Canada’s Idle No More Movement

This summer I will be giving a lecture at the University of Trier in Germany about Canada’s Idle No More movement, an ongoing protest movement that was begun by four women in Saskatchewan. Idle No More represents a grass-roots initiative, without a clear hierarchy, which fights for indigenous rights by popular protests, such as flash mobs and circle drumming in public places. The movement is so technically savvy that there supporters have even created an i-phone app, to locate protests near you. While the movement encompasses diverse demands, at the core the protesters are concerned about issues of indigenous sovereignty, treaty rights, and the environment.

Gathering of the Nations courtesy of EA at
Gathering of the Nations courtesy of EA at

         From the start, the movement has included both indigenous and non-indigenous members. One of the four women who began the movement was not aboriginal. The movement began in November 2012, at a time of mounting frustration within the indigenous communities of Canada. At Attiwapiskat in Northern Ontario, perhaps 85% of the housing was unfit for human habitation. In frustration, Theresa Spence, the band’s chief, began a hunger strike, which lasted six weeks. Of course not all reserves in Canada are the same. But on most reserves people have poor living conditions, poverty is widespread, drug and alcohol abuse blight lives, and there are aspects of neocolonialism in the bands’ relationship to the federal government. Indigenous peoples represent perhaps three percent of Canada’s population, so that these issues sometimes remain hidden in the dominant society. In an earlier blog post, I reviewed Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, a coming of age tale set on the British Columbia coast. The work describes the racism, social dysfunction and colonialism that still haunt indigenous communities.

 In this novel, as in life, the legacy of the residential schools has cast a long shadow over many communities. From the late 19th century through the 1960s, indigenous children were taken from their families to boarding schools. I recently visited the Provincial Archives of Alberta to do research, and came across the following statement in a letter written by the Anglican Minister Richard Young to Baring Gold on December 7, 1896, which he wrote to justify the residential schools.

“The too often vicious surroundings and generally unsatisfactory condition of the children at the camps renders it very necessary to try & bring them under the constant care of their teachers & surround them with wholesome and Christian influences.” ***

The idea was that children would learn useful skills in the residential schools, but also that they would be assimilated into the dominant culture. The government funded the schools, but religious orders –in particular the Catholic Church and the Anglicans- administered them. In addition to the language loss and cultural destruction, some children disappeared, while many others endured a legacy of sexual or physical abuse. The Canadian government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the truth of what actually happened. But a recent government audit has found that the commission is unlikely to complete its work on time.

There were many indigenous grievances –from the Iroquois land claims along the Grand River in southern Ontario, to the terrible conditions on some reservations in Saskatchewan. But indigenous people rose up with the passage of Bill C-45 in December 2012. This legislation removed environmental restrictions on some waterways, which undermined sections of both the Indian Act and the Navigable Waters Act. Why did an environmental issue create such outrage in indigenous communities?

It’s impossible to understand this history outside of the context of Alberta’s Oil Sands, a vast extent of land in the north of the province that has turned Canada as a petro-state. As I’ve covered in earlier posts, the Oil Sands, are made up a mix of sand and bitumen, a tar-like substance that can be converted to oil. The oil is not pumped but rather mined. The process is controversial because it generates more carbon dioxide (the main green-house gas) than conventional oil, because it takes energy to convert the bitumen into oil. Worse, the process requires a large amount of water, and no technology currently exists to clean the water, which is now housed in vast holding ponds. The oil companies typically talk about their work to restore the land after it has been mined. They have done a relatively good job replanting the tailings. The oil companies don’t want, however, to talk about the issue of water, because it appears to be technically unsolveable.

This industrial scale development has caused major impacts for some northern Albertan indigenous communities. The larger issue, however, is how the oil gets to market. At the moment production is increasing much more quickly than the means to transport the oil. The federal and Albertan government would like to build a Northern Gateway pipeline, as I’ve discussed earlier in this blog. The advantage of this pipeline would be that it would enable Alberta to market its oil on the global market –in particular Asia- as opposed to the United States. The challenge is that such a pipeline would have to cross the land of more than fifty different indigenous peoples. Understandably, some indigenous groups are interested by the jobs and other benefits that the pipeline might bring to them. At least as many, however, are completely opposed. In this context, Bill C-45 moved most environmental reviews of projects that affected waterways to the provincial level, speeding the process, and reducing the power of local bodies. From the aboriginal perspective, the passage of this legislation seemed to speed the Northern Gateway project, while reducing indigenous control over the lands. Land and water are both real and symbolic issues, because they embody sovereignty.

While the movement began in Canada it has spread globally. There have also been protests in the United States and significant media coverage in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve had an outstanding undergraduate student (thanks Allison!) helping me to prepare for my talk, and one of the tasks that she has done has been to look at the media coverage of Idle No More. Al-Jazeerah has covered the protests in depth. Other media outlets, such as the Huffington Post, also had generally positive coverage. But within Canada, the media coverage of the movement has appeared less supportive. Strangely, the Globe and Mail (a liberal paper) has consistently critiqued the movement, while the National Post (a conservative paper, generally sympathetic to the current government) has had more balanced coverage. Some of the Canadian media coverage has been rather disappointing, as when a Canadian Senator (of indigenous descent) mocked Teresa Spence and her hunger strike.

The Canadian media coverage may have been shaped by a broader context of social protest in Canada. In 2012, Quebec saw massive protests by students, who were angered by the provincial government’s decision to increase their tuition. On May 18, 2012 the Quebec government passed Emergency Law 78 to end the protests, by limiting public protests on university grounds. Over 500,000 students then went on strike, but the protests then faded.

Canada has not suffered greatly during the global financial downturn, thanks both to its well-regulated financial sector, as well as its petroleum exports. But Canadian media coverage of Idle No More perhaps reflects the sentiments of older, well-educated readers who oppose, or are frightened by, recent social protests. A study of twitter posts on Idle No More reveals that individuals are more likely to tweet about Idle No More than traditional media outlets are to report on it. In other words, people may be more curious about the movement than the amount of media coverage suggests.

Perhaps Canada is now undergoing a larger process of social protest by the younger generation and native peoples, which is driven less by the financial crisis than by larger political issues. Traditional elites and media outlets seem to be generally unsympathetic to these demands. Yet the outrageous situation on many Canadian reserves –and mega-projects for commodities such as oil- will mean that the political question will not fade away. De Beers manages a massive diamond mine near impoverished Attawapiskat. The challenge for Idle No More will be be to ensure the movement’s survival. Much like Occupy, the movement has renounced a formal hierarchy or clear political platform. The political theorist Weber, however, argued that revolutions require charismatic leadership. Lacking this, or a well organized political bloc, the movement is at risk of vanishing in time. Media coverage of Idle No more is fading.

***The quote from Bishop Richard Young’s correspondence comes from the following source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, Acc. 70.387, file 634, A. 280/1A, Box 25, file titled “Outgoing letter book containing printed data about the diocese and an index to correspondents.” I wish to thank the archivists at the Provincial Archives of Alberta who supported my recent research on aboriginal history and religion.

Update: If you are interested in Canadian indigenous history, you might want to read my new book, Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History. In Canada, you can find the book here. The book is also available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play BooksNookKobo and iBooks. The print launch for the United States is set for April 2015

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

2 thoughts on “Canada’s Idle No More Movement”

  1. Cool article. Had not really heard about it before. Not even knowledgeable about Northern Gateway. Nevertheless have lived in British Columbia all of my life and have an undergraduate degree in Political Science with some focus on International Relations. Am starting to read “Monkey Beach” by Eden Robinson (2000) and followed the links to your “International and Global Studies” – very cool. Of course, very sad too.

    Also reading or studying (after reading): “Modern Strategy” by Colin S. Gray (1999) and “Ethics for a Broken World” by Tim Mulgan (2011) and “Directive 51” by John Barnes (2010). Maybe if I have time and money, I shall attempt reading “International and Global Studies” by Shawn Smallman & Kimberley Brown (2011).

    Especially interested in the “Green” aspects of international and global studies. I guess “Green Theory” is beginning to crystallize into what might even be friendly forms. May the transitions be graceful.

  2. I disagree with your statement “people may be more curious about the movement than the amount of media coverage suggests.” The number of people who participated in the daily or weekly chatter often exceeds the number of journalists who could have covered Idle No More activities.

    A follow up reports (available at shows 143,173 unique sources contributed 1.2 million tweets during the first six months of the movement (most of that Twitter activity took place in December and January). The report breaks down participation in to three categories of engagement (low, medium and high) and examines sentiment, themes and participation in each category.

    The report also notes that noise (unrelated tweets including porn spam among other unrelated content) contributed to the volume of traffic. Generally, noise hovered around 3-4%. In January, however, noise accounted for 23% of INM traffic in the low engagement group — the group that contributed the greatest number of tweets overall.

    I’ve been studying online activity related to the movement since it began. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have which will help you prepare for your talk.

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