Jan 9, 2013

Idle No More: missing the point and lessons from New Zealand

Perspective projection distortion is the misrepresentation of a three-dimensional space when drawn or projected onto a two-dimensional surface. In photography and cinematography, perspective distortion is where an object and its surroundings differ from what they would otherwise look like with a normal focal length. Sometimes, the same principles apply in politics and society. Distance and detachment alter perspectives.

As a non-Canadian, I’m suspicious of and slightly confused with the Canadian media’s portrayal of Idle No More. More often than not, the media have ignored or misunderstood the movement. The Walrus, largely considered one of Canada’s leading current affairs magazines, is silent on the issue. The Toronto Sun appears uninterested in the movement itself, instead focussing on Chief Spence, reporting protests and discussing political consequences for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Financial Post is scathing, shoving the blame on “native leaders” and their “resistance… to changes”.

Now, I’m in no position to argue against the Canadian media’s understanding of their politics and society, but I do think that they’re missing the real issues. Idle No More isn’t about hunger strikes, mismanagement on reserves or politicking: the movement is about respect for and recognition of First Nations’ sovereignty.
Calls for indigenous sovereignty (and decolonisation) have been periodic. What sets Idle No More apart from previous events, like the Oka crisis, is that the movement is overt push back against the Harper government’s assimilation plans. Dr Pamela Palmater, an indigenous scholar, claims that the government intends to assimilate First Nations’ people “We always knew action would be required at some point, but the legislation posed an imminent threat and required immediate mobilisation. That is how a movement was born”.

The government’s assimilation plans are not, however, confined to one or two pieces of legislation. Several bills, including two omnibus bills, will legislate against or undermine indigenous values and several policy measures will come into force. For example, First Nations regional and national political organisations will have their funding cut and capped making it harder for them to advocate on behalf of indigenous people.

The First Nations’ Strategic Bulletin says that the bills intend to end “First Nations pre-existing sovereign status through federal coercion of First Nations into Land Claims and Self-Government Final Agreements that convert First Nations into municipalities, their reserves into fee simple lands and extinguishment of their Inherent, Aboriginal and Treaty Rights”. The Harper government dubbed this approach a “modern legislative framework” which is code for “white man’s values”. For example, the First Nations’ Private Ownership Act will introduce private property ownership in reserves. With the imposition of western notions of property, collective ownership and aboriginal title are undermined.

Assimilation plans first emerged, at least prominently, in 1969 with the release of a white paper. The paper proposed a five year timetable, but the Trudeau government was, in 1970, forced to back down against fierce opposition. However, it is suspected that the timetable wasn’t dumped, but extended. In 1985 Cabinet documents were leaked to the media detailing the conservative government’s assimilation plans. However, in 1990 the plans were derailed thanks to the Oka crisis, increased awareness of indigenous issues and favourable decisions from the Courts. The perception is, rightly or wrongly, that the Harper government intends to continue the assimilation programme.

It’s with these concerns in mind that Idle No More has grown and calls for indigenous sovereignty have been sustained and intense. These are deep issues that play in to questions about the innate character of colonial governments (are they always imperialist?), the struggle for tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) and effectiveness of movement politics. Questions, I think, that many Canadians haven’t grappled with. Questions where the Maori experience may be instructive too.

The success of the Maori protest movement was, in many ways, a result of the political turbulence it created. Sustained action across the 70s, 80s and (to a lesser extent) the 90s helped reveal the oppressive and dishonest foundations on which the New Zealand state was built. The movement deployed a variety of political/protest strategies, involved a cross-section of Maori society and forged alliances with other sections of society, for example unions (It also helped that Maori had a political power base in the Maori seats and a long standing relationship with the Labour Party). From this, the Idle No More movement can take that a successful movement must be sustained (decades long if need be), diverse (in people and strategy) and connected to other power structures in society (unions, universities, political organisations etc). For the most part, these elements are already present. So, with distance and detachment from the issue, I remain optimistic of its success. 

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