How Idle No More may build on its early success

By Adela Talbot
January 18, 2013

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No MoreAdela Talbot, Western News


The movement has been anything but idle for more than a month. But where do academics who study social movements see Idle No More going from here?

Idle No More has manifested itself as political demonstrations, traffic blockades, flash mobs and a hunger strike. It has united Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities, primarily, in opposing the government’s omnibus Bill C-45. Affecting designation and management of reserve land, while decreasing environmental protection of rivers and lakes, Bill C-45 was passed by Senate in December and brings with it amendments to the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act as well as the Indian Act.

Round dances drum circles became a common sight in shopping malls and on the news toward the end of 2012; marches through cities across Canada continue today. The movement has captured the nation’s attention.

With a broadly defined goal of establishing nation-to-nation relations with the Canadian government, Idle No More was successful in getting a meeting last week with both the Prime Minister and the Governor General.

So, the lines of communication have been opened. But now what?

“All social movements have a struggle, which is how do you deal with a chronic problem and make it salient? The bill does that, and the strategic actions (of the movement) have done that,” said Sociology professor Catherine Corrigall-Brown, who studies social movements and Indigenous politics.

Significant political implications have come out of the movement, she said, and when looking at the immediate outcomes, Idle No More can be measured as a success.

“The movement has put these issues on the agenda – that is acceptance. It’s established that this is a legitimate issue and we should be talking about this – and they did get a meeting. That is an indication they have gotten something, and a new advantage, some agreement to have more dialogue and some recognition they are legitimate actors on environmental issues. It’s a huge win for First Nations people,” she said.

“The success over time will be measured with how much dialogue do they get, how much involvement. The more coalitions they make with larger groups, the more likely it is they will keep issues on the agenda. Their challenge now is to stay in the news, but they shouldn’t go about it the same way,” Corrigall-Brown added.

Law professor Michael Coyle agreed.

“We lack a good enough framework for addressing First Nations grievances. We don’t have an overall timely framework for addressing historical issues like individual treaty claims or for working out together how Aboriginal people can participate in a modern economy that allows them opportunities to do well in this country while at the same time preserving their culture,” said Coyle, who studies Aboriginal rights and dispute resolution theory.

“If the movement leads to Aboriginal people being recognized on issues that concern them, it will be successful. With the publicity this is creating, it’s possible it could lead to awareness that steps need to be taken on both sides – more is needed than just meetings.”

Corrigall-Brown noted the protest garnered attention for doing something different and should continue to innovate and employ different tactics to engage the public.

“That was the problem with Occupy. They kept doing the same thing,” she said. “But (going forward) Idle No More has a good Internet and social media presence. On their site there’s a lot of discussion about reaching out to youth, environmentalists and other communities. If they can keep that up, it will lead to more success.”

While Idle No More has garnered both sympathy and allies across the country, it has nevertheless been criticized for things like its more radical tactics – such as the hunger strike of Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence – as well as what some have called a lack of clear leadership or a unified message.

Radical tactics, diversity of interests and lack of leadership don’t have to be a bad thing, Corrigall-Brown said. If it takes a radical approach to get the government’s attention, it’s a tactic that can bring all the issues to the negotiating table in the end.

Another challenge for the movement, she added, will be to establish specific micro-goals as a measure of success.

Establishing a better relationship with the government is a broad goal, she explained, so having a smaller goal like being consulted on one particular issue, would give people a sense of immediate satisfaction. The same applies to the goals of environmental sustainability – asking to protect a certain amount of wildlife or specific water access will provide a reasonable and immediate agenda.

“You need micro-goals in place so people can have sense of satisfaction,” Corrigall-Brown said.

 Coyle noted going forward, both the government and First Nations leaders need to work harder in establishing a better relationship.

“How can Aboriginal people economically fare much better and still have their cultures and societies protected? We have short-term attention to the unfortunate situation of Aboriginal people. Non-Aboriginal Canadians realize there are some serious structural, fundamental issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “They need to support the idea that the government should invest serious time in working with Aboriginal leaders to construct better ways of coexisting.”


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