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Friday was an historic day for the struggle of Indigenous peoples in Canada, as the #J11 global day of action inspired by Idle No More saw over 250 actions take place worldwide.

Much of the media discussion, however, has been on the ‘divisions’ — all because AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo and others met with Harper while many Chiefs boycotted the brief session with the prime minister.

But this division in politics and tactics is absolutely nothing new. Atleo, after all, quietly met with Harper on November 28, before Idle No More kicked into gear at all. 

The really big story, after Friday, is that Indigenous people in Canada are mobilized more than they have been in decades, inspiring a broad cross-section of Canadian society that is opposed to Harper’s agenda. 

So we’ll let the pundits of the status quo continue to breathlessly report the completely unsurprising fact that many Indigenous people disagree with Shawn Atleo’s approach to dealing with the Harper government. 

There are, anyway, far more significant disagreements to investigate and consider. One underreported division that Idle No More has also helped expose is the debate within the Canadian establishment about how best to deal with Indigenous peoples. Two former prime ministers, Joe Clark and Paul Martin, have visited hunger striking Chief Theresa Spence and offered words of support. Current Liberal leader Bob Rae wrote a remarkably strongly worded op-ed — ‘This land was their land.’ These Liberal and (Progressive) Conservative voices of dissent against Harper are very significant. These differences would not have come into such sharp relief without the rise of Idle No More.

Another related division has become apparent over the past year, but you have to be paying close attention because it’s rarely brought up in venues like CBC’s At Issue political panel. Jim Prentice, Harper’s former Environment Minister, has voiced objections to the government’s approach of simply trying to steamroll over First Nations’ consent and rights — in particular when it comes to the drive to build the Enbridge Northern Gateway and other tar sands pipelines. No wonder Prentice is alarmed; the Harper government’s bullying, obnoxious approach has been a dismal failure. 

It’s been one year since Joe Oliver wrote his over-the-top open letter which basically accused pipeline opponents of being dangerous radicals (and/or the dupes of foreign radicals bent on hijacking Canadian democracy), and the government’s shrill attacks have backfired, fuelling opposition. 

The government’s attempts to divide and smear groups working against Enbridge have actually served to motivate and unify those working against the pipelines. Painting all resistance as the work of foreign puppeteers was particularly inept, since it’s evident that First Nations are the leading force opposing both Enbridge and other pipeline projects like the Kinder Morgan mega project to twin their tar sands pipeline to southern B.C. (Just look up the Save the Fraser Declaration to get a sense of the breadth of First Nations opposition to the pipelines.)

In many ways, the biggest political pushback against the Harper government in 2012 was the movement against Enbridge. With Indigenous peoples in the lead, a powerful coalition has come together in B.C., forming “a wall of opposition” against tar sands pipelines to the west coast. By mid-year, Joe Oliver’s big mouth was duct taped up, and Harper began choosing his words on Enbridge more carefully. A clear majority of people in B.C. now oppose Enbridge. (This week, the project’s Joint Panel Review hearings come to Vancouver, and they’ll be greeted with a noisy rally later today.)

Even as they became less vocal about promoting the specific Enbridge project, the government nevertheless ploughed ahead by making the legislative changes that Big Oil was demanding — Omnibus Bills C-38 and C-45, among others. 

So, don’t buy the mainstream spin. The real story in all this is the power social movements have to completely change the conversation and shift the political terrain. They’ve already done it. Mainstream commentators who don’t understand social movements and/or vehemently oppose them, would rather talk about ‘divisions’ amongst First Nations, or keep throwing around simplistic Occupy analogies. These pundits will say just about anything to avoid acknowledging that the grassroots actions are in fact driving the discussion that they’re trying to contain and divert. 

Finally it’s important to remember that the Harper government only changes its discourse, not its destination. While it’s true that Idle No More and the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence forced Harper to call a meeting earlier than he wanted to, he carefully managed the whole show and conceded nothing of substance at all.

After Friday’s meeting, all the government really did was vaguely talk of meeting again and re-announce funding that was already allocated for First Nations water treatment. So Idle No More will continue and grow. There’s already a callout for another global day of action of January 28, joining in with new allies.

Social movements can change the conversation, and slow down a government, but only a change in who is in power can actually stop and begin to reverse this agenda. Idle No More. Enbridge No More. Harper Government No More. 


Here’s a partial rundown of some of our most recent coverage of Friday’s events and Idle No More:

Interviews with Judy Rebick and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, part of a two-hour radio special I hosted on Friday morning. 

– A recap of the #J11 solidarity actions by David P. Ball. 

– A callout for the next global day of action on January 28. 

– Analysis from our parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg, both of Friday’s meetings and of the more general and fundamental issues of First Nations’ funding in Canada

A video commentary from our own ‘Not Rex,’ Humberto DaSilva. 

– Murray Dobbin on the challenge Idle No More poses not just to Harper but to existing First Nations political structures. 

– krystalline kraus on the power of the round dance

– A powerful statement of solidarity from one of the leading student assocations behind Quebec’s Maple Spring. 

– An interview with two of the women who founded Idle No More. 

Daniel Wilson on some mainstream media and their role in continuing neo-colonialism. Daniel also wrote an important four-part series in advance of Friday’s meeting, plus an assessment of winners and losers in the ongoing debate. 

For all of our Idle No More coverage, visit our Indigenous rights page.

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe is a writer in Vancouver, B.C. He served as rabble.ca's editor from 2012 to 2013 and from 2008 to 2009.