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Speaking With the Founders of Idle No More

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The four founders of Idle No More didn't start out famous. Until flash-mob round dances, prayer circles, and blockades spread across Canada, few people knew Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean, and Nina Wilson.

But today, Idle No More is emerging as a powerful movement for the rights of native peoples to protect the lands and waters.

The stakes extend far beyond First Nations' land. Bill C-45, which sparked the movement, paves the way for expansion of tar sands mining and for building a pipeline to carry some of the Earth's most polluting, carbon-intensive oil from Alberta to the Pacific coast for shipment to overseas markets. NASA climate scientist James Hansen says burning large quantities of tar sands oil would mean "game over for the planet."

Bill C-45 outraged First Nations people across Canada; after the bill was signed into law, many joined the four founders in declaring that they, too, would be idle no more. Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike on December 11 to press for a meeting with the prime minister and the representative of the Queen. Round dances, and other demonstrations continue, along with solidarity actions in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.

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Founders of Idle No More, from left, Sheelah McLean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon. Photo by Marcel Petit.

YES! Magazine Executive Editor Sarah van Gelder spoke with two of the founders on January 13: Sylvia McAdam, an author and educator from the Nehiyaw (Cree) Nation, and Sheelah McLean, an instructor at the University of Saskatchewan whose ancestors were European settlers.

Sarah van Gelder: Sylvia and Sheelah, how did you each come to be involved in the founding of Idle No More?

Sylvia McAdam: After I graduated from law school, I returned to my father's traditional land near the Whitefish reserve and to the waters that I had been to when I was a child, and they were gone. The waters had dried up! It was a terrible thing to witness. When my father and I went back to his traditional hunting lands, his cabin was gone. There was just a huge burn mark on the ground. When my father saw it, he just stood there, so quiet, so upset. It was terrible to watch.

I started investigating, and I learned that the conservation officers had blocked hunting roads to keep the traditional indigenous hunters away, and the lands were being logged. I felt intensely protective of the land and the water, so I went around nailing boards on trees, saying, "No Trespassing. Treaty 6 Territory!"

When I read Bill C-45, I was horrified. I got into a chat on Facebook with Jessica and Nina, and I started explaining to them the implications of C-45 for the environment, for the waters. I told them there's something in law called acquiescence. That means that if you're silent, then your silence is taken as consent. All of us agreed that we couldn't be silent, that grassroots people have a right to know.

And then I told them, "I know this phenomenal white woman," and I pulled Sheelah in. When we first did our teach-in, we were literally laughed at. People did not take it seriously, and we were so poor -- we had nothing.

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Sheelah McLean: I'm a third generation white settler. I taught native studies in high school, and my aboriginal students kept talking about the racism they experienced in school and in the community.

I wanted to understand more, so I did a Master's degree in what's called anti-racist, anti-oppressive education. I had amazing mentors -- all indigenous women -- who taught me about the impact of colonialism on indigenous people worldwide. I did a lot of research on capitalism, globalization, and how racism is used to justify unequal relationships between settler societies and indigenous peoples.

van Gelder: Where did the name Idle No More come from?

McAdam: Jessica said, "We're all being far too idle. We're going to be idle no more!" And that became the name of our Facebook chat. It was not intended to dishonour the hard work of phenomenal, passionate, determined activists and lovers of the land. When we said "Idle No More," we meant we had been idle, and we didn't want to be any more.

van Gelder: What is at stake here? What does Bill C-45 represent and what does this moment represent?

McAdam: Bill C-45 is an omnibus budget bill. It lumps a slew of bills under one name. There are two that are especially detrimental. One removes much of the protection under the Navigable Waters Protection Act and, in some cases, totally removes that protection. It gives major corporations direct and easy access to our waters and to our land.

McLean: It's so clear what the government is doing: The bill opens the land for resource development, for oil pipelines.

People have been socialized to believe that an economy that relies on non-renewable resource extraction creates jobs and brings money to our communities. But look at what's happening to communities in Alberta's tar sands region, which has one of the highest debts of any province in Canada. What about the poisoned land and water, and the fact that there are many aboriginal communities around the tar sands with very high rates of cancer, and types of cancer that have never been seen before? This is the time to say, "Enough is enough."

McAdam: There's also an amendment to the Indian Act in the bill that allows for surrender of reserve land without proper consent of all Indian people affected and makes it easier for land to be re-designated to allow, for example, nuclear waste to be stored.

McLean: These attacks are directed at indigenous peoples because the government is very aware that First Nations people can stop development on their land. These attacks are coming because multinational corporations want non-renewable resource extraction.

Read the rest of the interview with the founders of Idle No More here.

Sarah van Gelder interviewed Sylvia McAdam and Sheelah McLean for "How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy," the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine.