Just because Idle No More isn’t generating headlines doesn’t mean it’s dead

by John Cameron

Remember Occupy?

Sure you do. Big group of people, all descending on a park in New York City (and, later, in public spaces across North America and around the world, including Victoria Park in Regina).

Remember how its class rhetoric wormed its way into contemporary culture — if you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises, you know exactly what I mean. But as protestors drifted away and authorities moved in to close the squatter camps down, media (and the general public) gradually lost interest.

The folks behind Idle No More remember Occupy, to be sure. Whether their movement is able to stay standing this summer, though, will determine whether we have to ask the same question of it in a year or so.

Over the winter, Idle No More — the Canadian protest movement centred on Aboriginal sovereignty and environmental issues — sustained itself through social media and flash mobs in shopping malls, a far cry from Occupy’s breezy use of a bright, warm New York City summer.

It helped that, at least early on, the movement had linchpins in broader politics. Where Occupy came to international attention after a series of brutal police crackdowns on protestors, Idle No More captured Canadian media attention around the same time that First Nations issues, such as the lingering crisis in Attawapiskat, wound up in the spotlight.

But many of those stories were effectively dropped by the media in February or March, by which point pundits were bickering over whether Idle No More was dead. The difficulty of covering something small but ongoing like Idle No More was best captured by digital media analyst and Idle No More-watcher Mark Blevis, who released a report on June 11 in which he stated that, regardless of the actual forward momentum of Idle No More, the “full impact of the movement may not be known for quite some time.”

Which brings us to this summer. In order to provide Idle No More activists with a common focus, organizers have partnered with the environmentally oriented activist group Defenders of the Land, whose leaders contacted Idle No More organizers shortly after the movement’s inception in November.

“Of course, they have the experience and expertise in dealing with these issues, and so we were more than happy as a grassroots movement to work alongside them,” says Saskatoon-based Idle No More organizer Sheelah McLean, adding that the group intends to continue using social media, teach-ins and other strategies to educate the general public about indigenous concerns.

Both organizations share a focus on First Nations sovereignty, McLean points out, adding that the rural focus of Defenders of the Land and Idle No More’s largely urban-concentrated base make this summer’s partnership a sensible route.

When asked if the partnership with the environment- and sovereignty-focused Defenders of the Land was intended to rebut criticism that Idle No More was, like the Occupy movement before it, somehow “unfocused” or “unclear”, however, McLean contests the premise.

“We started with two main words, which were ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sustainability’. I don’t know how you can get more focused than that,” she laughs.

But McLean is also quick to point out that the aims of the movement were always as much about educating the public as anything else. “We learn this system, and we’re socialized into it, and we can unlearn it,” she says. “But it takes time and it’s fraught with tension. There’s no doubt about that.”

On both points, Jason Bird agrees. For the Regina-based Idle No More organizer, the lack of recent Regina-specific aboriginal news necessitating street marches and protests has led to his participation being largely networking-based.

“We link education information online — through Facebook, Twitter, and social media of that nature. What I do is [gather information] on a lot of events that are happening with other groups that we know of,” he says, citing National Aboriginal Month events and a June 18 lecture sponsored by Briarpatch on Canada’s military legacy in Afghanistan as events he’s pushed to Idle No More supporters.

It doesn’t sound like much right now, and Bird even admits as much. Part of the problem is that Idle No More is largely about engaging with the spectre of colonialism — something which won’t change overnight, and can only be affected by changing the attitudes of the general public, not by targeting and trying to influence individual politicians. That inevitably means that those involved have to stick it out for the long haul.

“We know that there is some impact that is occurring, whether it’s online or face-to-face or in events,” Bird says.

I ask, “Is it happening quickly enough?” Bird sighs. “No. But education doesn’t happen quickly. Education takes years. So we kind of understand that you’re either in this for the long haul or you’re not in the right game.”

And that’s the struggle of any large social movement — to keep it going ultimately takes a lot of energy, especially in an era where the dominant media narrative of a protest like Idle No More is not about the protest’s substantive concerns but rather what date to inscribe on its tombstone.

The other thing to worry about, of course, is the way dissent works in 2013. Remember how Occupy’s rhetoric — the 99 per cent, and gross disparities in wealth, and the complicity of governments with business — eventually became part of our social fabric?

There’s a dark side to that, one that writers and philosophers from Aldous Huxley to Louis Althusser recognized: overwhelmingly large systems, like capitalism and colonialism, are so sophisticated that they accept dissent as not only possible but inevitable. Attempts to break the system are anticipated by the systems and built into their foundations. In other words, colonialism will always tell Idle No More to bring it on.

While speaking in Greece in May, a country that has been wracked by economic turmoil and unemployment rates above 25 per cent, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek challenged the audience to name a movement able to transition from the first few months of radical energy into any kind of long-term self-governance.

“I’m not saying we should keep the old bourgeois state,” Žižek said. “I’m saying we should re-invent also these large-scale [state] mechanisms.”

Will Idle No More have the power to make substantial enough changes to our attitudes that we’re willing to make substantial changes to the systems we live in? Maybe Blevis is right — it’s too early to tell exactly what the impact of Idle No More will be, no matter how many or how few participants it has this summer.

And Bird is confident that quality in a long-haul game is just as important as quantity.

“You’ve got really educated people standing now with those activists,” he says. “Where some people are willing to give their bodies, those educated people are willing to give their minds.”