12/17/2012 12:31 EST | Updated 02/16/2013 05:12 EST

Idle No More Is Not Just an "Indian Thing"

What is "Idle No More"? To me this conversation is more than just an "Indian Thing." It is one that Canadians of all backgrounds should pay attention to, if not participate in. The ideals that are underlying this action are ones to which we all aspire, even if we may disagree on how exactly to pursue them.


What is "Idle No More"?

It is a loosely knit political movement encompassing rallies drawing thousands of people across dozens of cities, road blocks, a shoving match on Parliament Hill between chiefs and mounties and one high profile hunger strike.

It is also a meme tweeted and shared about thousands of times a day, for messages about indigenous rights, indigenous culture and cheap indigenous jokes ("Turn off your ignition #idlenomore").

The name Idle No More comes from a recent meeting in Saskatchewan. Sylvia McAdam and three others were mad about Bill C-45, the omnibus budget bill. Their biggest frustration was that nobody seemed to be talking about it. Two provisions in particular upset them: the reduction in the amount of federally protected waterways and a fast tracked process to surrender reserve lands. In McAdam's view, if Aboriginal people did not speak out it would mean they "comply with [their] silence." So she and her friends decided to speak out. They would be "Idle No More." They held an information session under the same name. Co-organizer Tanya Kappo fired off a tweet with the hashtag "#IdleNoMore."

#IdleNoMore struck a nerve. Though bill C-45 has become law, many of Aboriginal people have voiced their opposition to it. Many of the other tensions in the indigenous community has started to bubble up to the surface and "Idle No More" now encompasses a broad conversation calling for recognition of treaty rights, revitalization of indigenous cultures and an end to legislation imposed without meaningful consultation.

To me this conversation is more than just an "Indian Thing." It is one that Canadians of all backgrounds should pay attention to, if not participate in. The ideals that are underlying this action are ones to which we all aspire, even if we may disagree on how exactly to pursue them.

5. #IdleNoMore is about Engaging Youth

When Grand Chief Derek Nepinak went on national television after he and some other leaders got into that shoving match outside the chamber, he acknowledged the Chiefs were responding to young people calling for action via social media. At the rallies held in cities like Winnipeg, Windsor and Edmonton, it has been the youth who have done the organizing, and it has been the youth who have made up the majority of attendees. Scanning Facebook and Twitter, "#IdleNoMore" has popped up in the timelines of people who typically discuss Snookie or the Kardashians. Agree or disagree with the message, Idle No More has accomplished something all Canadians want: it has young people paying attention to politics.

4. #IdleNoMore is about Finding Meaning

Much of the talk around Idle No More is about preserving indigenous culture, either by revitalizing spiritual practices, or by keeping intact what little land base we have left. The reason culture is so important is that it provides a way to grapple with the big questions in life: "Who am I?," "What am I doing here?" and "What happens after I die?" Some of the answers have been handed down as words of wisdom. Other times, you are told to go out on to the land and discover them for yourself through fasting or prayer. We need these ways. As I look around and see many fellow Canadians searching for meaning in their own lives, I think to myself perhaps they could use these ways as well.

3. #IdleNoMore is about Rights

What almost everyone carrying the Idle No More banner is calling for is meaningful consultation between the federal government and First Nations people. This is what section 35 of our constitution is all about: Aboriginal and treaty rights are recognized and affirmed, and that means we have to talk. If there is no meaningful conversation happening, it is troublesome. Aboriginal people may be the canary in the coal mine. If we overlook one section of the constitution does that mean others are in similar jeopardy?

2. #IdleNoMore is about the Environment

Idle No More started in part because of outrage that Bill C-45 reduced the number of federally protected waterways. The environment continues to be a regular topic at Idle No More protests. Dr. Pam Palmater, one of the leading voices in the Idle No More conversation, argues this is indigenous environmentalism is significant since the crown has a duty to consult with Aboriginal people before natural resource projects proceed. She says, "First Nations are Canadians' last, best hope of protecting the land, water, sky and plants and animals for their future generations as well."

1. #IdleNoMore is about Democracy

Democracy thrives when well-informed people are engaged and make their voices heard. Idle No More started with four young lawyers trying to inform the people in their communities about an issue they were passionate about. Now many people are engaged. Even more information is being shared, and even more voices are being heard. There is no one leader or "list of demands" attributable to Idle No More. While this may seem chaotic, this is what democracy is all about. Democracy is messy. Democracy is loud. Democracy is about hearing a wide ranges of voices and trying to build a path forward among them. It is not about shutting off debate or trying to rush things in through the back door.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog stated "Idle No More" started as an event in Alberta during a meeting with four female lawyers.