flash, the country seemed to move on. If there were blockades or flash mobs or hunger strikes, few in the mainstream took notice.

And then, a year later, this morning, Michael Barnes pleaded with his fellow readers in a letter to the National Post. He was responding to the news, reported last week, that 4,000 aboriginal children died in residential schools. “Every now and again, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission comes out with a gloomy press release recounting aspects of the lives of children educated in residential schools,” wrote Barnes. “Let us hope that another side of the ‘truth’ might be forthcoming.” Plenty of young aboriginals, he continued, had a fine time in those schools. “How about recounting some of their testimonials?”

Barnes is probably correct, strictly speaking, in some way or another. Probably, some aboriginal kids weren’t scarred for life by residential schools. He must have met a few, at least, and that’s why he feels an impulse to write. But what’s remarkable is how he so categorically misses the point. Thousands of people died, but what about the good times?

The aboriginal protesters who blockaded Cornwall’s International Bridge on Jan. 5, 2013 had such high hopes. They were one among myriad protests on Canada’s roads and railways. They had so many eyes watching. Now, their moment has passed, and Michael Barnes wishes the country would stop ragging on residential schools. Happy anniversary, Idle No More.

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