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Idle No More: More than a movement… The First Nations peoples are an integral part of the Canadian identity

Thousands of supporters of the Idle No More movement walked down Wellington Street here in downtown Ottawa on what proved to be a balmy Friday afternoon, under a freezing rain advisory. Some of them chanted, while others advanced in tandem to the beating of their own drums; they walked as one nation, in solidarity, all this before the First Nations chiefs meeting with Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Aboriginals and other proponents of the Idle No More movement have been blocking roads and railways all over Canada, from organized blockades in the Maritimes to protests held across the country; for instance, in Friday's news reports, the CBC reports 300 gathered in Halifax (NS) near city hall, 200 in Charlottetown (PEI),  more in Calgary (AB), Vancouver (BC), and no less than a few hundred in Toronto’s Dundas Square (in art. "Idle No More protests") Some basic questions one might want to ask in regards to these recent developments in Canada are: Why do the chiefs want to meet with Harper? What are the aboriginal issues at hands? And, if you are totally unfamiliar with the Idle No More movement, then you might even be wondering: What the heck is it? 

Native protesters march up Wellington Street in Ottawa on Friday; January 11, 2013. Image Source:
     To answer these basic questions, let’s do a quick recap.

     First of all, Idle No More is a pan-Canadian First Nations movement born out of a series of grassroots protests that started in Saskatchewan. The person who brought the movement to the forefront of the public eye is Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat (ON); giving up eating solid foods, her hunger strike began Dec. 10, and she says it will not end until Prime Minister Harper and Governor General David Johnston, Her Majesty the Queen’s representative, both meet with First Nations chiefs to discuss treaty rights. This is why thousands of people were chanting and drumming while they walked down Wellington Street on Friday: Harper agreed to meet the chiefs, although Johnston did not, instead of attending the meeting he played host to the First Nations at Rideau Hall. Simply put, it is as Laura Stone reports: “In the end, they decided to get in the ring” (art. "Despite holdouts, most First Nations leaders get in the ring"). Undoubtedly, all the folly surrounding chief Spence’s hunger strike and auditing woes (art. "Audit nightmare: The RCMP, not Harper, should be meeting with Chief Spence") will blow over anytime soon, as will the meaningless political handshakes and empty promises that come about from such meetings. As thousands of protestors gathered across from Parliament Hill in the falling drizzles of freezing rain, inside Stephen Harper sat down to meet with some 20 chiefs, including most notably Shawn Alteo, the Assembly of First Nations National Chief. 

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     The outcome of this meeting, as reported by Laura Stone (art. "Despite holdouts, most First Nations leaders get in the ring"):

According to the prime minister’s spokesman, Harper had a “good, frank dialogue” with Atleo and First Nations leaders. [ ]  “While both sides did not come to agreement on all matters, the First Nations leaders brought serious and important proposals to the table,” read a statement from Andrew MacDougall. [ ] “The government remains committed to ongoing dialogue on aboriginal issues and to taking achievable steps that will provide better outcomes in First Nations communities.”

     Hard to believe, really. Perhaps Stephen Harper is “pledging to take a hands-on role in managing the relationship between the government and Canada’s native people” as the head of the Assembly of First Nations says (art. "Harper meets chiefs, vows improved relations"), but the fact remains that this promise was achieved through forceful means. 
     The government’s hand was forced in the matter. Perhaps if Harper’s government had not scrapped the Kelowna Accord after assuming power in 2006,  he would not have been put into this awkward position in the first place. For those of you who remember the Kelowna Accord, it was a deal forged in the final days of Paul Martin’s Liberal government with aboriginal leaders, calling for $5.1 billion in spending and would have been spread out over five years and meant to be spent in health care, education, housing, and overall economic development and skills training for First Nations people (fact and figures taken from art. "First Nations federal government: What need know").

Prime Minister Paul Martin and Premier Gordon Campbell sign the Transformative Change Accord with the First Nations Leadership Council in Kelowna on November 25, 2005 following the First Ministers Meeting.
Pictured left to right: Chief Robert Shintah, Chief Stewart Phillip, Chief Mike Retasket, Grand Chief Doug Kelly, Premier Gordon Campbell, Prime Minister Paul Martin, BC Regional Chief Shawn Atleo, and Grand Chief Edward John. Image Source:
     Promises made, promises broken...

     Hopefully, the Idle No More momentum has brought with it the winds of change necessary to make real progress happen. Canada is certainly no longer the same place it was back when the Indian Act was first written. The First Nations peoples of this country along with the “Native image” are an integral piece of our symbolic Canadian identity… and this much was quite evident not so long ago. Oh Canada, how quickly people forget… 

 Canada's "Native" Spirit, An Integral Part of its Symbolic Identity

Already three years ago this coming February, the entire world watched the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver; interestingly, the official opening ceremony that Canada chose to represent itself as a country was that beautiful image of the symbolic raising of four totem poles with a reported 350 native traditional dancers in accompaniment. As Suzanne Fournier from The Province said it best, “As the 2010 Olympic Games draw to a close, history has been created. These Games mark the first time that First Nations have been recognized as official co-hosts and treated as heads of state, with native culture a key hallmark.” (02/26/10) This in addition to the fact that everywhere in the media, images are constantly being shown of the pavilion of the Four Host First Nations. (Credit:AFP/Getty Images)
     Yet, in retrospect, I do recall having seen some news reports months earlier of some Native protestors among others with placards mentioning something to the effect that the Games were going to be held on “stolen land”... All these images readily come to mind in relation to the cultural politics behind the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.  

     The meaning and role of Native culture during the Vancouver Olympics is important, and by looking at its symbolism it can therefore help us to understand what it means for Canada’s national identity and symbolic values. The Native or Amerindian ethno-symbolism which Canada seems to be promoting contrasts in many ways to the “political Native culture” which according to the Indian Act inherently sees “Indians” as wards of the State and in essence “second” if not “third class citizens”. If we attempt to cast a cursory glimpse into these apparent contradictions in Canada’s struggle for a national identity on the world stage, it seems that while the nation seems to push the “Native image” to the forefront of our country’s symbolic identity; in contrast to this, around the corner, in every province the governing forces that be seem totally incapable in treating or dealing with the many social inequities that exist in many Native communities. 

     If indeed the 2010 Games legacy has left us with a new respect for aboriginal Canadian traditions (1), this certainly does contrast sharply with the past, because as Yukon First Nation chief Diane Strand (2) has pointed out: “If the history of Canada and its aboriginals is one of fracture, of entrenched racism, broken treaties and high-handed bureaucracy, then it’s time to start mending and look forward.” These positive if not hopeful words are echoed much in the same by the words of another, Tewanee Joseph (3), CEO of the Four Host First Nations, who makes mention of the fact that even as “Canada’s 633 First Nations still have sky-high poverty rates, substandard housing and endemic, severe illness” and goes on to say on a positive note that, “No one can change that overnight, but First Nations will no longer sit on the margins while others get rich on their resources.”

     Bearing these Canadian aboriginal perspectives in mind, one cannot help but wonder if indeed this optimism in Canada’s socio-political structure is simply being mired by false expectations and furthermore distorted by the fact that it is possibly not the First Nations people that will reap the results of this newfound “Canadian pride” in this “Native image,” but quite simply perhaps the “Native image” is downplayed three years down the road in 2013 after all this past Olympic hype has come to pass.

     Yet, even in preparation for these Olympics, there had been many Native voices who had expressed dissent over the coming of the Games to Vancouver. Notably, the voices that expressed such discontent were the ones that caught some of the media’s attention before the Games. As usual, these disheartened voices are either the ones that made more noise to catch the media’s eye or are simply the extreme examples that were used in the media in painting a negative image of such Native naysayers. During the Olympic coverage, in an offhanded manner, Hume (4) had made reference to these protesters when he wrote: “But while there have been a few angry native protesters, with placards saying, 'No Olympics on stolen land,' the face overwhelmingly shown to the world has been happy.”  

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      However, notwithstanding all of the anti-Olympic organizers, whether Native or otherwise, the presence of the Four Host First Nations as official co-hosts of the Vancouver Olympics was not merely unusual and unique in the history of the Games but can equally be seen as also being quite a public relations feat or accomplishment on the part of the Native communities involved. Aside all of the boasting and unabashedly patriotic imagery shown in the media, the fact that the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam and Lil’wat First Nations have all participated as official co-hosts alongside of Canada, does play a key role in Canadian identity politics as well as contributing to help bring Native rights to the forefront with all the international exposure their causes will attract in the future. 

     Even during the Olympics, the injustices Canada’s First Nations have had to face in the past caught the limelight of some harsh criticism, such as in an article appearing in The China Post entitled Canada’s indigenous people still lack formal recognition (02/23/10), where Gisela Ostwald made mention that “Canada was one of four countries that abstained when the 192 member states of the United Nations voted in September 2007 to adopt a declaration that confirmed the right of indigenous people to self-determination and the inherent right to land. […] The US, Australia and New Zealand were the other countries that voted not to adopt the ground-breaking agreement.” The article goes on to discuss the Harper government’s formal apology to Native communities in regards to the entire residential school fiasco as well as mentioning that as an example to Native injustices endured in Canada, “In British Columbia, where the Winter Olympic Games are under way - only one First Nation, the Nisga'a, has so far received compensation for land on which its people lived for thousands of years before it was taken from them.” (Ostwald, 02/23/10)

     If anything, in the long run, such negative media attention on an international level assuredly attracted attention to the First Nations’ causes for social justice, whether it be in settling land claims with the Canadian government or even to settle certain basic human rights issues. For instance, not too long after the Games had officially closed (February 28th, 2010), it was reported that on World Water Day (on March 23rd) there were at the time 115 First Nations communities across Canada under Drinking Water Advisories in what what being reported as “a national disgrace” (5).
     Unfortunately, these living conditions are nothing new to Canada’s Native communities. They have existed long enough that Phil Fontaine, the past National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has represented his people’s generation and dedicated his entire life to advancing the cause of aboriginal rights in Canada. In having been honoured in Montreal as the first recipient of the Equitas Award for Human Rights education bestowed (in March 2010) by the locally based international non-governmental organization (6), in his acceptance Fontaine said: “I’ve been consistent on this one point, which is that I believe the single most important social justice issue in the country is first nations poverty. It is a burden on the entire country, not just the people living it, a black mark on Canada because we are one of the richest countries in the world yet have third world living conditions right in our back yard." (7)
     How can these social injustices Fontaine has fought for his entire life on behalf of aboriginal rights in Canada be reconciled in the manner Native peoples were represented at the Vancouver Olympics? In such a prosperous country where a multitude of peoples and their communities since the dominion’s inception over a century and a half ago are still living on reservation land and treated as wards of the State? In stark contrast to mainstream Canadian living conditions, how has it come to be that Canadians identify with First Nations? In retrospect of the 2010 Games and the recent developments surrounding the whole Idle No More protests, these questions seem to be begging for an answer. One cannot help but think of all the news reports talking about Canada seeing First Nations peoples in a new light, as part of the Games' legacy… What light is that? One can only attempt to make sense of this nuanced perception of reality. 

NATIVE DANCER: A native performer, representing one of the first four nations, performs in front of a 60,000-strong crowd (Getty Images). Image Source:
     Undoubtedly, the best attempt one can try to make sense out of all this Olympic “Native branding” as being or playing an inherent part of the Canadian identity symbol-making process (for lack of a better term). In trying to understand this, one has to first be able to understand diverse Canadian philosophies in the fabric of our national identities. Reflections on the Canadian identity and philosophy are explored in this very manner by Madison, Fairfield & Harris (2000) where they discuss these sorts of parallel existences interwoven deep into Canada’s past, described as follows: 

The spontaneous order “Canada” is woven on several “warp threads”: the histories of British, French, and First Nations practices of sovereignty within federation. Colonial powers, for example, needed alliances with Indian nations in their wars for trade and dominance. The colonial powers recognized indigenous peoples as self-governing nations; they won no rights of conquest, for there was no conquest. In addition, […] the British Parliament officially recognized the status of the French language along with a distinct system of civil law based on the Napoleonic code and a separate system of land ownership. The British North American Act of 1867 was premised on a “two founding nations” doctrine, according to which English-speaking and French-speaking cultures were recognized as equal partners. [  ] We must not forget those histories, lest we lose the blessings we receive from them. We must, therefore, make room in our political thinking and praxis for the recognition of the “special status” that each of these “warp threads” has in the fabric of our collective history. We must finally come to terms, for example, with the history of treaties and agreements between First Nations and the governments of Canada. [  ] Why so? Because, as has been pointed out, the continuance of the overall spontaneous order depends upon the threads of expectations that link us all together continuing to be met.”  p. 197
     In their own manner, the authors above, have attempted to answer the question of why it is important for Canada to embrace Native culture. And this does help make sense in explaining what occurred at the Vancouver Olympics, meaning why the “Native image” branding as a national “warp thread” (to borrow the language employed above, in Madison et al.) being re-woven into the nation’s fabric as an integral part of its identity. I strongly agree with the previous authors, that the First Nations’ particular “strand” of history is an important key factor in Canadian philosophy in order to better understand current events at the heart of our national preoccupations. 

     The indisputable character of a bilingual country with these European colonial powers, the English and the French factions of a united Canada, recognizing the “indigenous peoples as self-governing nations” (Ibid.  197) was historical fact set into motion at the Olympic Games. Clearly, with the usual Canadian national languages representing the ancient colonial powers and the First Nations present as official co-hosts of the Games, it was as if the people of Canada had somehow rekindled or reconnected with the quasi “sacred” order of the mythic historical past. It was as if in the air during the celebrations, we were catching a glimpse of a Canada that should’ve been, meaning instead of the usual hypocrisy in denying Natives of basic human rights and ignoring land treaty claims and so on, for a change it was instead as if in front of our eyes was unfolding the very founding principles or birth of the country as history knows it to be. This means to say that there is possibly hope for Native Canadian communities to be recognized as part of the national equation  alongside the majority English and French communities and thus be allowed to participate as active participants in contemporary Canadian society much as they did at the 2010 Olympics. Without a doubt, Idle No More is part of this hope. 

     The expression allowed to participate does imply that they are in a state of active oppression and this is certainly not of my own invention. Others have said much the same thing over the years in so many words, and in the language of Canadian political culture usually the exact words used are those of “identity politics and minority rights.” And it is the failure of the Canadian Constitution to recognize the rights of the First Nations’ cultural differences and distinctiveness that has caused nothing but discord and separation between the general Canadian and aboriginal identities. These two separate identities stand side by side, leaving one impossible to recognize itself in the other. 

     Political theorists have expressed the same opinion in regards to this separateness, this impossibility of the aboriginal to give allegiance to a country in which he fails to identify with. In this respect, such are the words of the renowned political theorist Jim Tully (8) who holds the following view: 

His [Tully’s] claim is that citizens cannot identify with, or give allegiance to, the Canadian federation until their cultural differences are recognized and affirmed in the Constitution, and in the legal and political structures of Canada. Tully believes that this is not happening. Instead, there is a glacial movement towards disunity and separation in Canada. This is caused by a failure to recognize and to accommodate the aspirations of Quebec, and of First Nations as well as of other cultural groups. (p. 126)
     It is with these thoughts or viewpoints in mind that all the patriotic effervescence projected unto the Canadian Olympics event becomes clearer and clearer still as the years pass. It is as though the First Nations were representative of not simply their own fight for rights, claims to basic essential and existential needs, but that they were perceived by most people as themselves - perceived as underdogs that had in some miraculous way fought their way to the top and had managed to affirm themselves in a way never seen before - meaning as national co-hosts in their own right, on their own lands, moreover with the pride showed off for all to see in their traditional garb and dances, traditions and all. Those Canadians whom perhaps do not feel a sense of belonging or particular allegiance in relation to the Canadian Constitution, as Tully theorizes, found themselves full of hope in the wake of the First Nations rise to the occasion. For once,  it was as though these quasi “sacral” historical warp threads (to re-use Madison’s term, Ibid. 197) of the Canadian colonial powers, the English and French, were being reunited in a rebirth with the essential missing component, that stray warp thread that represents the First Nations peoples that was being suppressed up until this time. 

     And, judging by the effervescent media attention and reactions of the Games opening celebrations, assuredly many of the Canadian people did identify in such a patriotic way as it could be compared to that of bordering on fervour reminiscent of secular or “civil religion”, as Bellah (9) would call it. The Canadian press qualified the Vancouver Olympics as being fully steeped in unbridled patriotic feelings, a clear example of the language being used can be seen in John Honderich’s Olympic coverage (in The Star, 03/03/10) who in his article uses language and expressions such as, “For Canada, I'd call it a 'coming of age' moment. The country, all 35 million of us, were able to bare our patriotic souls in an outburst of unbridled patriotism not seen before.” And, later in the same article adds “Compare all this [in speaking of previous Canadian Olympics in Calgary and Montreal in comparison] to Vancouver where the explosion of passion, patriotism and deep emotion about country were nothing short of extraordinary.” 

     Furthermore, as religion (civil religion included) would tend to offend others who do not share the same convictions, similarly all the “flag waving” at the Vancouver Games seems to have been noticed and commented on by some non-Canadians in the foreign media. At the time, Ian Chadband (10) had reported in regards to the Vancouver Olympics in London’s Telegraph (London, UK), “With a few final blasts of national fervour, the like of which few Olympics have ever experienced, Canada’s extraordinary ‘Patriot Games’ were coming to a closing crescendo here in Vancouver yesterday with the host nation already safely able to wallow in the glory of topping the medal table.” The national fervour expressed during the Olympics was that of wavering on the fanatical judging by the use of a satirical expression such as that of ‘Patriot Games.’ Closer to us, south of the border, in the U.S. there is even a Texan publisher that went so far as to liken Vancouver’s patriotic fervour to that of the ’36 Nazi Games, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Gil LeBreton had commented (11):

After a spirited torch relay ignited pride in every corner of the country, the Olympic Games began and quickly galvanized the nation. Flags were everywhere. The country’s national symbol hung from windows and was worn on nearly everyone’s clothing. Fervent crowds cheered every victory by the host nation. But enough about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
     All this unbridled Canadian patriotism being seen at the Games was even commented upon by IOC president Jacques Roggeby who said “Vancouver had taken to the Games in a manner “unheard of in the Olympic movement.” In addition, adding that “The Canadian public is absolutely first class. And these Games have provided the possibility to express this deep feeling and underlying pride to be a Canadian.”

     In the press, Canadian or foreign, the source of these unwavering patriotic feelings are certainly not analysed nor are they dissected in any great detail so as to go to the real source of the matter and find out why all the exuberant flag waving and overflowing passion vis-à-vis the maple leaf and national anthem. Yet, nevertheless, in getting back to the main topic at hand, it is clear that the Vancouver Olympics struck a deep chord in the Canadian psyche and I do believe the presence of the Four Host First Nations had a big part to play in it. Moreover, whether pushing the “Canadian Native” image served a deep need on the part of the First Nations’ peoples to identity with a country who treats them as third rate citizens or wards of the State, whether that or the fact that their presence only served as a sort of catalyst for many Canadian people in general to identify with them through their stance in affirming their pride in such a way. Be it one or the other, regardless, it evoked feelings of allegiance to a country in which many Canadians usually have trouble identifying with culturally or even politically

The Idle No More movement is undoubtedly also part of this Canadian nationalistic warp thread - this reweaving of the First Nations peoples' plight into our national identity, and this as an integral part of the country's origins which has been ignored for far too long. The medias do not often make mention of the source of our nation's current "Native" pride, but when looking back at the  2010 Vancouver Olympics; what stands out is that somehow this international showcase event had something to do with it. The inequalities and injustices faced by the First Nations communities everywhere across Canada have in many ways become something more than "Native" or "reservation" problems. Instead these have come to be seen by most Canadians as real "Canadian" social injustices that need to be addressed - and not simply "Indian" ones. Most importantly, if Canada does indeed possess a "Native" spirit - as it showed off in Vancouver in February 2010 - then by all means the government of this country seriously needs to make amends with this part of its tortured soul once and for all. No more idle talks and actions: Idle No More!

(1) Fralic (02/24/10) quotes Yukon First Nation chief Diane Strand in saying that the Olympic opening ceremonies were akin to the “World’s biggest potlatch” for the aboriginal youth in attendance.
(2) Quoted by Fralic (02/24/10).  
(3) Quoted by Fournier (02/26/10).
(4) Hume (02/27/10).
(5) Hyer (03/23/10).
(6) As reported by Bauch (03/18/10).
(7) Quoted by Bauch (03/18/10).
(8) Discussed in Haddock & Sutch (2003).
(9) Bellah (1992).
(10) Chadband (02/28/10).
(11) As reported in the Montreal Gazette, article entitled Texas publisher apologizes for ‘insensitive’ column likening Vancouver to ’36 Nazi Games, published 03/06/10 by Joseph Ruttle. This article also reprinted Gil LeBreton’s original article which first appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
(12) Quoted by Honderich (03/03/10).


Bauch, Hubert. ‘Burden is on the entire country,’ Fontaine says, news article published in The Montreal Gazette, March 18, 2010.

Bellah, Robert Neelly. The Broken Covenant: American civil religion in time of trial (Second Edition), The University of Chicago Press, [1st Edition 1975] 1992.

Chadband, Ian. Winter Olympics 2010: Londoners have tough act to follow in 2010, news article published in Telegraph (London, UK), 02/28/10.

Fournier, Suzanne. Olympic success due in large part to one leader, The Province, news article published on Feb. 26, 2010.

Fralic, Shelley, ‘World’s biggest potlatch’ changing attitudes, New respect for traditions is the aboriginal legacy of the 2010 Games, The Vancouver Sun, news article published on Feb. 24, 2010.

Haddock, Bruce & Sutch, Peter (eds.). Multiculturalism, Identity, and Rights, Routledge Innovations in Political Theory, Routledge, USA & Canada, 2003.

Honderich, John. Olympics were an explosion of passion and patriotism, news article published in The Star, 03/03/10.

Hume, Mark. Loud and proud: Native culture at the Games, The Globe and Mail (British Columbia edition), news article published on Sat., Feb. 27, 2010.

Hyer, Bruce. World Water Day: First Nations Awash in Unsafe Water,, news article published March 23, 2010.

Madison, Gary Brent; Fairfield, Paul & Harris, Ingrid. Is there a Canadian philosophy? Reflections on the Canadian identity? Philosophica; no. 52, University of Ottawa Press, 2000.

Ostwald, Gisela, Canada’s indigenous people still lack formal recognition, The China Post, news article published Feb. 23, 2010.

Ruttle, Joseph. Texas publisher apologizes for ‘insensitive’ column likening Vancouver to ’36 Nazi Games, Montreal Gazette, news article published 03/06/10.


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