Overcoming fatalism in Idle No More

It may be difficult to fight for a future we cannot yet imagine, but that is what decolonization has come to mean for me

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In the four months since its emergence, Idle No More has been called paranoid, naïve, ineffective, and “anti-white.” The movement, in the words of Christie Blatchford, embodies “the inevitable cycle of hideous puffery and horse manure that usually accompanies native protests.” Rex Murphy has pronounced that “natives need to tone down the anger.” Idle No More, he writes, is altogether too “radical, hitting the racial/racist buttons;” some of its activists so insolent as to even “call up the ‘genocide’ word.”

I have been disgusted but not especially surprised by the mainstream treatment of Idle No More. What I have found more difficult to contend with, however, has been the equally dismissive attitude I have occasionally heard expressed among my own white middle-class peers in downtown Toronto. “What’s the point?” they ask, and at certain moments I have struggled to respond to that question. At certain moments, admittedly, I have asked myself the same thing.

In early January, the Vancouver Sun published an article entitled “Idle No More? Let’s Get Serious” by Terry Glavin, which struck me as uniquely demonstrative. Glavin takes issue with the notion of a “way forward” for aboriginal people; the point, he writes, “is that there isn’t one, and we all need to stop looking for it.” We need, in other words, to give up on the struggle for justice and restitution for aboriginals.

Something I have realized recently is that there is hardly a distinction between despondency and racism in this discourse; that there is not much of a difference between saying, “What’s the point,” and saying, “Fuck ‘em.” And that is something I have had to remind myself of often lately, because I have also realized that I am congenitally inclined to think like Terry Glavin and I wish I were not.

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This question of “the point” is a complicated one today, when the movement has lost much of the momentum it had in December. Certainly, there is a kernel of truth in the frequent criticism that it lacks clear demands and leadership at the national level. It became so large that it was impossible to remain focused on the initial demand for the repeal or reform of Bill C-45, and from the beginning Chief Theresa Spence was more of an icon than a visionary. But when people like Rex Murphy and Christie Blatchford mount those criticisms, they do so not because they want the movement to succeed, but because they want it fail.

The question today is not as to whether adequate leadership exists; the question, I think, is whether the movement can stay alive for long enough for strong national leaders to emerge. That will not simply happen on its own. It will require active participation from the movement’s sympathizers, far too many of whom remain embarrassed to be seen in a public demonstration. It will require that allies and sympathizers take seriously yesterday’s call from Idle No More organizers for escalating actions throughout the spring and summer, and that we listen to their specific demands for the repeal of the sections of Bill C-45 that encroach on aboriginal land rights, recognition of the right of indigenous people to say no to development on their territory, and meaningful action on the issue of violence against indigenous women. The movement’s long-term goals may be blurry today, but they will come into focus only as we continue to fight for, and win, our short-term objectives, maybe forever. The vision that white pundits are sarcastically demanding, in other words, cannot possibly emerge from outside of the movement, but only within it.

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I have been participating in a weekly teach-in at a native community centre in the east end of Toronto called Council Fire for the past several weeks. The audience is typically about half native; the majority of the speakers have been native, and the majority of those have been women. I have taken the microphone at times that we discussed strategic organizing, but those times have been few, and organizing is not the main objective of the meetings. In large part, we have discussed histories of grief. People have talked about industrial pollution on their reserves, the high rates of environmental diseases there; some have talked about living on the streets as teenagers and becoming addicted to drugs. Women have talked about sexual assaults by white men against their grandmothers, their mothers, and themselves. People have talked about their struggles to reconnect with their culture in the wake of displacement, kidnapping, and genocide.

But many of them have also talked about how this movement is making them feel; that they see promise and inspiration in Idle No More. One man told the audience that he feels proud to be native for the first time in his life since this movement began, that he feels like walking down the street with his chin up now. And that is invaluable, that feeling of pride and belonging.

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Like most white Canadians, I find it difficult to imagine a satisfactory settlement between aboriginals and the Canadian state – and I certainly doubt that can occur so long as the interests of capital continue to dictate federal policy. I believe that repealing Bill C-45 would be an obvious start. I also believe that the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples offers some very important recommendations, and that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a solid legal framework for indigenous sovereignty. But I am not in a position to pontificate at length on the elaborate reforms that need to be wrought upon the Indian Act, nor am I in a position to explain how, exactly, the RCAP recommendations ought to be implemented. I understand the idea of nation-to-nation politics merely in principle.

The point, I have realized, is that that is okay. I am not in any case the one who is supposed to be inventing those solutions. The mainstream media have largely given up because they have failed to find their answers in the space of a priori Reason, where they usually look. They have given up because they are still struggling to grasp the notion that problem-solving is necessarily a discursive process; that a solution is not a solution if it is imposed from the top down; and that it is enough to begin that negotiation in good faith by simply acknowledging the injustices of the past and present, and expressing a will of solidarity. Idle No More has, for the first time in my own memorable life, created a space in which that discourse can finally occur. Like many other white people, I have been confused at times as to what is meant by the idea of “decolonization,” but I now believe that it is simply a willingness to participate in that process. Sometimes that means organizing, and sometimes that means sitting down and listening to what native people have to say about their lives. And that is what I think most Canadians need to understand; that they do not need to have all the answers on hand to participate in this thing.

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5 Responses to Overcoming fatalism in Idle No More

  1. Sarah Schulman says:

    What is the campaign for the repeal of Bill C-45? What concrete steps have the leaders of that repeal spelled out? And what concretely would it take to achieve each of these steps? (asking as a non-Canadian)

    • nikoblock says:

      Idle No More was sparked in response to Bill C-45, but, as I said, the movement quickly lost its focus. Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and the myriad actions around the country were all a part of that.
      The recent call enumerating a few concrete demands which I alluded to you can read about here: http://www.defendersoftheland.org/story/318
      What I think it will take for those demands to be achieved is a strong national leadership that is well-organized and media savvy. I suspect also that in order for that leadership to be effective they might be better off if they do not come from the federally recognized structure of First Nations band councils and chiefs.
      What I’m saying is that I think that the best thing for allies to do is simply to participate as much as possible by attending rallies and teach-ins, etc. (the Nation To Nation Now talks at OISE this saturday, for instance, would be a good place to start.) I hope and expect that the movement will pick up in the spring and summer; for ongoing actions to be effective, INM will need better leadership than it has currently, but my hope is that that kind of leadership will emerge over time. i doubt that will happen if allies lose interest.

  2. Jim Guild says:

    Thoughtful and candid essay. Thanks for the insights into a phenomenon I have so far been watching from the sidelines. You’re dead right about Rex Murphy and Christie Blatchford – their notion that they could offer advice on movement-building from their own experience of self-aggrandizing and careerism is preposterous. They really want aboriginal people and their allies to shut up and go away.

  3. hey Niko, love this post. I’ve been working on similar ideas around utopias. Sarah has good questions, always want to put thought into action. Is there a campaign underway re Bill C-45? I think a soupçon of utopianism mixed with a healthy dose of concrete action is the way forward…great writing btw. elle

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