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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > February 2013 > Idle No More: A Global Grassroots Movement

Idle No More: A Global Grassroots Movement

Friday 1 February 2013, by Bradley Castelli

Last November, a group of Saskatchewan women comprised of Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams and Nina Wilsonfeld came together to discuss their concerns relative to the Harper government’s introduction of Bill C-45. The bill, consisting of over four hundred pages and changing legislation to some sixty-four acts and regulations, was perceived as a direct threat to Aboriginal People’s rights in Canada, and yet another example of the Conservative government’s short-sighted approach to development vis-à-vis the environment. Through a series of meetings, teach-ins and demonstrations, and with the use of social media, the group’s initial dialogue, which took on the name Idle No More, quickly spread across Canada and has since transformed into a global grassroots movement.

Much like the Harper Conservatives’ first omnibus bill, Bill C-45 has been criticized for lumping a broad spectrum of unrelated matters together under the guise of a budget bill and impacting legislation in a manner that prioritizes corporate and energy development interests. While the potential effects of such measures are certainly global in nature, Canadian Aboriginal communities face the most immediate impacts, reflecting Canada’s inherited colonial attitude toward its First Peoples.

The legislative changes that Idle No More perceives as being most threatening to Canada’s environment and to future generations target Canada’s Indian Act, the former Navigable Waters Protection Act, and the Environmental Assessment Act. In short, the changes facilitate the process by which reserve lands can be leased for the purpose of development; render ninety-nine percent of Canadian inland waterways unprotected; and make it easier for potentially hazardous and unsustainable projects to obtain approval. Though these changes are not unlike others made by the Conservatives in recent years to absolve the government of environmental accountability, their brash nature is a slap in the face to a generation confronted with a choice between sustaining and destroying our environment. It is with urgency that we are called upon to be Idle No More.

While addressing the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce in 2006, Stephen Harper referred to the Alberta Tar Sands project as “an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.” Since then, Canada has abandoned its international commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, has allowed the deforestation of the Boreal to occur at a rate only second to the Amazon Rainforest Basin, and has used the world’s dirtiest oil to assert itself as a global energy superpower.

In spite of all this, Canadians continue to have a collective tendency to use their country’s dated reputation as a peaceful and nature-loving democracy to assure themselves against any questionable practices committed on their own behalf. Despite this passive attitude, the fact remains that Canada is plagued by the resource curse typical of many developing countries. The Idle No More movement reflects the tipping point that Canada has brought itself to.

Speaking with Alternatives International Journal, Sheelah McLean, one of the co-founders of the movement, said that “at its base, Idle No More is a peaceful grassroots movement that seeks to educate and raise awareness.” Once people become aware of the Conservative government’s practices, and the implications these practices pose for all nations living in Canada, the movement will continue to grow. However, First Nations do have a unique stake in the matter, which stems from the historic nation-to-nation treaties between them and The Crown. The Idle No More manifesto touches on this particular interest, contending that, “First Nations have experienced a history of colonization which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources and unequal funding for services such as education and housing.”

The movement gained wide support across Canada among both First Nations and non-natives when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence went on a hunger strike, demanding to meet with Stephen Harper and Canada’s Governor General to speak about First Nation issues. Though the meeting Chief Spence finally received was not exactly what she had hoped for, it was an important start of a much-needed dialogue, and reflected the urgency that fuels the movement. Since then, Idle No More has received shows of solidarity from individuals and groups from all around the world. The movement’s global significance goes beyond the collective interest we all share in sustaining our environment, it also represents a stand against colonial practices and attitudes. Though modern colonialism sometimes takes on a more politically correct tone, with conquerors trading in army fatigues for business suits, the exploitative nature of the practice remains true to its traditions. For Indigenous Peoples of Canada, it still means underrepresentation, marginalization, and vulnerability as a group.

Despite the global support that Idle No More has received, it has been criticized in Canadian media for being a divided, leaderless movement with unclear direction and goals. In response to this Sheelah McLean noted that, “a one-leader movement is a tired system” and regardless of the way Idle No More stands to develop, “the time is right to acknowledge the truth for what it is.” She also pointed out that history has positioned Indigenous Canadians and non-natives in different situations, giving each group differing perspectives on the same issues. Given this, it is important for non-natives in Canada and abroad to serve as allies and witnesses, and to make sure that First Nations are given a voice and a meaningful role in the way Canada establishes itself as a country within the global community.

Aside from the political and legislative context Idle No More stems from, its goal to raise awareness and pressure the government into assuming responsibility for its actions and choices is rooted in the traditional belief of honoring the natural laws that serve as the basis of humanity’s relationship with our earth. There is a wealth of Indigenous wisdom pertaining to the environment that has been long overlooked, but can ultimately serve to inform those of us who want to address climate change and environmental degradation in a meaningful and progressive manner.

January 28 marked the Idle No More global day of action, which involved over thirty towns and cities across Canada, and coincided with the return of Canadian MPs to the House of Commons after their Winter break. A large gathering of Idle No More demonstrators stood outside of the Canadian Parliament while inside, opposition leader Thomas Mulcair challenged Stephen Harper to conduct “meaningful consultations” with First Nations. A private member’s bill that would require federal legislation to uphold the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was also tabled, reflecting the influence Idle No More has already gained.

The true potential of Idle No More remains to be seen, but its voice has already been heard around the world. To learn more about the movement, visit