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Why Idle No More Never Needed Your Sympathy

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The Idle No More Indigenous rights movement is promising more direct action in 2013. However, a spectre is haunting the movement -- the spectre of fading public sympathy. The majority of Canadians (as well as some in the movement) believe that gaining recognition for Indigenous rights depends on effectively bolstering and sustaining public support.

Does it?

From the get go, commentators have cautioned that Indigenous peoples would be wise to play their cards right lest they squander what little patience and benevolence the Canadian public has left for Indigenous issues.

Offend those who are growing weary of your grievances with disruptive tactics like blockades, marches, or hunger-strikes and you risk alienating potential allies and thwarting your own objectives. Play nice and you might just earn the sympathy you need to make change.

Those who hold this view seem curiously unaware of how movements such as Idle No More work. Like the Civil Rights movement, these are not public relations battles; they are Constitutional struggles. They press on political and economic nerves to motivate changes to legal and political structures during times when the majority is predictably dead-set against change. Their methods have the anticipated effect of intensifying public acrimony. It's a noisy affair, but ultimately the cheers and the jeers of the masses are a side show to this brand of direct Constitutional politics.

Don't be deceived by the conciliatory vibe of the drumming and round dances. Indigenous peoples have long understood the folly of pleading for public support. They are not naive to the fact that power and economics are the main drivers of policy. Indeed, the recent history of successful Indigenous activism demonstrates that they understand the game better than most.

So, while fostering public support for Indigenous issues remains a long-term goal, it is largely irrelevant to their most pressing political concerns. There is an urgency to these problems that will not be held back by the historical 30-year-lag between political change and the eventual materialization of public support. They're not waiting.

To that end, the parallels between the Idle No More movement an the Civil Rights movement are instructive. Both are constitutional struggles by racialized minorities whose tactics are criticized and whose leaders are vilified. Recall Martin Luther King's now famous rebuke to supporters who urged against protest because of the violent reactions it aroused: "We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence."

King was fully cognizant that the movement's tactics would be disparaged and that opponents would seek to discredit its leadership. It began in 1956 when he was charged and subsequently found guilty of leading an illegal boycott of the Montgomery buses where Rosa Parks sat in protest. Later, in 1960, King was charged with inaccurate reporting on his Income Tax (State of Alabama v. ML King). He was exonerated, but not before a state audit prompted rumours that King had garnering an income of $45,000 in 1958, received on behalf of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The public was outraged and detractors had a field day. How could a leader in a position of trust -- who purports to fight for the poor -- receive such a enormous salary under such dubious circumstances?

Does any of this sound a bit familiar? How about this...

In 1961, a Gallup poll showed that 57 per cent of Americans thought the movement's civil disobedience tactics were hurting it, and in 1964 the vast majority, 73 per cent, said activists had made their point and should just stop protesting already. In 1963, 37 per cent claimed to dislike Martin Luther King. By 1966, public animosity had jumped to 63 per cent (with 44 per cent claiming to hate King's guts, up from 25 per cent three years earlier). Yet during this period where polls reported plummeting public support, the U.S. passed several historic pieces of Civil Rights legislation. In other words, the constitutional struggle met with had considerable success in a time when public support was rapidly dissolving.

It would take decades for Americans to reconcile themselves with the movement. It appears that they have finally come around as of 2011, with 94 per cent of them viewing King favourably.

The 'Idle No More' Indigenous rights movement is deploying a range of practices, including civil disobedience, to push for substantive recognition of their rights as identified in Sec. 35(1) of the Canadian Constitution: "The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed." As if on cue, rumours emerged that an audit conducted by the Federal Government's auditor-of-choice showed that one the movement's leaders, Chief Theresa Spence, mismanaged accounting on the Attawapiskat reserve. She also made too much money. Guess what? The public was outraged and the detractors had a field day.

Of course, none of this came as any surprise to Indigenous activists. Nor did it come as a shock when an Ipsos Reid poll revealed that a mere 29 per cent of Canadians approve of Chief Spence. King's approval was around 33 per cent in 1966, so she's appears to be in good company. The poll determined that as of mid-January, Indigenous protests had "a hardening effect on Canadian public opinion regarding Aboriginal issues" and had therefore "done little to build sympathy for First Nations issues." Likewise, a Forum Research poll determined that 49 per cent of Canadians did not support Idle No More and that the 'Day of Action' protests on January 11 "actually lessened support for the movement for 37 per cent of Canadians surveyed." Finally, a Nanos Research poll revealed that 54 per cent of Canadians thought that Theresa Spence's hunger strike was not advancing the cause.

And still they march on.

My guess is that the preoccupation with opinion polls probably speaks more to the media's need to gauge the appetites of its readership than to an interest in the prospects of social change. If history is any guide, the polling will continue. And so we can expect general bewilderment and frustration from the public as Idle No More pushes through in 2013. Again, if history is any guide, public support should catch up sometime in 2045.

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