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Idle No More, a Canadian Social Justice Movement, Goes Viral On and Offline

BY Elisabeth Fraser | Friday, January 25 2013

Idle No More demonstration in Washington, D.C. (credit: Jonathon Reed/Flickr )

Canada’s aboriginals, also known as the First Nations, are facing off against the federal government over proposed changes to environmental regulations laws, as well as a slew of other issues primarily related to social justice and aboriginal rights. Social media is driving the movement with the Twitter hashtag #IdleNoMore. It has spread throughout North America, with solidarity demonstrations in Minnesotta and New York eliciting frequent comparisons to the Occupy movement. But has this new social justice movement drifted from its original purpose?

Idle No More was formed in late November to protest budgetary Bill C-45, which included several clauses slashing government oversight and regulation of environmental matters. It gained momentum via social media platforms and is now a widely reported story that is familiar to at least two thirds of Canadians, according to a recent poll.

So far, INM protesters have used social media to organize rallies and flashmobs, usually characterized by traditional aboriginal drumming and dancing. They have also blockaded rail lines and sat in outside the prime minister’s office. Idle No More members frequently post harsh criticism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government on social media platforms.

Idle No More flash mob at a shopping mall in Edmonton, Canada

On December 11, soon after INM launched, Chief Theresa Spence, the elected leader of the impoverished Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario (population: roughly 1,500), set up a
teepee on Victoria Island in the capital city of Ottawa, near the federal government’s headquarters on Parliament Hill. Spence announced she was commencing a hunger strike until the prime minister, provincial premiers (similar to state governors), and the governor general (Queen Elizabeth's representative in Canada) agreed to meet with her. It later emerged that Spence, who will reportedly end her fast on January 24, has been consuming a liquid diet of fish broth and tea.

While the Idle No More movement and Chief Spence’s fast are not directly linked, many INM activists support Chief Spence. An Idle No More flag flies over the gated compound where the teepee sits.

“Idle No More just happened to come at the same time,” says Attawapiskat resident Danny Metawabin. He added that the INM and Chief Spence with her hunger strike were “working towards a common cause.”

Spence's town of Attawapiskat first made headlines last winter, when the media reported dire living conditions on the reserve, including lack of heating and indoor plumbing. The federal government responded by saying they had provided over 90 million dollars of funding to Attawapiskat since coming to office.

“We are doing this to call for a spiritual awakening, not just from the government of Canada, but from the provincial governments, to honor our treaty rights,” says Danny Metatawabin.

Spence has not addressed the media since an independent audit of the town’s books ordered by the federal government was leaked to the press. The report, compiled by Deloitte Consulting, found that over 80 per cent of the town’s spending was improperly or incompletely documented. Spence slammed the report as a “distraction” and hasn’t made a public statement since. A techPresident reporter tried to visit the Victoria Island compound, but was thrown out when she asked questions.

But Chief Spence does communicate via social media. Most recently, she, or one of the people who has access to her Twitter account (@ChiefTheresa) called Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau (@TheBrazman), who is also an aboriginal activist, a "typical colonized Indian asshole."

The tweet set off waves of commentary and was reported on the website of a national news outlet.

Since beginning her fast, Spence has been accused of sabotaging the Idle movement. Cracks have appeared within the First Nations peoples. Spence refused to meet Prime Minister Harper, but Shawn Atelo, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, went ahead and accepted an invitation to meet the PM. Atelo later came under heavy criticism for breaking ranks and subsequently took a leave of absence from work.

Idle No More founders are ill at ease with Chief Spence’s campaign and the role she has developed amongst the movement’s followers.

Meanwhile, critics charge that Idle No More has vague and competing goals and is doomed to fail — much like the Occupy movement.

Daniel Salée, a professor of political science at Montreal’s Concordia University, has been monitoring the Idle No More movement, which he supports. He says there are indeed many similarities between Idle No More and Occupy. “Like Occupy, it’s non-hierarchical,” he told techPresident. “It’s a large group of people who are fed up, but who cannot necessarily agree on what they are fed up about.”

Salée says the impact of social media on the movement is likely exaggerated. “As Marshall McLuhan said, ‘the medium is the message’, and I think people need to remember that social media is more a medium than anything else.”

Salée pointed out that many of the First Nations people living in remote communities do not have easy access to the Internet. Neverthless, Salée agreed that in the cases of Occupy and Idle, “Social media has the power to accelerate the pace of mobilization.”

Tori Cress manages the Facebook page for Idle No More’s Ottawa chapter. She say social media has played a “significant role” in mobilizing the Idle movement. Cress is from the Ojibway First Nations tribe and lives on Mohawk territory in Muskoka, Ontario. She joined the Idle No More Movement after getting in touch with its founders and learning about Bill C-45.

Cress now spends her days monitoring the page for inappropriate or racist comments. “Basically I’m policing our page,” she says. “I constantly do it, daily. If I can’t sleep, I’m up checking it.” Cree says the time she spends on the Facebook page is equivalent to the time she spends at her full-time job.

She says it’s normal there are many different voices emerging within the Idle movement. “I think a lot of people saw how it (INM) could be useful to them,” she said "We all need clean water, we all need clean land, it’s not just one reserve or another, it’s an international problem,” She added, “I haven’t seen anyone whose heart isn’t in the right place. There’s not one group that’s doing something wrong, they’re just doing things different.”

Whether the movement actually succeeds in effecting real change remains to be seen. Salée is skeptical for the time being. “The downfall of the movement could be that, like Occupy, it resists institutionalizing itself … You look at Occupy, and where is it now? The 99 per cent had their say, and then it petered out.”

But Salée admits there is still the chance Idle No More will bring real change. “Success is measured in real time,” he says. “So, maybe Idle No More can be the beginning of changes that we’ll see years from now. Because definitely, there do need to be changes.”

Cress remains optimistic. “I want to see unity,” she says. “I want the leaders join together with the grassroots movement and all work together and be speaking the same language — we need to be backing each other up instead of tearing each other down.”

Elisabeth Fraser is a freelance Canadian journalist.

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