A Saskatoon teach-in on Nov. 10, 2012 marked the founding — by Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam and Nina Wilson — of Idle No More, which initially focused on opposing a federal omnibus bill, now law, and its perceived threats to land, water and aboriginal rights.
Nevertheless, Idle No More hit a chord and, by also making skillful use of social media, quickly became one of the most significant protest movements Canada has seen in a long time.
"Our biggest strength is that we always left it open," Pam Palmater, who was a spokeswoman for Idle No More in its early days, told CBC News in a recent interview. "Idle No More was to individuals whatever they wanted it to be."
Palmater is the chair of indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, and was a candidate for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2012.
"The movement became so successful, because there was no leader."
Now, she and others are critical of some prominent members for trying to control the notably leaderless organization and its name.
"[We] don't want to get caught up in copyrighting the Idle No More movement or setting up an office or an organization, really going down the road that is what has really killed every other kind of movement," she said.
"For me, it's never about the name or who started it or who owns it or any of those things," Palmater explained. "For me it's about the spirit of the Idle No More movement."
Palmater said another group, the Indigenous Nationhood Movement, is headed in the direction she'd like to see Idle No More go.
That group "is talking about action on the ground, real resistance, going out and living on the land and protecting territories and exercising jurisdiction and reclaiming and reoccupying, so it's not just about protest anymore, it's changing," Palmater said. She considers herself part of both movements.
Gerald Taiaiake Alfred of the Indigenous Nationhood Movement wrote earlier this year that "the limits to Idle No More are clear, and many people are beginning to realize that the kind of movement we have been conducting under the banner of Idle No More is not sufficient in itself to decolonize this country or even to make meaningful change in the lives of people."
Confusion and miscommunication
CBC News has learned that problems with Idle No More began early this year when, in response to media requests, the group designated provincial spokespersons.
There was some confusion over whether they were also provincial organizers, which led to a lot of miscommunication within the movement. There's no indication that took away from its energy and enthusiasm, however.
Alex Wilson, an organizer in Saskatoon, says with "any kind of human rights movement, there's always a backlash and Idle No More is not immune from that."
"When a movement is led by women, there will always be a bit of a patriarchal backlash as well," she added.
Wilson says that the activists she collaborates with aren't criticizing the Indigenous Nationhood Movement, that Idle No More has space for everybody, whether they're into theorizing, direct action or round dancing.
Leah Gazan, another Idle No More organizer who is also aligned with Idle No More's founders, says disagreements are part of a healthy discussion. "That's how things grow and change, by having different opinions and finding a solution that everybody can collaborate with."
On its first anniversary, the group is "going better than ever," and "very structured" although "it does fall outside of [hierarchical] western notions of governance," she says.
"In Manitoba we very much have a shared leadership model and that really follows our traditional governance structures," explains Gazan, who also teaches at the University of Winnipeg.
While Idle No More raises awareness as well as engages in direct action, according to Wilson, "there's no use in disrupting things if we don't have viable solutions."
Frances Westley, the co-author of the popular activist guide Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, says she marvels at Idle No More's "low hierarchy, the sense of this just being emergent and happening in the moment."
It creates an opportunity for change, she says, though "things don't change easily and they don't change just because a lot of people who have been voiceless are given voice."
"The hard work of identifying exactly what that change should be, and of identifying the right people in the power structure who are going to be instrumental in making that happen," are also critical, she said.
If activism isn't co-ordinated with that longer-term work, Westley said it may have an "effervescent quality, and it's not clear to me that it translates into the disruptive change, which of course they all are hoping to see."
She says while Idle No More creates an enormous opportunity for change, it needs alternative ideas and innovations ready to go.
"It's hard for one organization to do both, so you need this kind of network collaboration across people who are working at creating disruptions legally, or through policy, or through public pressure, and those that are working away at creating alternatives, and if they can connect together, you've got something really powerful," she said.
For Palmater, Idle No More showed that "without organizations, without money, without all of the things that whole countries run on, we had the power to rise up and educate ourselves and educate others and stop traffic and make a difference and get the world's attention."
But, she adds, there's "never going to be one voice for everybody because we're all different nations but you're going to see a much stronger, strategically co-ordinated movement that's there for any First Nation that needs it."
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