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Why Idle No More Never Needed Your Sympathy

Posted: 02/04/2013 8:35 am

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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  • 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 />

 

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