Idle No More activists are speaking—but are the government and media listening?



At a February 2013 Idle No More teach-in, professor Dory Nason, who teaches in the First Nations Studies Program at the University of British Columbia, told her audience, “Indigenous women in the Idle No More movement seek to protect the waters, the environment, and the land from the threat of further destruction.... These movements are about profound love that Indigenous women have for the future stability and health of their families, their land, and their nations.”

In November 2012, communities across Canada joined the Idle No More movement, a grassroots, Indigenous-led effort instigated by four women (Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Nina Wilson, and Sheelah McLean). While people got involved for multiple and complex reasons specific to their communities, a unifying belief among them was that there must be real and actual change for Indigenous peoples living on and off reserves. Many participants were motivated by opposition to omnibus Bill C-45—a massive, 430-page legislative change passed by Canada’s Parliament that amended 40 federally legislated acts, a bill critics say catered to oil, nuclear, and gas industries. First Nations people were particularly upset by the bill, as they were not consulted in the altering of laws—like those on fishing, environmental assessment, and mining—that directly affect them. In addition, some groups contend that the legislative changes contravene their solemn Indigenous and treaty rights.

But coverage of the movement in the media was varied (and in the United States, sometimes nonexistent). In her speech, Nason cautioned, “When Indigenous women’s love inspires a nation to round dance, question destructive environmental policy, or demand justice for children living in substandard conditions, other forces counter with vitriolic hate.... We see the power of Indigenous women’s love turn into something ugly in the mainstream media—this love becomes self- serving, opportunistic, and a lie.”

In particular, Nason was referring to an editorial cartoon about Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, published in the Edmonton Journal. Chief Spence had been the focus of media attention since early December 2012, when she began a hunger strike

in order to call attention to treaty rights; the action quickly became about larger issues affecting Indigenous groups. The media covered the story daily, giving updates on Chief Spence’s hunger strike and statements on her deteriorating health.

The cartoon, by Malcolm Mayes, was printed on January 24, 2013, the day Chief Spence concluded her strike; it depicts her in a coffin, with an Indigenous man wearing a headdress standing over her saying, “It’s time to think outside the box, Theresa.” Nason argues that this type of imagery demonstrates that in the public discourse it’s acceptable to publish violent imagery of Indigenous women, especially conjuring a patronizing scene that so overtly puts “Native women leaders in their places.”

Right-wing media focused on the fear that Idle No More activists would impede business by obstructing railway lines and major oil  hubs, such as Alberta’s Fort McMurray. In the weeks leading up to the National Day of Protest on January 16, there was a flurry of concern about the possibility of Indigenous people blockading railways, mines, and the Alberta tar sands. Rather than focusing on the issues behind the protests, news media focused on what effect the protesters would have on the economy and Christmas shopping. “Aboriginal ‘Day of Action’ Protests Snarl Traffic,” read one CTV headline, while Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stated, “This is not a time to have even more challenges to the Canadian economy.” In addition, Michael Den Tandt of the National Post, among others, represented Indigenous demonstrators as lawless instigators who were dividing the movement. Although, as a decentralized movement, Idle No More participants and founders do not agree on every action, be it blockading or the role of Chief Spence, Den Tandt’s assessment was particularly bleak: “If the blockades continue, the movement will be discredited.... And hopes of achieving a new deal for aboriginal Canadians, already faint, will flicker and die.”

But while media focused its lens on protests, blockades, and Chief Spence’s hunger strike, round dancing was quietly happening all over the country. In a round dance—a secular version of ghost dancing, a spiritual Indigenous dance movement popularized in the United States and Canada in the late 19th century—people hold hands in a large circle and take small steps to the side while moving their hands in a circular motion to their sides, like skipping a rope very slowly. The connectedness of each person involved in the dance represents unity and strength among those involved. The round dance is at the heart of Idle No More—it manifests not only the connection to each other but also the recognition of the struggle for continued existence. These flash mob–like movements were spurred by Idle No More’s community and online organizing, and occurred peacefully at high- traffic locations like shopping centers.

But round dancing provoked very little interest from the media. Some of the only people to cover this aspect of Idle No More were Indigenous journalists like Duncan McCue of the Canadian Broadcasting Company. In his CBC article on January 9, 2013, he quoted Leanne Simpson, an Anishinaabe academic and writer, who said round dances come “from a place of joy and connections to our homeland and our cultures.”

The slanted attitude toward Idle No More goes beyond political cartoons, and even beyond this past winter’s protests; it’s emblematic of a general and ongoing systemic violence against Indigenous women. Nearly 10 years ago, in the 2004 census, 24 percent of Indigenous women reported that they were victims of violent crimes and spousal violence, in comparison with 7 percent of non-Indigenous women, and little has improved. Chief Spence included a national inquiry on violence against Indigenous women in the 13-point Declaration of Commitment she penned when she ended her hunger strike, among other points holding the government accountable for upholding its fiduciary obligations in regard to treaties, land claims, and Crown-Indigenous relations. After ignoring Spence’s hunger strike for the better part of a month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper eventually agreed to a meeting, which, unsurprisingly, resulted only in empty promises of more “high level” dialogue.

Those Who Take Us Away, a February 2013 report from Human Rights Watch Canada, covers the violence that affects Indigenous women in northern communities in British Columbia. The 89-page report speaks to the abusive treatment of young women who were allegedly pepper sprayed, sexually assaulted, attacked by police dogs, or strip-searched by on-duty police officers. These actions leave many young women in northern rural communities afraid to call the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Many Indigenous women do not just fear police abuse, but also that their complaints about police misconduct will not be taken seriously. The report recommends that a civilian investigation of reported incidents of serious police misconduct be established.

But it remains to be seen if the mainstream media will take this seriously as well. In February, Harper told the House of Commons, “If Human Rights Watch, the Liberal Party, or anyone else is aware of serious allegations involving criminal activity, they should give that information to the appropriate police so that they can investigate it.” Officials apparently don’t understand that the police investigatory system is flawed and perceived by many to be biased toward its own officers.

Which is not to say the problem has escaped notice: A February 15 editorial in the Toronto Star stated, “Relations between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and some First Nations women in this country are fraying to the breaking point,” and Indigenous women-led organizations Walk4Justice and Eastern Canada’s Families of Sisters in Spirit are working within their communities to raise awareness and stop the incidence of missing and murdered women.

Indigenous women have long struggled to have their voices heard within Canadian society in the face of oppressive circumstances. As life-bearers, they witness the effect that the imposition of these laws has on their communities and the further oppression of their families. And women, especially, are at the core of Idle No More. While the movement slowed down in the winter months, more round dances will surely pop up around Canada and in the United States again this summer. Time will tell whether the mainstream media will report on “angry natives” blockading instead of young, educated Indigenous activists peacefully round dancing, and of a woman-led movement that will only get stronger.