Idle No More is about more than Chief Spence

Satirical collage image of Chief Theresa Spence that appeared on a conservative Canadian blog. (©Blazing Cat Fur)

Satirical collage image of Chief Theresa Spence that appeared on a conservative Canadian blog. (©Blazing Cat Fur)

The Idle No More movement began quietly back in early October, when four aboriginal women held a teach-in in Saskatoon about the destructive effects of the Harper government’s omnibus budget Bill C-45. It was not until mid-December, however, that the movement gained widespread attention with the high-profile hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation, who set up a tipi just beneath Parliament Hill in Ottawa and demanded a meeting with the prime minister and the governor general as the main condition for ending her strike. Since then, rallies and solidarity actions have been held around the world.

In a manner analogous to the rise of the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011, when the arrest of 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge and the pepper spraying of peaceful protesters helped to galvanize widespread attention and increase public support, Chief Spence’s hunger strike has been a focal point for the national media in Canada. On the one hand, this has helped to open space for national (and, increasingly, international) attention on the plight of First Nations people, forcing even the most reactionary defenders of the status quo to admit that there is a serious problem. On the other hand, however, the media’s penchant for fixating on symbolic figureheads like Chief Spence has presented a significant barrier to connecting the dots between this movement and the ongoing legacy of colonialism and racism, along with the broader issue of neoliberal capitalism.

It is of course historically significant that Chief Spence was able to force a meeting with the prime minister on January 11 — which she turned down due to the absence of the governor general, vowing to continue her strike. But the disproportionate focus on this confrontation between Canada’s First Nations chiefs and the federal government has had the effect of placing undue emphasis on the traditional channels of power, when in fact the true source of the movement’s vitality is in the thousands of ordinary citizens who are being mobilized and energized, both online and in the streets.

Moreover, the focus on the chiefs and the politicians has enabled critics to raise distracting accusations that the chiefs’ alleged greed and incompetence is the main source of ongoing problems for aboriginal people. Discussion of tax-exemption and “special treatment” has been common, which in turn leads to proposals for selling off First Nations land and calls for assimilation. While there are no doubt problems to be dealt with regarding the role of First Nations leaders and their governance practices, the near-singular focus on these matters has been a convenient scapegoat, and it has often aligned with stereotyping and even racist characterizations — from accounts of Chief Spence’s hunger strike as a “diet” to the age-old trope of the “angry Indian.” These and other such depictions serve not only to distract from the larger issues, but also highlight how much remains to be done in changing the dominant narratives.

Equating Idle No More with Chief Spence and her hunger strike means missing a great deal about what makes the movement so important. It means overlooking the concrete plight of so many First Nations people, as well as that of other indigenous peoples around the world who have been inspired by the movement. Getting overly caught up in the twists and turns of her interactions with the government runs the risk of failing to identify the Harper regime as, fundamentally, the bearer of a radical neoliberal agenda.

Changing the narrative does not, of course, mean dismissing Chief Spence’s hunger strike altogether, but rather seeing it as a conduit for the voices of those who have been long suppressed. Chief Spence has helped to galvanize tens of thousands of First Nations people and their supporters to take to the streets like never before, performing round dances and drum circles, marching on government offices and businesses, hosting teach-ins, building communities’ ties and engaging in slowdowns and road blockades. With the aid of social media, new “networks of outrage and hope” have been created — to borrow the title from Manuel Castells’ new book on social movements in the Internet age — which allow for more advanced coordination, for the sharing of videos and stories, and for undercutting the dominant assumptions about what is politically possible.

One of the most promising tactics that has emerged in recent weeks has been the #Ottawapiskat hashtag, a clever reversal of Attawapiskat, the home of Chief Spence. The idea is to reverse the media narrative of irresponsible spending among First Nations toward one of the current government’s lack of accountability. For example:

#Ottawapiskat chief appoints 53 unelected pals to senate with a base salary of $132,000 each. parl.gc.ca/ParlInfo/Lists…

#Ottawapiskat has only itself to blame. It’s the only developed, Western nation without a national housing strategy ‪http://www.vancouverobserver.com/politics/canadas-lack-national-housing-strategy-targeted-ontario-court-case …

Another takes a jab at Ezra Levant, Canada’s own Bill O’Reilly:

Everytime someone says #Ottawapiskat, Ezra Levant mutters something racist and pees in his pants a little.

Such viral messages, in combination with ongoing rallies, teach-ins, and deepening ties between already existing organizations and the grassroots will be crucial in the fight ahead.

Chief Spence’s hunger strike came to an end this past Thursday, January 24, along with the strike of Manitoba elder Raymond Robinson. The decision seems to have been provoked by a combination of pressure from Spence’s own band council, from opposition parties in the Canadian government and from the apparently waning public opinion regarding her strike. The 13-point declaration released as she ended the strike once again demands a sit-down meeting with the prime minister and the governor general — a meeting, it would appear, that Chief Spence will not get. It is not clear at this point what to expect next. The Harper government has played its hand carefully, offering little more than an agreement to engage in further talks.

As actions ramp up, from the spate of blockades on January 16 to the global day of action that has been called for this Monday, January 28, it is more important than ever to have creative alternatives to combat the mainstream status quo and the counter-narratives that the state and its allies are likely to use in the coming weeks and months. While the focus on Chief Spence often distracted from the truly grassroots nature of this emerging movement, it created a groundswell that has opened up space for voices that don’t often get heard. In a social movement’s lifespan, this early phase of spectacle is a chance to help change the narrative, to organize alternatives and to turn away from past mistakes. But after the spectacle dies down, the real work begins.

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