Is “Idle No More” unstoppable?

I am a white, middle-aged male, with a curious but insular view of the world.  Shortly before Christmas, I was at an office party hosted by Aboriginal friends and clients.  There was excited discussion about travelling to Ottawa to join in protests against the government.  They were inspired by Idle No more.  I left, after a fun evening, alert to the influence of this phenomenon and keen to see where it would lead.

Since then Idle No More has continued to move people from fixed positions on moral and ethical issues, from stagnant political relationships with allies and foes, and it has moved them emotionally, like my Aboriginal friends.

No one can encompass the full depth and breadth of the movement’s effect.  Editorials about it tend to be unreadably long.  The vocabulary is hyperbolic and yet inadequate to the purpose.

All these words are unnecessary.  No one owns this movement.  No one can fully explain or even describe it.  It’s premature to try because it’s still growing and morphing into what it needs to become to achieve its potential.

When I asked my friends what they were going to protest in Ottawa, they were unclear.  Idle No More, not their official representatives, made them aware of objectionable legislation being tabled in the House of Commons and called them to action.   Details about the bill and its progress through Parliament didn’t need to be known right away.  Just as social media had conveyed the urgent need for protest, it could be trusted to deliver specific information about why and how those protests would take place.  That’s how powerful the grassroots undercurrent of this movement is.

Everyone knows what occurred in the past month:  Chief Spence has her meeting with Prime Minister Harper, and the movement’s ring dances and rail blockades have gained world attention.  Beneath these outward signs of the movement’s power, I think there are more exciting, more fundamental effects to watch for.

The seams that divide the powerful from the powerless have been shifting in ways that obviously confuse government mandarins and media experts.  Since the emergence of Idle No More, representatives of the federal government and the AFN sound lost, gasping like fish in surprise at being caught.

The disengaged majority of First Nations constituents are swarming past the official decision-makers.   Women are in the vanguard of this movement, but unlike their mostly male counterparts on band councils and national bodies, they derive power from inclusivity rather than mandated authority.

Idle No More moves its focus quickly across issues, institutions, and geography.  It focuses inward on specifics and outward to encompass broad themes.  It’s not about a hunger strike or Bill C-45 or treaty rights: it’s about all of this and more.  This is why the practiced managers of public opinion can’t dampen the spirit of unrest in the usual ways.   By the time they take a position in response to one challenge, the movement has overrun another position, employing technological and organizational tactics that demand greater agility than the government can muster.

Just as new seams are opening, old seams are closing.  Idle No More’s First Nations genesis does not prevent it from encompassing huge swaths of non-Aboriginal support.  It’s already aligning with the environmental movement and can cement lasting relationships there by pressing for better protection of treaty lands and waterways.  However, its defense of democracy and ethical values is where its real cross-cultural power lies.

When the Idle No More protesters staked out snowy Parliament Hill, I came to the realization that they were standing up for the rest of us.  The government represents us all when it undermines treaty rights and when it tables impenetrable omnibus bills for quick passage.  When it relaxes regulations around resource development in sensitive lands, the ecological effects go far beyond reservation boundaries.

If Idle No More can widen its embrace to include everyone who feels their democracy eroding, their environment degrading, and their values being sacrificed for economic expedience, it will make huge strides where previous movements have faltered.

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