Canada's aboriginal protest movement explodes

Idle No More has galvanized marches, flashmobs and railway blockades in the fight for indigenous rights

Published January 2, 2013 10:00PM (EST)

Last month a protest movement exploded across Canada, but little has been made of it by the media below the border. The reason for this, perhaps, is that the issues underpinning the movement are  -- quite literally -- indigenous to Canada.

Under the banner Idle No More, thousands of Canada's aboriginal peoples (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) and their allies have staged mass demonstrations in cities and towns all around the country in protest of the abusive treatment of indigenous people in Canada by the Canadian government. Mass marches have peacefully taken over the streets in Ottawa, while Round Dance flashmobs (nodding to both traditional indigenous dances and social media-fueled protest practices of late) have popped in around Canada and even in a handful of U.S. cities in solidarity.

Bold protest stunts have involved blockading some of Canada's major railway lines. Galvanizing a huge amount of attention to the issue is Chief Theresa Spence, the leader of the small Ontario Cree Nation of Attawapiskat, who is now 23 days into a hunger strike on Ottawa's Victoria Island, just across from the Canadian parliament, and who is demanding a dialogue between Canadian parliamentary leaders and aboriginal representatives.

A number of Canadian media outlets have cast the movement as a direct response to an omnibus bill, C-45, passed recently by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. Idle No More protesters argue the C-45 tramples on the treaty rights of aboriginal people, especially when it comes to land use. The bill, organizers note, will lower the threshold of community consent in the designation and surrender process of Indian Reserve Lands and remove particular protections from rivers and lakes within Reserve Lands. However, as Métis Nation blogger Chelsea Vowel points out, Idle No More is about far more than C-45 -- it is about aboriginal sovereignty and rights.

As the Idle No More mission notes state:

Idle No More calls on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water. Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth.

Conservative commentators in Canada have been swift to criticize Idle No More and Chief Spence, often invoking the sort of thinly veiled racism far-right voices in this country use to disparage Muslim and black groups. Well-known right-wing voice Christie Blatchford decried Spence's actions (a hunger strike) as "intimidation, if not terrorism." Arguments from Blatchford and other anti-native voices suggest that claims for aboriginal rights should be dismissed, as aboriginal cultures are no longer relevant in Canada. Writer and activist Harsha Walia called such dismissals of Idle No More "disgraceful and racist."

A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, flagged by Al-Jazeera,  found that in 2006 the average income for aboriginal people was just under $19,000, which is 30 percent lower than the $27,097 average for other Canadians. For long-term activists in Canada, Idle No More is an exciting space for aboriginal people and non-aboriginal allies to begin to fight the conditions they see perpetuating this sort of inequality.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

MORE FROM Natasha Lennard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aboriginal Activism Biggest Story You Missed Canada First Nations Idle No More Protests Stephen Harper