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Idle No More: Native-Led Protest Movement Takes On Canadian Government

First Nations groups organize to oppose controversial tar sands pipelines

Local residents and Canadians living in Prague demonstrate to support the Idle No More movement in front of the Canadian Embassy in Prague, Czech Republic.
Gerard Gratadour/isifa/Getty Images
February 4, 2013 11:32 AM ET

As members of Canada's House of Commons returned to work last week in Ottawa, they found several hundred protesters waiting for them under a heavy snowfall on Parliament Hill. Many were dressed in traditional clothing of Canada's First Nations. Their chants were punctuated by drumbeats.

Similar protests took place in Halifax, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal, Vancouver and other cities across Canada and in the United States. They were part of a "world day of action" organized under the banner of Idle No More – a native rights movement that has been heating up since October, when the Canadian government proposed a bill, known as C-45, that included provisions to undermine environmental protection and indigenous sovereignty.

C-45, which passed in December, changes the way that First Nations approve the surrendering or leasing of territory, making it easier to open indigenous treaty lands to development. The law also reduces the number of development projects that require environmental assessment and dramatically changes the nation's Navigable Waters Protection Act – which, since 1882, has made it illegal to "block, alter or destroy any water deep enough to float a canoe without federal approval." Now, only specifically enumerated bodies of water have that protection.

Opponents see a clear connection to Canada's controversial tar sands industry, which requires the construction of new oil and gas pipelines directly through First Nations territories and across waterways in order to get its product to refineries. Native groups have been strong opponents of pipeline proposals, including the Northern Gateway – sometimes referred to as "Canada's Keystone XL" – which would stretch more than 730 miles from Alberta to the shores of British Columbia, where oil would be pumped into tankers for export.

But when First Nations representatives visited the House of Commons to discuss their concerns about C-45 in early December, they weren't allowed to enter. A week later, Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat began a hunger strike that lasted six weeks, elevating the profile of the movement. Soon, rallies and flash mobs – often involving circle dances – were breaking out not only in Canada, but in London, New York, and at the Mall of America in Minnesota. Activists shut down rail lines and blockaded highways, including one leading to the Alberta tar sands. Protesters outside of Canada – both native and non-native – began using the "Idle No More" slogan in their opposition to Keystone XL, coal export terminals in the Northwest, and more. 

Shalane Pauls is a 24-year-old biochemistry student at the University of Northern British Columbia and a member of the Tsimshian and Tahltan nations. In the last few months, she has organized three Idle No More rallies. She is in the process of planning a teach-in to discuss what she calls myths about the movement, primarily claims that First Nations receive unfair government support. But the biggest myth, she said, is that water pollution only matters to native people. "It's not just a First Nations issue," says Pauls. "It's a human rights issue. It's a Canadian issue. It's not just aboriginal children we're looking out for; it's the children of the nation."

Idle No More has been subject to many of the same criticisms as other social movements: that its purpose isn't sufficiently clear, that tactics will turn off potential allies, that infighting and tribal mismanagement mar the message. There's no way to tell how long its momentum will last. Still, Pauls sees the movement as a turning point in the political involvement of Canada's First Nations. "For so long, we haven't been heard. And so, for so long we just sat, idly. But the title in itself really wakes people up. To be like, 'Hey, I don't want to be idle anymore – this is what I want to see, this is how I feel.' There's always going to be something worth fighting for."

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