Idle No More: more than protest is needed for progress

Theresa Spence wants to meet with the PM. But for what?

A First Nations member waves a flag on Parliament Hill. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Clarity and detail, I realize, can’t reasonably be demanded at a demonstration. Walking around Ottawa’s “Occupy” encampment last year, for instance, I asked the occupiers what they were against, and “greed” was a common answer. Up on Parliament Hill this afternoon as this winter’s first real snow fell, I asked “Idle No More” protestors what they wanted, and “justice” came up a lot. Hard to know what to make of those answers.

I don’t mention this to disparage either group. In fact, I think the Occupy movement, despite the fuzziness of its aims and prescriptions, accomplished something significant by elevating income inequality as a serious topic the broader economic policy debate. Perhaps the recent upwelling of discontent among First Nations represented by Idle No More will, given time, similarly coalesce around some theme worthy of greater prominence.

So far, however, there’s no sign of that. Idle No More came to wide attention  began (comments below rightly correct me on the movement’s Saskatchewan origins) as a social-media-driven expression of frustration by aboriginal youth. But if today’s lineup of speakers on the Hill is any indication, mainstream figures have successfully honed in. Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, claimed pride of place in speaking last. He was, as usual, vague and overblown. Atleo’s big rhetorical flourish was to claim that Canada says aboriginals “do not exist as a people.” His focus was tighter on a few points, however, notably his demand for attention to the horror of “murdered and missing indigenous women and girls.”

That’s clearly an important matter to raise. So are some of the other issues associated with Idle No More. For instance, some First Nation people no doubt have particular concerns about the Conservative government’s changes to environmental regulations. Some object to how the omnibus budget bill, passed before the House broke for the holidays, streamlines the voting process a reserve must follow before leasing land to non-natives. But narrowly framed issues like these, though important enough, must matter less than underlying bitterness over the poverty that blights too many First Nations communities.

That so many natives, especially in remote places, don’t have jobs or even the prospect of steady employment seems to be behind the hunger strike that Chief Theresa Spence is staging not far from Parliament Hill. She’s from Attawapiskat, the Northern Ontario reserve where substandard housing, and the related questions about mismanaged band finances, drew national attention last year. Complicating the picture is the fact that Attawapiskat isn’t far from a thriving diamond mine. “Land and natural resources,” Spence wrote in an open letter, “continue to be reaped by the federal and provincial governments through taxation of corporate resource companies with little compensation to First Nations for use of our traditional territories.”

She demands a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But to ask for what exactly? Harper can be fairly accused of too often avoiding face-to-face encounters (the provincial premiers haven’t been able to coax him to their table), but he did attend a summit of First Nations leaders last January, and by all accounts took those discussions seriously. It’s hard to imagine him agreeing now to a meeting with a far less certain agenda, in far more emotionally heated circumstances. That’s not to suggest the woes behind Spence’s individual action, and the broader movement she’s partly inspiring, are not urgent. The question is how to move from nebulous protest to purposeful negotiation.

To merely express sympathy with Idle No More would be patronizing. Speakers on Parliament Hill today mentioned past moments when protests put First Nations’ issues briefly in the public eye—the 1990 Oka crisis, even 1974’s Native Caravan. These were raised as inspiring memories. But all I could think was how publicity in the past didn’t solve any problems. For this time to be any different, leaders will have to emerge who are more interested in arguing for concrete solutions than in organizing public events.

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