If you want to understand Idle No More, listen hard to what people don’t say. Listen to the emotions that emanate from them when they gather. Listen and hear everything from joy and pride, to anger and shame. And great disappointment too, for believing government promises time after time.
The shame I’ve heard seems to come from peoples’ sense of helplessness, of being told change and improvement are hopeless – and believing it. They’re fed up at being sucker punched by the Government time after time, and having shame pressed upon them by society. They don’t like feeling that way. They don’t want their kids to feel that way. Not anymore.
Listen to the drums and songs. It’s about the flip-side of shame – pride. About getting off the sidelines. About the end of waiting for someone else to do something. It’s a declaration that comes out loud and clear. Enough. Enough!
Young people latched onto Idle No More because someone came up with a message that they understood immediately. It didn’t preach. It didn’t tell them they were apathetic or that they didn’t matter. Idle No More didn’t imply that they were too young to understand, too disconnected from reality, that they couldn’t change anything. Quite the opposite. Idle No More’s message was clear – get off your butts and do something about it.
People who heard the Idle No More message were tired of a previous generation’s hypocrisy. That generation rode in on the crests of grassroots movements seeking fundamental changes in Canadian society. The pass laws were stuck down. Residential schools were torn down. The Sixties Scoop had been exposed. People rose up and defeated the 1969 White Paper – at least for the time being. People marched, demonstrated, were beaten and arrested for trying to get protection for their rights in the Canadian Constitution. They thought they’d won. Not the war but one stage in a long struggle for dignity.
People of that previous generation became comfortable with their new status in polite Canadian society. They began to believe they had real power instead of scraps from the Federal table. The media reinforced this myth by annointing a National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) the “eleventh premier”. Nice fairy tale. For children.
But people back home watched the Canadian government replace residential schools with prisons as its new assimilative vehicle of choice. The Sixties Scoop might be over but more Indigenous children than ever were taken into custody, removed from their families and lost to their communities and cultures. Mold, TB and suicides prospered while languages and ceremonies withered. People started to wonder: When did we stop moving forward?
People of this new generation saw compromises and steady erosion of their rights under the farce called Federal “consultations.” No matter how many times people said they wanted more control over their lives and territories, a share of the wealth, and a “renewed Federal relationship”, Ottawa strangled it and every other attempt toward Indigenous self-rule. Instead, Ottawa pushed “provincial partnerships” that translated into the dumping of federal responsibilities and cuts to programs and funding.
Complicit in this farce were national Indigenous organizations. Instead of resisting, the AFN became a paid consultant, helping the Federal Government tweak its policies of termination. The Harper Government’s First Nations Education Act, a joint AFN-Aboriginal Affairs initiative, is one example. One can argue, and many do, that the AFN had no choice but do its best to soften the blows and mitigate damage to Indigenous rights. But it’s hard to think otherwise when a majority of bands across Canada condemned the process and refused to give credibility to these so-called “consultations”.
So it goes, on and on.. This didn’t stop the Federal Government from pushing its agenda, or the AFN from endorsing Ottawa’s FN Education Act. Now hold on! Real Indians don’t collaborate with their own termination. Right? This newer, younger generation found it all hard to understand. But somehow they saw through the bullshit – every damn bit of it. They understood precisely what was going on. And they felt ashamed.
Early into Idle No More, the mainstream media seemed confused because the usual suspects didn’t seem welcome or invited to the “round dance” parties put on by this “grassroots movement.” Of course, the national chief and executives of the Assembly of First Nations weren’t invited. Why should they be? What didn’t the media get? This wasn’t the AFN’s party. That was precisely the point, and the message.
Instead of plumbing for deeper meanings and motives, however, most reporters searched for any familiar talking head to explain Idle No More. Where’s chief so-and-so, the media wondered? Why isn’t he here? What does the national chief say? What’s the national organization’s position? Reporters demanded and got their predictable, dependable, recognizable faces and exactly what they wanted t hear. But they were asking the wrong people and getting the wrong story.
Stupidity reached new heights when media panelists, experienced reporters and pundits, began to say things like: “it seems the national chief is losing control.” Control? Over who? Over what? The national chief is a national lobbyist — not a national dictator controlling what every Indian says or does. He had nothing to do with the flash mobs. These were ludicrous comments by experienced journalists. Bizarre and even dumb because it showed they were prepared to mislead the public with bullshit rather than admit they didn’t know what was going on.
Today the full court press is on. Let the slander fly. The Prime Minister doesn’t take kindly to being embarrassed, or having his plans upset by something as unruly as flash mobs. Most embarrassing. The flash mobs went from one end of Canada to the other, then across the United States to the South Pacific and even onto the pages of European newspapers. You have to remember that in Harper’s version of Canada, there is no such thing as “colonialism”. Oh, yes, there is – chanted these flash mobs. Embarrassing, indeed.
There will be consequences. For starters, Harper’s propaganda machine will chew up and spit out Cree Chief Theresa Spence just as surely as it ripped apart former Liberal leaders Dion and Ignatieff. Slander doesn’t require truth. You’ve probably heard the machinery humming, getting louder and louder in the pages of the National Post, on Sun News and in the comments sections of most daily newspapers. Idle No More meet the knuckle-draggers.
Spence isn’t the real target though. She’s just a convenient symbol created by the news media. She’s the means to a popular movement that must be destroyed. A leaked copy of an unpublished audit of Attawapiskat’s finances sounds horrendous. But we’ve seen the character assassination going on for weeks. A year. The key messages: Chief is corrupt. Chief is a fake. Chief not really on a hunger strike at all.
In fact, that last key message became typical of the anti-Indian prop exemplified by a “full comment” article in the National Post: You call that a “hunger strike,” Theresa Spence? It joined a previous article on the growing list of anti-Indian tripe published by Canadian newspapers, including one from the keyboard of NatPost columnist, Christie Blatchford. The attacks, perhaps even hatred, had the opposite effect. It provoked people from different communities and of different colours and politics to stand up, speak up, and strike back. To them, the issues weren’t just “Indians” but fundamental fairness and justice.
The PR campaign against Idle No More will push a similar line. That campaign will state that Idle No More is scamming us all. It’s a rogue movement without support from “legitimate leadership” or “elected chiefs”. Idle No More is operating outside normal “parliamentary mechanisms”. It has “vague aims”, and “no clear or practical objectives”. In short, the government’s campaign will condemn Idle No More as a mishmash of malcontents with nothing constructive to do or say.
The media will be complicit. It’ll provide platforms for chief and senator, pundit and academic to push these lines. Idle No More will be sneered at as a false movement, an example of meaningless hacktivism, about as valid as online petitions. People who jumped into round dances, they’ll say on line with this bit of negative PR, were duped by bright colours and fanciful dances. People were taken in by a bit of feel-good theatre without substance. At least, that’s what the media will repeat without much skepticism until – we hope – they notice the puppet strings.
Another propaganda campaign, like so many in the past, will attempt “lowering expectations”. Harper agreed, under pressure, to a couple of meetings between the Federal Government and Indigenous peoples. The first meeting on January 11 will sketch an agenda and ground rules for a bigger meeting on January 24. Harper will attend these meetings with some of his cabinet, along with the AFN with a small, handpicked group of chiefs. The second meeting, on January 24, will be much larger. Expect a good show with lots of fluffs and feathers, pomp and pomposity. An endless series of photo ops.
Do not expect substance though.
“Lowering expectations” is code for dictating that the only outcome of such meetings is no outcome at all. Status quo. No change but maybe some bright baubles and good clip for TV. The mainstream media has been a willing partner with the Federal Government in passing similar warnings before meetings like last January’s so-called “historic Crown-First Nations Meeting”. Ironically, that was the real bit of empty theatre scamming us all.
The media will play it’s part again, and as before, whispering voices ion our ears saying nothing will really change. The stage will be set. The curtains will rise. Cue the ridiculous photo ops. Let this farce begin and the players take to the stage to recite their predictable lines.
It’s a way of relieving pressure, buying time until Canadians forget what the hubbub was all about. The target audiences, you see, will be average Canadians — not Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples will be expected to head home, to wait, and probably to be disappointed yet again. Another meeting with the usual suspects and a predictable outcome.
Meanwhile, the real purpose is to convince Canadians that it was all a dream. Once the players have left the stage by the end of January, the audience will be expected to forget. Forget why they joined hands at flash mobs in shopping centres in December. Forget how they marched with people down frozen streets in the January cold. Forget their government’s abusive relationship with Indigenous peoples. Go back to the couch and Hockey Night in Canada. Forget it ever mattered.
The “Lowering expectations” messages will try to induce collective amnesia among average Canadians but it will have other objectives as well. The first is to undermine and neutralize political pressures created by unruly grassroots movements like Idle No More. The second objective will be to remind everyone that the Federal Government prefers the status quo and wants to work with the AFN because it’s easily controlled and predictable.
The Harper Government will want people to think it’s concerned with lofty ideals, justice or human dignity. It’s not. For the Harper Government, it’s about political expediency and putting Canada back under a spell of forgetfulness. You never saw a thing.
Do not expect the Harper Government to hit the brakes on Bill C-45, or to change its commitment to privatize Indian lands and speed up the disintegration of reserves. Don’t expect any real change in the Federal-Indian relationship. Harper’s Government may have (finally) agreed to sign the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but that doesn’t mean it will respect it.
The Federal Government’s Indian policies have always been about getting Indians off their lands to take out resources and leave a dispossessed peoples behind. It’s been about dominance and exploitation from the start. And it’s been very profitable for Canada.
The wild card is this populist movement that crosses racial and political lines and has international appeal. Its aims are simple. It’s about hope, and a challenge to individual people from whatever community to get involved to make real change happen. It’s going to be very hard for any government to make people forget that once they’ve taken that first step.