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Idle No More: a complex issue

Idle No More, initially a grassroots movement launched largely through social media by a group of young people, has been gaining momentum around the world. Organizers say its goal is to give voice to major concern over Bill C-45, a recent omnibus bill passed by the Canadian government that organizers say erodes indigenous rights, mainly concerning land and water.

The movement has garnered support from political figures, celebrities, church leaders and ordinary people around the world.

In Canada, Theresa Spence, chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, launched a hunger strike in her quest to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While not directly linked to Idle No More, Spence's strike has brought more attention to the issues.

But the fact remains—it's often difficult to fully grasp what the issues are and why they matter. ChristianWeek asked the leadership of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies for their perspective on Idle No More.


The breadth and depth of support Idle No More has attained is powerfully evident. Many thousands of people—elders, youth, professionals, traditional people and Christians—have convened in hundreds of rallies in many locations, now around the globe. We were recently in Portland, Oregon for our annual board retreat and joined several hundred people for a rally held in the city's central square.

Idle No More is a grassroots response to Native Canadians' sense of, "Here we go again." The movement is a pent-up response to policies and practices of governments, past and present.

Though the attitudes conveyed in the 1969 White Paper (which, among other things, proposed the rejection of land claims and the assimilation of First Nations people into the Canadian population with the status of other ethnic minorities rather than a distinct group) resurrected by the current government play prominently, the attitude has been the same with governments of all stripes and times.

Duncan Campbell Scott's 1920 appeal, rooted in the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 to "kill the Indian in the child," has been replaced by: "kill the idea of communal land and livelihood the Indian has," thus continuing the centuries-old agenda of legislated assimilation "for our benefit."

Bill C-45 and Bill C-38 (the federal omnibus budget), replicate the "we know what's best for you" attitude of previous Canadian governments. This is the very approach that implemented the residential school system for which Primer Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008.

Clearly the problems faced by First Peoples in Canada are not unique. Indigenous peoples in the Philippines, North East India, New Zealand, and Australia, to name a few, face the same social consequences of colonization—high suicide rates, addiction problems, violence, community implosion, poverty, and more. This should alert any thinking person to the fact that equivalent problems across such wide geographic and ethnic diversity are rooted in and result from similar circumstances.

We applaud the dedication of Chief Theresa Spence, but as she makes clear, the movement is not about a hunger strike; it is about just treatment and respect. When the dignity of a people is subjected to relentless pressure to conform to foreign values; when agreements are pushed aside time and again with contempt; when division among First Nations is introduced to ensure economic prosperity for others, it is like the abusive spouse who, having apologized, repeats the abuse yet again.

When Christians hear the word "treaty" they must recognize that the Old Testament perspective of "covenant" is invoked in Indigenous people's understanding. These are not business contracts, promises that can be set aside when a signatory defaults, changes her mind, or in the case of recent and infamous business fiascos, bankrupt the company. Nor can these treaties be unilaterally legislated out of existence.

As Christians, we ought to be clear: the rule of law is wholly inadequate for governance if justice is absent. Omnibus legislation is not the place to deal with treaty–related issues let alone the other important considerations within its many pages that impact all Canadians. Such an approach is the stuff of U.S. politics, and provides adequate evidence that government claims of concern for "all Canadians" are vacuous.

For every one of us the call is clear: let's be #IdleNoMore.

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About the author

This article was written by the Indigenous leadership of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies: Terry LeBlanc (Mi’kmaq/Acadian), Adrian Jacobs (Cayuga), Wendy Peterson (Metis) Shari Russell (Saulteaux), Ray Aldred (Cree), Richard Twiss (Lakota), Randy Woodley (Keetoowah) and Andrea Smith (Cherokee).