01/21/2013 12:19 EST | Updated 03/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Idle No More Memes Taking Over the Twittersphere

#Ottawapiskat has been trending on Twitter with a fervour few other hashtags have generated. Aaron Paquette, a First Nations artist from Edmonton, says he started the hashtag to raise questions about the double standards that First Nations people often face in the media.


Say, are you an upsettler from Ottawapiskat?

Following its conception from within the belly of social media, Idle No More has been born onto Canada's streets. Nonetheless, its ideas still continue to develop and agitate within the bullpens of Twitter and Facebook. There, unlike the blockades on Canadian rail lines on Wednesday, battles are being fought using a new language, one that's attempting to block concepts that Canadians often use to discuss Indigenous peoples.

In attempting to shift the script, Idle No More is entering the subversive territory that Occupy -- through the now popular meme of the 99 percent -- successfully employed to raise awareness about its larger message about inequality. So what are the memes emerging in the #IdleNoMore language stew? And what are the reactions that they're provoking?

Perhaps the most playful and widely-used Idle No More meme that's emerged is #Ottawapiskat. Thanks to its humour, a portmanteau of 'Ottawa' and 'Attawapiskat', #Ottawapiskat has been Tweeted by media pundit Andrew Coyne and others who are often critical of First Nations leaders. In that it has successfully subverted the divide.


Aaron Paquette, a First Nations artist from Edmonton, says he started the hashtag to raise questions about the double standards that First Nations people often face in the media. But it was somewhat by accident. "My first spelling was Ottawa-piskat," Paquette says. "And moments after typing it out, I realized, 'Hey! That's a hashtag!'"

The idea was to flip a mirror back on to people being critical of places like Attawapiskat and its chief, Theresa Spence. "What if the federal government was a reservation and held to the same standards and criticisms levelled at First Nations leadership and communities?" Paquette says. "We might find that there are a lot more similarities than we might have thought."

#Ottawapiskat has been trending on Twitter with a fervour few other hashtags have generated. Most Tweeters using the hashtag have re-imagined Ottawa as a band led by a chief known as 'Harper' who muzzles dissent, bullies the media, and wastes money with little transparency.

in #Ottawapiskat Chief's cronies can post partisan letters on govt websites

Another meme that has emerged within the Idle No More debate but has far older roots is #settler. No, that's not referring to pioneers in Conestoga wagons who settled the North American west. Instead the term refers to the systemic and historical relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples, who already lived in the areas where the settlers put down their roots, and where they continue to live. Settler colonial theory is an emerging field that seeks to understand countries such as Canada, Australia, and South Africa, where settlers colonized, and the systems created by those who settled to marginalize, assimilate and otherwise make Indigenous peoples invisible.

The use of #settler "has introduced those with very little understanding of Indigenous history or politics to a term that directly implicates non-Indigenous peoples in a colonial system," says Tobold Rollo, a political science PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and prominent voice in the Twitter discussion, under the satirical name @SettlerColonial. "This can prove upsetting for many, but it is in this unsettled moment that a discussion about one's privileges, roles, and responsibilities can begin."

On Twitter, #Settler has been used by both those supporting Idle No More, and those expressing frustrations with the movement's focus on identity and ethnicity. Here are a few examples from Twitter:

When we call #Canada a #settler-colonial state, we're referencing a structural characteristic rather than merely a statement of origin.

this "settler" and "colonist" language is just sooo dated. What is this, the 1970's?

As settlers we must recognize how our actions perpetuate colonialism. Ignoring our ongoing role upholds the colonial relationship #J16Forum

Part of the #Settler meme is the newly created #Upsettler term. A portmaneteau of "upset" and "settler," an #Upsettler is someone who is upset by the discomforting talk of racism Idle No More has provoked. Here are a few examples:


"The word racist is so offensive"-an #Upsettler

One way #Upsettlers can prove they have no clue what social movements are about is to cite public opinion polls as evidence against them.

So, are you an #Upsettler? How did you react to Idle No More actions? Or to First Nations issues in general?

Michael Pealow, a business and economic consultant from Whitehorse, Yukon, says an oft-heard #Upsettler style response to Indigenous issues begins with phrases like, "First Nations should...".

"The phrase 'First Nations should' speaks to the mentality that First Nations are solely responsible for their situation, and that it's up to them to change it. This implies that First Nations aren't doing anything, or that they're not doing it right. That completely fails to recognize Canada's own responsibility in the relationship. That responsibility, for Canadians, is to listen, learn, understand, and, where reasonable, support. It's not to say 'First Nations should ..."

As Pealow asks, "Why do we never hear, 'Canadians should...'?"

Rollo adds that an #Upsettler "is someone who becomes indignant when implicated. Upsettlers refuse to admit their privileged positions in a colonial system, and quite often they will complain about how they have been sorely victimized by the mere accusation

"The irony is lost on them," Rollo says. "It's really something to watch."

There have been several memes critical of Idle No More. Globe columnist Jeffrey Simpson argued that many First Nations people live in a "dream palace" and the idea has stuck. Yet even this has been used to subvert the dominant message on Twitter, through humour.

My dream palace has a moat with alligators specially trained to eat pundits who smell of racism.

Nonetheless, the old, hate-filled tropes about First Nations people have shown themselves, too. Erica Lee, who manages the Idle No More Facebook page from Saskatchewan, has been kept busy deleting racist messages on the page. Messages deleted include those that urge First Nations people to "Quit drinking Lysol."

America Votes
The latest polls, breaking news and analysis on the U.S. election from HuffPost’s Washington, D.C. bureau