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Speaking With the Founders of Idle No More

Posted: 02/21/2013 5:41 pm

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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  • A native dancer looks on during an 'Idle No More' gathering on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

  • Native dancers rally during an 'Idle No More' gathering on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

  • Idle No More Mall Protest

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/LJ_Henshell"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/630755180/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/LJ_Henshell">LJ Henshell</a>:<br />A First Nations Drummer plays during a protest at Intercity Shopping Center in Thunder Bay, Ontario

  • It's about the future

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/LJ_Henshell"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/630755180/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/LJ_Henshell">LJ Henshell</a>:<br />A child protests in Thunder Bay, Ontario

  • United we stand

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Doug_Cleverley"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/805699678/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Doug_Cleverley">Doug Cleverley</a>:<br />At the #IdleNoMore rally in Owen Sound (Saugeen Ojibway Nation territory), during a spontaneous round dance at the main downtown intersection.

  • Killer Whale Dance

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4441016.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop">Courtney Harrop</a>:<br />Idle No More actions, Coast Salish Territories, Powell River, BC

  • Idle No More #J11

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4441016.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop">Courtney Harrop</a>:<br />Coast Salish Territories, Powell River, BC

  • Idle No More #J11 March

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4441016.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop">Courtney Harrop</a>:<br />Coast Salish Territories, Powell River, BC

  • Tla'Amin Prayer Song #J11 Idle No More

    Tla'Amin Prayer song on #J11 2013 Idle No More, Coast Salish Territories, Powell River BC

  • Tla'Amin Killer Whale Dance, #J11 #IdleNoMore

    Tla'Amin Killer Whale Dance, #J11 #IdleNoMore, Coast Salish Territories, Powell River, BC

  • C45 affects all Canadians! Join the fight.

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Eleanor_Kure"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/840875359/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Eleanor_Kure">Eleanor Kure</a>:<br />At the Idle No More protest in Halifax Nova Scotia. with an eco-justice article in pocket, spreading the word that Bill C45 affects every Canadian, not only First Nations. Thank you FN, for beginning this movement.

  • Piyesiw Awasis

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/mizzren"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/3183681.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/mizzren">mizzren</a>:<br />Thunderchild First Nation @ Lloydminster Flash Mob. January 16, 2013

  • <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/01/16/idle-no-more-queen-elizabeth-2-highway-blockade-alberta_n_2490009.html">Idle No More supporters jump onto a truck</a> as they are pushed by a driver trying to pass, as the protesters block Highway 2 as part of a planned national day of action, in Edmonton, Alberta on Wedneday January 16, 2013.

  • Aboriginal protesters march down Huron Church Road towards the Ambassador bridge in Windsor Ontario, Wednesday, January 16, 2013. About 1000 demonstrators disrupted traffic to the country's busiest border crossing for several hours.

  • Aboriginal protestors pray at the end of their blockade of a CN railroad track just west of Portage La Prairie, Man., on Wednesday, January 16, 2016. They ended their protest without incident.

  • Aboriginal protesters demonstrate at the base of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor Ontario, Wednesday, January 16, 2013. About 1000 demonstrators disrupted traffic to the country's busiest border crossing for several hours.

  • Idle No More demonstrators block a CN east-west track just west of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba Wednesday, January 16, 2016.

  • Mississaugas of the New Credit support INM

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Vicki_King_Jamieson"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/750500023/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Vicki_King_Jamieson">Vicki King Jamieson</a>:<br />New Credit Youth supporting INM

  • Montreal Idle No More

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Caillum"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Caillum">Caillum</a>:<br />Thousands of people, both Native and Canadian, show their support at an Idle No More protest in Montreal on January 11th, 2013.

  • #Denendeh #J11 #IdleNoMore #YZF #NWT Yellowknife "Northwest Territories"

    Video of the Global Day of Action rally in downtown Somba K’e (Yellowknife)on the Akaitcho territory of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Denendeh (Northwest Territories).

  • #IdleNoMore March and Round Dance in Yellowknife Denendeh NWT

    "Today (Friday, December 21, 2012) in Denendeh and across the globe, we made an impact, a statement for true justice to be brought forward and acknowledged. But it will not stop, for the 8th fire has been lit and will only grow. Mahsi for all who showed up and united, we felt the support....we felt the fire!! And there's more to come in the new year." On Facebook By Lawrence Nayally, Melaw Nakehk'o and Eugene Boulanger https://www.facebook.com/events/112403725595655/

  • Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, wearing a headdress, takes part in a drum ceremony before departing a Ottawa hotel to attend a ceremonial meeting at Rideau Hall with Gov. Gen. David Johnston in Ottawa, Friday January 11, 2013.

  • Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, centre, departs a Ottawa hotel to attend a ceremonial meeting at Rideau Hall with Gov. Gen. David Johnston in Ottawa, Friday January 11, 2013.

  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with First Nations leaders in Ottawa on January 11, 2013.

  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with First Nations leaders in Ottawa on January 11, 2013.

  • Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence makes a brief statement on Victoria Island near Parliament Hill Friday January 11, 2013 in Ottawa. Spence is speaking out for the first time about how her reserve spends government money, saying most of what flows to her isolated James Bay reserve actually gets spent outside the community.

  • Aboriginal Chiefs stand at the main gate to Parliament Hill during a protest Friday January 11, 2013 in Ottawa.

  • Idle No More protesters listen to speakers during a rally on Parliament Hill Friday January 11, 2013 in Ottawa.

  • Gordie Odjig of Wikwemikong stands at the west gate to the Langevin Block during the aboriginal meeting in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Idle No More at UBC Vancouver

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Randall_Gray"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/100001602753648/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Randall_Gray">Randall Gray</a>:<br />

  • Idle No More at UBC Vancouver

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Randall_Gray"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/100001602753648/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Randall_Gray">Randall Gray</a>:<br />

  • Los Angeles Rally In Solidarity with First nations

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/hp_blogger_Melinda Gopher"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/contributors/melinda-gopher/headshot.jpg" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/hp_blogger_Melinda Gopher">HuffPost Blogger Melinda Gopher</a>:<br />Brock Conway, Blackfeet activist, with Saulteaux Actor Adam Beach and companion. Photo: Morning Star Gopher

  • Native protesters march up Wellington Street in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Four-year-old Phoenix Sky Cottrelle,from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, holds a sign as aboriginal protestors gather on Victoria Island before they march to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Aboriginal protestors hold signs as they march from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Gordie Odjig, an aboriginal protestor from Wikwemikong, shouts as he marches from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, January 11, 2013.

  • Woman's Voices

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4441016.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Courtney_Harrop">Courtney Harrop</a>:<br />Idle No More event Dec 30th,2012. Tla'Amin Nation Coast Salish Territories Powell River, British Columbia.

  • Idle No More Edmonton

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/AUPELOCAL6CHAIR"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/4411530.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/AUPELOCAL6CHAIR">AUPELOCAL6CHAIR</a>:<br />Planned overnight and what a turn out!

  • IdleNoMore March, Dauphin, Mb

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Phyllis_Racette"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/1354341984/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Phyllis_Racette">Phyllis Racette</a>:<br />#IdleNoMOre Dauphin, Mb

  • Chicago Idle No More @ the Canadian Consulate

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Jolene_Aleck"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/644015258/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Jolene_Aleck">Jolene Aleck</a>:<br />Chicago's Idle No More 1.5.2012 rally @ the Canadian Consulate

  • VancouverC Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • A man waves a flags as aboriginal protesters and supporters in the Idle No More movement block the Blue Water Bridge border crossing to the United States in Sarnia, Ont. on Saturday, January 5, 2013.

  • VancouverA Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverB Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverD Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverH Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC, January 2, 2013.

  • VancouverF Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverE Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • VancouverG Jan 2 2013

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/gerrybates">gerrybates</a>:<br />Idle No More at Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC

  • Flag Planting

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/seawaytoday"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/seawaytoday">seawaytoday</a>:<br />Akwesasne Idle No More att Cornwall, ON

  • Dec 21st 2012 Idle No More Ottawa: Berdine

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Gail_Chicky_Gallagher"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/535670179/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Gail_Chicky_Gallagher">Gail Chicky Gallagher</a>:<br />


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.

 

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