The Idle No More Movement and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger action in Ottawa have dominated the national news for the past week. A meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Spence, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, and others, was scheduled for last Friday. A number of rallies were organized across the country in support of the controversial meeting.
On Friday, Jan. 11, about 100 or more protesters gathered at the Burns Lake Band Rainbow Gas Bar for a peaceful march eastward along Hwy. 16 to a rallying point at the Chevron/Town Pantry. They marched along the highway, leaving one lane open for traffic and not causing any significant disruptions. Passers-by seemed generally to be in support of the activity, although some, when asked, were unaware of what the movement was all about.
Idle No More presents itself as a grassroots movement that aims to deliver the message of Canada’s indigenous people through channels not traditionally conceived of by tribal band council structures or the Assembly of First Nations.
It has no rigidly-defined leadership structure in the sense that no single person speaks for the whole. Rally organizers rely on social media, like Facebook and Twitter, for cues and strategies to maintain a unified front. The messages of particular rallies are tied to the local concerns of those participating.
Carla Lewis and Deanna Brown, local Idle No More organizers, planned the rally – only a day earlier – as a show of support for the wide-ranging aims of Idle No More. Notably absent were local Chiefs and band-council members, although Burns Lake Band council member Ron Charlie participated and spoke to the crowd.
The Burns Lake rally on Friday was a good illustration of the defining elements of the movement. It was organized quickly through a combination of social media and word-of-mouth. It was peaceful. It didn’t confine itself to any one single message. It denounced the proposed Pacific Trails Pipeline and Chevron for its financial investment in the project. Members of the rally also expressed discontent with what they perceived as Harper’s lack of empathy and connection with First Nations people.
The movement lists a number of grievances, including federal omnibus legislation (Bill C-45 and C-38) that include changes to Indian reserve land regulations and to environmental protection measures that many First Nations identify as an assault on their dignity and independence.
The general theme is that Canada’s indigenous people will not stand by and receive federal policy, channeled through ‘Indian Act’ band councils, in a top-down approach. Idle No More rallies are made up of First Nations (Status and Non-Status), Metis, and non-indigenous peoples who reject the assumption that they are being adequately represented in the current arrangement between the federal government, Indian Act regulations, and the provinces in natural resource extraction and environmental concerns.
“It’s about a resetting of the relationship between First Nations and the federal and provincial governments,” said Carrier Sekani tribal chief Terry Teegee in a written statement.
At the end of the rally Brown said that the change First Nations people wanted to bring about could be achieved with or without Indian bands and councils.
“We have to make a difference in our community,” said Brown. “That means that we have to speak out. We can’t be afraid anymore, not of the [federal] government, not of the provincial government, not of our own government.”
It is that last sentiment that evokes the frustration that some protesters feel with the perceived failures of their own leadership.
“You may look around and see someone representing [us as] elected band members, but we don’t need them,” said Brown. “Idle No More is a grassroots movement, by the people and for the people. All of us are one.”
“We can no longer be down here when our band officials are up here,” Brown said as she demonstrated with her hands, one held high and the other low, to indicate the distance between the two.
She brought her hands together in front of herself and said, “We need to be here.”
Friday’s rally had about twice as many participants as the first rally held on Dec. 21, 2012 at the Burns Lake College of New Caledonia. Further rallies are planned nation-wide as First Nations leaders emerged unsatisfied with the conclusions of last Friday’s meeting between Harper and members of the Assembly of First Nations. Chief Spence did not attend Friday’s meeting.