Skip to main content
book review

The Idle No More movement was started by four women in response to the omnibus Bill C-45 and soon lead to a national day of action.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Look out, Idle No More, here comes another white guy with an opinion. But white guys get listened to. And as a mixed-blood woman, I'm genetically predisposed to cheer those who attempt to bridge the gap between Canadians in this, the human-rights argument I can't believe we're still having.

And so, it was with respect that I approached Ken Coates's new book, #IdleNoMore and the Remaking of Canada. It's ambitious and provocative. However, this particular account of such a worthy topic would have benefited from a little more time in the incubator before publication. At just over 200 pages, it could have been a tight, accessible read for those who wish to understand the movement, what it's accomplished in Canada and how it continues to influence Canadians. Instead, the book reads as a deftly researched but tentative and often repetitive rumination by an earnest academic whose "personal reflections" simply don't provide enough material for anything longer than a long-form essay.

After an extended "wind of change" metaphor, Coates somewhat awkwardly owns up to his non-aboriginal status – more than once – but assures readers that some of his best friends are aboriginal. Thankfully, Coates's voice gathers strength with the presentation and analysis of facts surrounding the Idle No More narrative, an area where, as an academic, journalist and long-time advocate of aboriginal rights, he most certainly feels at home.

In November, 2012, four women – Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon and Nina Wilson – organized a teach-in in Saskatoon to educate us average Joes about Bill C-45. The 450-page omnibus bill included amendments to a staggering range of laws, from the Criminal Code to the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The latter, along with proposed changes to the Indian and Environmental Assessment Acts, caught the attention of McLean, who observed: "… there are changes to indigenous people's lives that they have had absolutely no consultation about. … It is definitely taking away protections from our water, from our environment and from our land."

They called the event Idle No More. It would be a call to action for the people of Canada, the grassroots people. "Our silence is consent," the promo material said. The aim of the meeting was to encourage solidarity, education and local activism, and this remains the aim of the Idle No More movement to this day.

In the weeks following the November teach-in, other small gatherings popped up in Saskatchewan and beyond. These events were largely ignored by the mainstream media, but shared and supported via social media sources. The use of social media as a catalyst for political activism was common at this time, from the Arab Spring movement in Egypt, to the Occupy movement in the United States. Meetings, teach-ins and flash mobs were promoted on Facebook and Twitter. As Coates points out, this wasn't innovative for 2012, but it was tremendously useful to Idle No More as it spread across Canada.

By late November, 2012, Gordon, McAdam, McLean and Wilson were calling for a national day of action, with demonstrations and teach-ins across the country. The first day of action took place on Dec 10, 2012, a day before Chief Theresa Spence launched her controversial hunger strike.

Regardless of what you heard about Idle No More in the winter of 2012, you probably heard plenty about Chief Spence. She takes up a lot of real estate in #IdleNoMore, as she did in the media coverage. Between her hunger strike, later unmasked by media vigilantes as a "fish-soup diet," and her image as an opinionated and difficult diva who was enjoying an obscene salary for her role as chief, Spence effectively diverted attention from the message of solidarity and grassroots education encouraged by Idle No More.

But she certainly brought more mainstream media attention to the movement. Her persona was media-ready, while Gordon, McLean, McAdam and Wilson laboured to make space for the grassroots people, even if it was clear that lack of a figurehead was hurting the movement's credibility with white Canadians. But there were other aboriginal women who emerged to fill that space. Contributions from personalities like Pamela Palmater, whose public persona seems to be directly linked to her participation in the Idle No More movement, might have made for some interesting fodder for Coates – perhaps more interesting than the cumbersome chapter of social media metrics that closes out the book.

Comparing the elusive numbers of online engagement is problematic, since the latest Kardashian news will blow politics out of the water any day of the week. As Coates says, the study of social media's usefulness as a political force is in its infancy. And so, his chapter on the subject is a challenging read: Very few conclusions can be drawn from its pages. Numbers aside, the fact that Vimeo, Facebook and YouTube allowed aboriginal people to express themselves directly was extremely important. The songs, stories and voices remain digitally archived for anyone who wishes to search and learn more about the movement, free of filters or whitewash.

Coates calls Idle No More "the largest and most sustained affirmation of aboriginal determination and culture in Canadian history" and much of his book is focused on non-aboriginal Canada's inability to understand this. He repeats many times throughout the book how non-aboriginal people largely misunderstood the movement, which, with its lack of a manifesto, violent clashes between police and protesters and a militant set of demands, didn't look like a revolution. Non-aboriginal Canadians just didn't "get it." But Ken Coates gets it, and regardless of sex, privilege or skin colour, he's taken the time to assemble the facts and numbers. He's established a timeline and produced a work to help others better understand what was accomplished by the Idle No More movement, and how its legacy lives on.

Although #IdleNoMore and the Remaking of Canada may not be developed enough to act as the definitive work for this task, like The Winter We Danced, it's another valuable rung in the ladder. Or zephyr in the hurricane of change, you know, whatever metaphor works for you.

Carleigh Baker is a writer who lives in Vancouver.