Where did Chief Spence and Idle No More get off track? How did a movement that showed such promise lose so much momentum? Three reasons.
One, if you have a compelling message — and Idle No More inarguably did — stick to it. Have one “ask,” not 100. Idle No More lost the public because, after a while, no one could figure what it was about anymore.
Two, have a single spokesman saying one thing — not a disputatious chorus, all clamouring for time before the TV cameras and thereby creating communications chaos. At the start, Chief Spence was the face of the movement. Eventually, every other First Nations leader seemed to be trying to get in on the action, creating confusion about who led Idle No More, and what it hoped to achieve.
Thirdly and finally, don’t alienate the folks holding the microphones and notepads. The moment Chief Spence and her allies started to physically bar — or eject — reporters asking unwelcome questions, they were doomed. At the start, their main allies were the media. When Chief Spence lost them, she lost the larger war. Idle No More could have secured positive change — and may still. A few short weeks after it began, however, it has been hurt by too many messages, too many spokesmen and a grave miscalculation about the media.
For First Nations willing to pay heed, Idle No More offers lessons about how to do things. And how not to do them, too.
Idle No More
Ostensibly the movement’s ire is directed at the Harper government, though for reasons that are not widely understood. The four Saskatchewan women whose protests first ignited the movement may have been focused on Bill C-45, the omnibus budget bill — notably its provisions relaxing federal oversight of navigable waterways and lowering the threshold of democratic approval needed for bands to authorize development on reserve land.
But as more and more putative leaders have jumped in front of the parade, from Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to the Mi’kmaw activist and Ryerson University Chair in Indigenous Governance Pam Palmater, the checklist has expanded to include the whole of the Harper government’s approach to aboriginal issues. Contrary to early media reports, it is not Harper’s neglect that inspires their wrath, but rather his activism.
In Palmater’s writings, the Harper agenda is nothing less than the deliberate “genocide” of aboriginal peoples, in the most literal sense of the word: not merely their “assimilation” or “termination,” in the ambiguous terminology preferred by other native leaders, but their complete elimination, “socially, culturally, legally and physically.” Though her most oft-cited specific evidence of this is the reduction in funding to aboriginal activist groups, she is in no doubt that the Harper agenda is about “getting rid of Indians once and for all.”
Nor is she alone in this belief. Here’s Daniel Wilson, former senior director with the Assembly of First Nations: “Indigenous death and despair serve the government’s purpose … through underfunding and interference with local governance, the current government is starving people off reserves [to] make it easier for the government’s friends in the oil, gas and mining industries to go about their business unhindered.”
How is this murderous agenda being pursued? Among the dozen or so bills activists cite are the following: Bill S-8: The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act; Bill S-2: The Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Right Act; Bill S-6: The First Nations Elections Act; and Bill C-27: The First Nations Financial Transparency Act. Oh, and: Bill S-212: The First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill. Those monsters.
If you are puzzled how providing safe drinking water or recognizing self-government add up to genocide, well, you need to take responsibility for your own racism. But here’s the thing. If you interpret Harper’s motives and actions in such a fantastic light, then it is not just his government you must denounce: it is anyone who collaborates with it.
And indeed, the longer Idle No More has gone on, the more it has become clear it is not so much a dispute between aboriginal Canadians and the Harper government, but between rival factions in the aboriginal community: between modernizers such as former chief Manny Jules, chairman of the First Nations Tax Commission, or Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, who are prepared to work with the Harper government, and what one might call the fundamentalists, such as Palmater.
The fundamentalists represent the traditional agenda of aboriginal activists, focused heavily on the legal and political arena. In this model, the advancement of aboriginal peoples is at heart a collective matter, based on treaty rights, land claims and reserves under communal property ownership.
The modernizers would not, I think, deny the importance of much of this. But their focus is less on abstract constitutional principles and more on giving individual natives and bands the tools they need to participate in a modern, market-based economy: education, for example, and property rights, a particular concern of Jules (he is co-author of Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights).
While on one hand I respect the fundamentalist’s desire for the traditional way of aboriginal activists, I can’t see it working in a global economy. The lack of capital which comes from individual property ownership, will limit aboriginal economies indefinitely yet if they give it up, you would see a system where successful and powerful families will one day own the reserves at the expense of other families. Also if you take individual property ownership to the full extent of the law, some will allow outside investment and eventually lose control. Maybe a good thing economically but a bad thing culturally. It’s already happening in some ways with the formation of urban reserves.
Lot’s of questions and it’s going to be a long time before the struggle between the modernizers and fundamentalists plays itself out.