Jan 7, 2013


What’s Idle No More? Who is Chief Spence? Why is Stephen Harper tweeting about bacon and should we care?

Idle No More is an indigenous movement calling on the Canadian government to protect the environment, honour First Nations sovereignty and respect the “Nation to Nation” relationship. The movement appeared in response to Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that doesn't recognise aboriginal fishing rights and reduces environmental protection. The Bill, for example, alters the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The Act requires environmental assessment for 2.25 million rivers and 32,000 lakes. Under Bill C-45, environmental assessment will only apply to 62 rivers and 97 lakes. First Nations people were not consulted and believe that the changes reduce environmental protection. The movement also opposes a suite of other omnibus bills including the proposed First Nations Private Property Ownership Act and the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. The first act would allow private property ownership within Reserve boundaries*. The second act would impose standards on First Nations governments that far exceed standards for municipal, provincial and federal officials. For example, First Nation‐owned businesses (unlike non-First Nations' businesses) will be required to publicly report income and expenses. The proposed legislation is based on the racist assumption that First Nations’ officials are corrupt. But beyond the racist assumptions and unilateralism is a more sinister motive – the assimilation of First Nations people and the destruction of their culture. A 21st century way of continuing God’s work – well, Duncan Campbell Scott’s work - of eliminating the “Indian problem”.

Although these bills acted as the catalyst, the movement speaks to deeper themes: sustainability, the subjugation of indigenous values, laws and systems, a partnership between the Crown and First Nations that is only respected where it is expedient and… te tino rangatiratanga (self determination). These issues aren't peculiar to Canada, or New Zealand, or anywhere else. They’re part of a global story arising wherever Europe collided with indigenous cultures.

In many respects Canada was years ahead on indigenous rights. Much of the New Zealand case law on Maori rights is developed from reference to the Canadian authorities. In the Muriwhenua case** President Cooke made extensive reference to the Canadian cases and commented that the Canadian common law was, in respect of indigenous rights, “more advanced than our own”. However, Maori have pulled ahead of our First Nations tuakana (seniors). From 1840 onwards Maori have, generally speaking, maintained and exercised a greater degree of political power. As a political body, First Nations people are marginal players. Power in a capitalist democracy is contingent on several factors including numerical strenth and economic power. First Nations have neither, as a result their values, laws and systems have remained subordinate to the Queen in Right of Canada***.

However, Idle No More might represent a permanent shift in Canada’s power dynamics. Stephen Harper has bowed to pressure and agreed to meet with Chief Teresa Spence, an Aboriginal leader whose hunger strike helped inspire the movement, but being a classy Tory Harper first tweeted “mmm… Bacon” while Chief Spence was striking and stood by his flimsy claim that “Canada has no history of colonialism”. These actions have fed further domestic protests, including the disruption of key economic routes, and international solidarity is increasing. Importantly, the Idle No More movement is taking ques from the Occupy Movement, the successful Quebec Student Movement**** and utilising social media to organise near instantaneous demonstrations and spread information. The movement is also maintaining a level of intensity and coordination unfamiliar to Canadians and their government. The Ottawa Citizen compares the movement to an event in 1969:

1969 was the last time the federal government put forward an assimilation plan for First Nations. It was defeated then by fierce native opposition, and it looks like Harper’s aggressive legislative assimilation plan will be met with even fiercer resistance.

It is important to remember that First Nations people were never conquered. The Crown derives its authority through the Treaties they signed with the First Nations people. Although each Treaty is different, the core promise is that a partnership exists between First Nations and the Crown and that the wealth of the land will be shared equally. Relations are conducted on a “Nation to Nation” basis. However, as in other Westminster democracies like New Zealand, the Crown only recognises its own sovereignty*****. First Nations are considered intra-nations with a lesser form of authority devolved from the sovereignty of the Crown. Its legal, political and cultural imperialism at its zenith.

The oppressive and discriminatory conduct of successive governments has meant that only one treaty partner has seen any wealth. While the minerals and other resources from traditional First Nations’ lands have been used to give Canadians one of the highest standards of living in the world, the indigenous people remain at the bottom of every indicator and the needle isn’t moving.

I remain optimistic about Idle No More and the First Nations’ struggle for tino rangatiratanga. Chief Spence’ hunger strike is, I think, somewhat symbolic of what has and will happen to the First Nations people. For every day that Chief Spence did not eat, she withered and weakened like her people have for the past three centuries, but after winning a dialogue with Harper, his government and the Governor-General, Chief Spence gains in strength and mana and so do her people.

Post-script: Big ups to Te Wharepora Hou for their support of Idle No More and props to Te Karere and Te Kaea for covering the movement too. It is also important to note the role of women. Idle No More was created by four women and is led, in spirit, by Chief Spence, a female chief of huge mana. In New Zealand the strongest support has come from Maori women.

*Aboriginal property is held collectively, consistent with their values, legal system and the stated goals of many First Nations. The Act would also open land to non-Aboriginal buyers.

**See Te Runanga o Muriwhenua Inc v Attorney-General (1990)

***The Queen in Right of Canada is used to express the sovereignty of the Crown, or more simply the Parliament.

****The Quebec Student Movement involved thousands of students taking direct action to defeat proposed fee hikes.

*****See the orthodox doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.


  1. They've been at this for some time.




  2. I was hoping this would be a post encouraging buses to turn off their engines at stops while waiting to being the next service...

    Oh well...



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