Fresh hope for indigenous rights in Canada as new generation of activists gains support

Ben Whitford charts the rise of Idle No More, a movement gaining broad appeal as it attempts to protect the land and water upon which indigenous Canadian communities depend

One morning in mid-January, thousands of Canadian indigenous activists braved the wintry weather for a national Day of Action protesting a litany of perceived social and environmental injustices. These included Bill C-45, a controversial law that in 2012 revoked key protections for Canada’s waterways and paved the way for the construction of new oil pipelines.

Marching beneath the banner of the Idle No More movement, the demonstrators assembled on railway lines, bridges and highways, creating human blockades that threw the Canadian transport network into chaos. Though the protests only lasted a few hours, government ministers claimed the disruption risked tipping the entire country into recession, and one conservative columnist warned darkly that Idle No More would “radicalise a generation” of embittered aboriginals.

The angry confrontation of January’s Day of Action was a far cry from Idle No More’s humble beginnings, just months earlier, as a simple Facebook page used by four Saskatoon women to chat among themselves about native rights. Sylvia McAdam, one of the group’s co-founders and a member of the Cree First Nation, remains uneasy about the blockades, which weren’t officially sanctioned by Idle No More, and says she never intended to become a rabble-rouser. “I’m not an activist I’m not an environmentalist at all. I’m a lawyer, and I’m a mother,” she says. “I’m way out of my comfort zone.”

Still, when prime minister Stephen Harper’s government first proposed Bill C-45, McAdam and her friends decided they couldn’t sit idly by. Adopting the moniker Idle No More, they began organising teach-ins and prayer circles to raise awareness of the threat to the land and water upon which Canada’s indigenous people have long depended.

The group’s combination of indigenous pride and environmental awareness hit a nerve with young Canadian and indigenous activists, and soon the four women were being invited to speak at events around the country. Buoyed by a savvy social media strategy and eye-catching stunts such as impromptu drum circles in shopping malls, Idle No More evolved with dizzying speed into a national movement: a rallying point for those angered by the many environmental and social wrongs endured by Canada’s aboriginal community.

Anger over past injustices is nothing new in the indigenous community, says veteran First Nations activist Russ Diabo. Since the earliest days of white settlement, Diabo says, Canada’s native peoples have been displaced and disenfranchised by colonial settlers seeking land and resources – and that’s bred a deep-seated resentment among indigenous people.

“Every generation is taught about the betrayal, how the government has stolen our land and resources and not acknowledged our rights,” says Diabo.

What’s different about Idle No More, he says, is the way that it’s been able to harness that anger to mobilise not just rural communities, but a new generation of urban, educated indigenous people. McAdam and her friends have also proven able to reach out to non-native activists, with their focus on environmental justice, rather than solely on indigenous rights, helping them draw liberal greens into their coalition.

That makes Idle No More “every bit as important as the Occupy movement,” environmental crusader Bill McKibben wrote recently. “Its organisers are among the most committed and skilled activists I’ve ever come across,” he added.

Idle No More’s protests have drawn an international following, with solidarity demonstrations held in countries from Nicaragua to New Zealand, and in dozens of locations across Europe and the United States. That’s a sign that the group has tapped into a global trend, says Glen Coulthard, a First Nations scholar at the University of British Columbia.

“There has been an awakening among indigenous people”

Idle No More’s ability to grab headlines and shape the political conversation appeals to native groups who have long been sidelined, and gives them fresh hope that meaningful change is possible, Coulthard explains. “There has been an awakening among indigenous people … who previously didn’t feel they had a voice,” he says. “There’s a consciousness building among our communities that I think is profoundly important.”

That grassroots energy has caught the attention of indigenous leaders, some of whom have sought to leverage Idle No More for their own agendas. Most notably, in December, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence claimed affiliation with Idle No More before going on hunger strike until Harper agreed to meet with indigenous leaders. This made her the public face of Idle No More for many Canadians — a fact that rankled McAdam. “Idle No More is the face of all indigenous people,” she told reporters.

McAdam now plays down the divisions as growing pains; her focus is on ensuring the group’s protests and demonstrations are steps towards real change, rather than merely opportunities for people to vent their frustration.

Direct action, like the blockades seen during January’s Day of Action should be “strategic, careful and peaceful,” McAdam says. That means the next round of Idle No More blockades will likely seek to deny miners, loggers and oil workers access to ecologically sensitive lands, rather than to cause gridlock on commercial routes. It’s not a perfect solution, but McAdam says she’s come to the conclusion that direct action is the only way to ensure Canada’s lands are preserved for future generations.

“When my children ask me … I want to be able to tell them that I did all that I could,” she says. “That’s my measuring stick.”