In the winter of 2012-2013, a wave of First Nations protests burst onto the national stage, characterized impressionistically in the mainstream media by flash mobs; a Chief’s fast; fractures in leadership; blockades and statements about water, women, and rights. Though support from progressive Canadians was strong, the public was given little idea that it was witnessing the awakening of an innovative, strategic movement whose participants were focused in their commitment to protect treaty and land rights and invigorate Indigenous cultures. A recent book, The Winter We Danced, reveals the full depth and breadth of Idle No More, its traditional roots and future potential – reading, at times, like prophecy.
This ambitious collection is brilliantly structured as a round dance; we are initiated in a section titled “First Beats.”
The immediate trigger for Idle No More was a suite of legislation, introduced by the Harper government, violating treaty and land rights – most notably Bill C-45. This bill, passed without Indigenous consultation, reduced the number of protected Canadian waterways from millions to hundreds. But Idle No More was also the convergence point of numerous ongoing battles against corporate encroachment (including the Northern Gateway pipeline, recently approved in spite of a resounding “No!” from affected First Nations), and heir to earlier political and environmental struggles. As activists Ellen Gabriel, Judy Rebick and others note, Idle No More was built on 500 years of Indigenous resistance to assimilation and attempts at eliminating treaty rights But it was uniquely resonant. Critically, Idle No More was led by young, educated women with families, a fact celebrated by contributors attacking a wider culture of violence directed at both Indigenous women and Mother Earth. Energetic and collaborative, the movement reached out to Indigenous communities, the queer community, environmentalists, labour, artists’ organizations, and other progressive groups, accomplishing this in part through incessant use of alternative and social media. Though “co-ordinated,” Idle No More was also “radically decentralized.”
As a result, the more than 75 contributors represented here – including former Olympians and judges, journalists and Chiefs, musicians and former gang leaders – are dazzlingly diverse. We step lightly from poems to manifestos to blog posts to editorials. This free-flowing yet directed quality mirrors the round dances that invaded malls across North America the winter of 2012-13, challenging the rigid artifice around them. With each text, the significance of the format builds, and is compounded by stunning artwork: painter David Garneau, perhaps inspired by the Dundas Square shutdown on December 21, 2012, aptly renders his aerial-view circle at a crossroads, with new dancers appearing to gravitate toward it from all directions.
Though peaceful, the flash mob round dances were shows of strength – strokes of politico-spiritual genius reminiscent of Gandhi’s salt march. So this collection, while a celebratory survey, is also jam-packed with compelling critique, facts, and myth-busting. Blogger Chelsea Vowel points out that a majority of First Nations people pay taxes, do not benefit from subsidized housing, and are ineligible for free post-secondary education. Writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson powerfully underscores the disconnect of Canadian mainstream media from First Nations communities, explaining that Chief Theresa Spence’s fish-broth fast was not a “liquid diet,” but traditional fare during periods of intense hardship. Writer Dru Oja Jay asserts that First Nations communities, many impoverished, are subsidizing Canadians, revealing that while government spending on all First Nations in 2005 totalled $5.36-billion, tax revenue alone from industries exploiting mainly traditional territories is many times higher.
Refuting the mainstream media’s “disunity narrative,” disparate contributors articulate the same themes: the Indian Act system has failed; the government must restore nation-to-nation relationships with First Nations communities (academics Taiaiake Alfred and Toby Rollo provide a concise road map); a public inquiry must be called into murdered and missing Indigenous women; Bill C-45, and other legislation violating treaty rights, must be repealed. Many support lawyer Pamela Palmater’s view that constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights are “the last best hope that Canadians have of protecting the land, water, sky, and plants and animals” for future generations. Activist Harsha Walia takes this interconnectedness further: “Indigenous self-determination must become the foundation for all our broader social justice mobilizing.”
It has been said that we are all treaty people. Those who viewed Idle No More as “unrest” would be wise to read this book. In its rich portrayal of the resurgent Indigenous resistance in the country, a gift from Canada’s fastest-growing population, it shows that the cultural centre of the country is shifting. If, as John Ralston Saul put it, Indigenous peoples “were our Greeks,” then perhaps, as when classical wisdom returned to the West, these “first beats” of a broad, young, Indigenous-led social movement signal the start of a Canadian Renaissance, a time of maturity when we honour our obligations toward each other and the land, uniting past and future in an ever-widening circle.
Aparna Sanyal is a writer and editor living in Toronto.