By Tiffany Pan, Kara Giesbrecht, Kimberly Bui, and Madihah Asif
If an opinion piece is a place to start a dialogue, then as four UBC students, we hope this can serve to open a space for discussion surrounding indigenous rights in Canada. News coverage of Idle No More has waned in recent months, and for some this seems to be an indication that the movement is also losing momentum. However, as part of a fourth-year UBC political-science seminar looking into the role of the ethical advocate, we felt the need to address the disconnect between the inclusive message of INM and the often vicious public reaction to the movement. We are not First Nations people and cannot hope to speak on these issues with equal authority, but as Canadians, we are often bewildered by public attitudes toward and media coverage of INM.
Idle No More rose to national consciousness through the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence, and was ignited by the infamous Bill C-45; it soon spread internationally as an inspiration for many indigenous people also living under neocolonial oppression. Their emphasis on respecting treaty rights and First Nations’ environmental sovereignty should concern all Canadians, and is part of a greater call to recognize power structures in our society. Given these concerns, we notice a backlash of non-Native Canadians—be it anonymously in comments on news articles, or loudly from the mouths of our politicians—expressing a contempt for INM. These reactions are often exemplified and borne out in the media, with news stories and articles selectively covering the negative and disruptive aspects of the movement. Implicit in the media bias is an acknowledgement of the many arguments advanced by those who are against INM. The general argument goes that “First Nations are at fault for their own problems” (pointing to alcoholism and corruption with a thinly veiled racism) and “we are all equal so they should not get extra benefits” (an erroneous judgement that tax breaks or affirmative action equates to preferential treatment). Even more disturbing is the underlying sentiment of acknowledging indigenous rights as proper theory but somehow improper action, as seen by the public outrage after railway blockades in Ontario. The non-Native public seems to support rights and recognize, albeit vaguely and partially, the colonial past of Canada. Yet concrete policies and on-the-ground activism somehow rubs our sensibilities the wrong way.
A few intersections between INM allies and the non-Native public illustrate this fantastically. When two members of Stephen Harper’s Conservative caucus, Senator Patrick Brazeau and MP Royal Galipeau, mock Chief Spence’s hunger strike, commentators on news websites quickly begin playing the same game of blaming and name-calling. One person calls Chief Spence greedy; another calls her a fraud. The former commentator uses statistics that seemingly come from nothing but a fervent dislike for INM to imply Chief Spence not only mismanages funds as an elder in the community but also actively seeks monetary gain in her hunger strike. The latter commentator assumes that because Brazeau is also First Nations, somehow piggy-backing on his disparaging sentiments is legitimate. Prejudices become exposed as the media creates a forum that shifts our attention away from the activities and intentions of INM, and toward the insensitive and biased reactions of our political representatives. Quickly, there becomes a dichotomy between “us”, the non-native Canadians, and “them”, the INM supporters. This is troubling on several levels, not least of which is that drawing such sharp lines misses the point of indigenous sovereignty.
Indigenous rights has little to do with arguments like “First Nations have been here longer and therefore deserve more”—rather their sovereignty is a shared obligation, one that Canada has repeatedly violated. Canadian society marginalizes our indigenous populations, and the oppression of First Nations has a long and sordid history—from residential schools, to systemic cultural genocide, to structural violence as evidenced by the vulnerability of First Nations women in the Downtown Eastside. We forget that reparations or profit-sharing agreements for resource exploitation is another form of buying complacency. Our politicians hope that somehow dollars and cents will erase the deep and spiritual connection between land and people, between the roaring Fraser River and the ancestral memories of First Nations. To address some of the issues outlined here, we have created a website, Are You Idling?, to attempt to create a space where discussion and critical thinking can occur. Grounded in the greater context of Canadian history and the current living conditions of indigenous peoples, we are at a loss to explain how the non-Native public are still “idling” in their opinions and attitudes.