Idle No More: I weep, I learn

I just cried watching this video. 9 am on Monday, at my desk, tears streaming down my face. It is a video of hundreds of Canadian aboriginal people processing and dancing through Canada’s largest shopping mall. The action is part of a protest movement started by four women, called Idle No More. The movement calls for the Canadian government to respect the treaties signed with the First Nations governments and opposes new legislation that would undermine existing protections to waterways and the environment. Idle No More’s founders call for respect for indigenous ways of knowing and sovereignty over land, as well as education and the revitalization of indigenous people. The movement is building – galvanized by a hunger strike by Chief Teresa Spence who called for a productive meeting between the Canadian government and indigenous leaders.  Over 100 protests have already occurred

So why am I crying? I grew up in Saskatchewan, in Plains Cree country. Indigenous people were all around me. But the dominant story of the place was that these people were second-class citizens. It was common to hear white people refer to “dirty Indians” or imply that aboriginal people never worked or were a burden on the state. I knew this wasn’t true. My mother worked at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (now First Nations University of Canada) and so did I, for a little while. My family went to the powwow every year. But even in these spaces you could still sometimes sense the powerlessness of an oppressed people. Observing as a white person, in indigenous territory, I knew that I was part of the reason. In part, this morning, I was crying from the guilt and shame of that realization. But I’m not sure that is the whole reason.

The people in the video have looks of justice on their face. They are proud. They are angry. And they are strong. I cried hardest when the dancing started. I had never realized what the dances could communicate – such power and grace and conviction. These are people who had their land taken over, their children stolen and re-educated. Their languages undermined. And now, they have had enough. They are organizing, and dancing, and taking the Canadian colonial government to task. I am in awe, and I am still crying.

Out here in the UK, I sometimes feel incredibly powerless as every morning brings a new revelation of government malice and incompetence. Cuts to benefits for the poorest, punitive rules on getting jobseeker’s allowance (or what Canadians call Employment Insurance). Privatization of public services and the gutting of education systems including the universities. I feel paralyzed sometimes at the extent of the social damage, the number of things that I feel are hurting people and communities. And then I think what it must have felt like for all the aboriginal kids I grew up with, and all the people walking and dancing in the video. It must have seemed like too much to fight yet another law that would make things worse. And then, it seemed possible to move again. The movement is aptly named. The people are idle no more.

Somewhere in the middle of the video, one of the walkers calls “what do we want?” The answer: “Justice”. When do we want it? “Now!”

That’s what I want too. For everyone. If you are in Canada or have a vote in Canada, write to your MP and tell them that you support Idle No More and oppose Omnibus Bill C-45. If you are here in the UK, drop me a comment and help me think about what kinds of things we can do to break the paralysis, the idleness.