Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper is preparing to meet with a delegation of First Nations chiefs on Friday (January 11), a long-time indigenous activist says this should not be viewed as a success for the Idle No More movement.
Indeed, Gord Hill told the Georgia Straight the high-level meeting actually represents the co-optation of the grassroots indigenous-sovereignty movement by band chiefs and councils that owe their power to the paternalistic Indian Act. According to the 44-year-old Kwakwaka’wakw author of The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, the Canadian government has historically used these “elites” to suppress efforts by First Nations people to fight colonialism and oppression.
“I wouldn’t even focus on January 11,” Hill said by phone from his East Vancouver home. “That’s something that the colonial regime and its collaborators are doing, so I wouldn’t even focus on that. People need to focus on the long-term strategy and methods of organizing.”
Hill calls himself a “critical supporter” of the Idle No More movement, which was started in October by four women in Saskatchewan, has rallied around hunger-striking Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence, and has seen thousands take to the streets inside and outside the country. Although he hasn’t yet joined the ranks of Idle No More protesters, Hill is considering participating in the “global day of action” set to coincide with Harper’s meeting on Friday.
Meanwhile, Khelsilem Rivers, a Skwxwú7mesh community organizer, is helping coordinate January 11 protests in Canada and internationally. The 23-year-old activist previously helped stage Idle No More flash mobs at the Vancouver Convention Centre, Waterfront Station, and Park Royal.
On Friday, Rivers will attend an Idle No More rally at Vancouver City Hall (453 West 12th Avenue) at 1 p.m., which will be preceded by a march from the Native Education College (285 East 5th Avenue) starting at noon. There will be a flash mob at Robson and Burrard streets at 5:30 p.m.
Rivers stressed that Harper’s meeting won’t mark the end of Idle No More but the beginning of the “unprecedented” movement’s next phase. According to him, Idle No More has brought many indigenous and nonindigenous people together to discuss and take action on common issues, including the erosion of aboriginal rights and environmental protections by the Conservatives’ Bill C-45. Such conversations can help clear up misunderstandings among many Canadians about the role and history of First Nations in Canada, Rivers told the Straight.
“They see us as another ethnic minority with special rights, so they talk about it in terms of equality,” Rivers said by phone from his home on West Vancouver’s Capilano reserve. “What they fail to understand is that there’s a long history of legal and constitutional reasons for why indigenous people are considered nations and why we identify as nations.”
Judith Sayers, a former chief of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, describes herself as “just a part of the movement”. The UVic visiting national-aboriginal-economic-development chair told the Straight the federal government must stop “ignoring” its constitutional duty to consult First Nations, whose people are now rising up to save what’s left of their lands and resources. And she cautioned that without unity between the grassroots and the chiefs, Idle No More will fail.
“I am excited that people are engaging, that I can see the common community person standing up and saying, ‘I’m opposed to Bill C-45 because blah, blah, blah,’ ” Sayers, 56, said by phone from the UVic campus. “How long has it been since I’ve been able to see that in our communities? People are standing up; they’re wanting to get engaged; and they want to talk about systems of government other than the Indian Act.”
For his part, Hill sees the Idle No More flash mobs, round dances, and blockades that have occurred as “really positive steps” because they’ve mobilized many previously “idle” indigenous people. But the activist argues that if the movement is to gain substantial concessions from the government, it needs to learn from social movements in Latin America that are capable of “paralyzing the economy” of their countries. So he’s critical of the founders and some organizers of Idle No More for opposing any actions that fall outside of peaceful protest.
“This is disarming the people,” Hill said. “It’s imposing pacifism on them, and it’s dampening their warrior spirit—their fighting spirit—which we need in a resistance movement.”
Jarrett Martineau, a 35-year-old PhD student in indigenous governance at UVic, helped create the j11action.com website to promote Friday’s day of action. Although the member of the Frog Lake First Nation in Alberta believes that no one should tell people “this is the only way to protest,” he maintains that peaceful civil disobedience can be and has been effective.
Indian Act chiefs have a “relationship” with the movement, Martineau told the Straight. But he argues that First Nations need to reestablish their traditional forms of governance. Fortunately, many youth involved in Idle No More are “in it for the long haul”, according to Martineau.
“We’re trying to point the focus away from what’s ultimately an administrative, photo-op meeting—that’s going to be the thing with Harper—towards the bigger movement,” Martineau said by phone from Victoria. “I think that’s partly, for us, why we think it’s going to be a historic day, because it marks a transition in terms of the people’s movement really taking ownership of the movement itself, independent of elected leadership.”