LIVERPOOL, United Kingdom — The legacy of Colonialism has long assaulted Indigenous People’s social, cultural and economic rights. But when a new law breached Indigenous rights in Canada and undermined nation-to-nation relations, four women from Saskatchewan, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sheelah McLean, organized a teach-in and stood up to protect their native lands. The world watched from afar as Indigenous Peoples took part in flash mobs and round dances, sending a clear message to the government that they would be “idle no more.”
Social Problems that Indigenous Peoples Face
The violent legacy of colonialism can be traced back to the cultural genocide of Indigenous children in federal residential schools in the 1830s. In many schools, 150,000 children were assimilated into an aggressive system that sought to eradicate Indigenous language, culture and nationhood.
Whilst Prime Minister Harper apologized for these crimes in 2008, the legacy of these schools still exists in many of the social problems present in Canada today.
According to the Canadian Poverty Institute in 2011, a staggering one in four Indigenous Peoples in Canada lived in poverty, accounting for 19% of the global population who are classified as extremely poor. In 2022, the U.N. declared that First Nations people are among those whom poverty still disproportionately affects.
Systemic discrimination in Canada is also resulting in unequal access to job opportunities. In 2022, Statistics Canada found that 8% of Indigenous Peoples in Canada did not have a job, yet the unemployment rate of 9.1% disproportionately affected First Nations.
In these conditions, Indigenous Peoples are often unable to meet their basic everyday needs, making up 14% of people using food banks in Canada in 2016.
Land Dispossession in Canada
The Canadian state has been directly implicated in the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their native lands by endorsing the Export Development Canada (EDC) fund which supports resource extraction both at home and abroad.
The government has paved the way for the development of dangerous tar sand pipelines which are producing multiple risks for Indigenous Peoples living in impoverished communities in particular.
Around 23,000 Indigenous Peoples who rely mostly on subsistence diets live along the Athabasca River basin area where they are exposed to frequent oil spills which expose them to cancer-causing toxic chemicals and threaten their cultural way of life.
The extraction of oil requires 2.4 gallons of fresh water for every barrel of tar sands oil which inhibits Indigenous Peoples’ ability to hunt and fish.
The government is now expanding the development of the Trans Mountain Pipeline which will increase the size of oil operations. The development which has cost the government billions of dollars, has diverted investment away from improving infrastructure and services for impoverished Indigenous communities.
The Emergence of a Peaceful Revolution
Idle No More began its journey after the federal government passed Omnibus Bill C-45 in 2012. The legislation resulted in a series of changes to 60 federal acts and regulations, including the Indian Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. These measures made it easier for corporations and the federal government to extract resources from Indigenous land, which is a source of cultural, economic and spiritual importance for many generations.
In an interview with Naomi Klein for Yes! Magazine, Indigenous activist Leanne Simpson, discussed how the movement differs because of its powerful emphasis on peaceful resistance which has united Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.
Simpson explained “The alternative to extractivism is deep reciprocity. It’s respect, it’s relationships, it’s responsibility, and it’s local […] And I think that’s where, in the politics of indigenous women, and traditional indigenous politics, it is a politics based on love. That was the difference with Idle No More because there were so many women that were standing up.”
Campaigning for Indigenous Rights
Since its emergence in 2012, Idle No More has successfully addressed the issue of Indigenous rights in Canada by educating the public, advocating for social and environmental justice and campaigning against government legislation that undermines nation-to-nation relations:
- Idle No More helped prevent the passing of Bill C-33 which is a testament to its ability to provide effective leadership and coordination to Indigenous Peoples across Canada. Bill C-33 would have been another legislative attack on Indigenous identity.
- Idle No More participated in the People’s Social Forum in 2015 to campaign against environmental destruction, resource extraction and land theft. The movement successfully coordinated 4,000 people in a march to Parliament Hill to highlight the plight of Indigenous Peoples.
- Idle No More has campaigned tirelessly to investigate the disappearance and murder of thousands of Indigenous Canadian women. Working in solidarity with individuals, families and community groups, the movement has taken an active stand against colonial gender-based violence.
The Legacy of Idle No More
Idle No More has played an important role in re-igniting the issue of Indigenous rights in Canada, bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who commit to social and environmental justice. Through the power of peaceful resistance, the movement has shown how a politics of care, love and community can help stand up to colonial-based violence.
– Tatum Richards