Idle No More is an historic opportunity for alliance building

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A seventh-generation descendent of Chief Tecumseh, who led the Native Nations in an alliance with General Isaac Brock in the War of 1812, came to Ottawa earlier this month to see Chief Theresa Spence on Victoria Island, and to honour her. He stood across the sacred fire from where she sat, Tecumseh's flag by his side, and he told Chief Spence that he'd felt "called" by the spirit of his ancestor to "stand up" with her, to support her. "You speak from the heart of the earth," he said.

As I took all this in, I realized that he was speaking and understanding a language that has fallen so far into disuse in public discourse that it's almost extinct. Yet this is the language that must be revived across all the nations, communities and generations that make up modern Canada if we are to realign our relations with the earth and with each other.

This is the deeper focus of the Idle No More movement. It's why honoring the leadership of elders and the guidance of traditional teachings have remained central to its peaceful unfolding and to the integrity it has gained in the public eye.

It's also why the four founding women were triggered by the bullying passage of the Harper government's second omnibus bill, C-45. Because that bill and the manner of its passage epitomized the total denial of this language, the language of mutual respect and recognition, of dialogue and relationship building. Instead, the Harper government used its nominal majority to exercise absolute power, sweeping aside decades if not centuries of common-good policy, including measures to protect the commons of the land, the rivers and lakes, and opening the way for more absolute power on the part of resource companies and their allies in finance and infrastructure building.

This language, of power, and dependency, has long been associated with the elites who have shaped relations between government, people and the land in this country, virtually since the beginning. They've always concentrated their power in infrastructure building (from sailing ships to canals, rail lines and, now, pipelines), finance (since the Bank of Montreal, founded with fur-trade profits) and resource extraction (from furs and timber to ion and other ores, wheat and, now, oil and gas). And it's brought us to the impasse currently facing this country: deepening inequalities and alienation among the human inhabitants of this land, evidenced most dramatically in First Nations communities, and the degradation of the land itself, dramatically evidenced in the prognosis for the Athabasca River watershed in light of plans for the Alberta tar sands and the global corporate interests with a stake in it. There is deep public anxiety about these developments, and a longing for hopeful change.

The Idle No More movement is an historical moment of opportunity for such a change. In its call for all people to join the movement, it's an opening for a new alliance between native and non-native people in this country. It's a call I want to heed, an opening I want to take up. In his 'Open letter to all my relations' published in, a Yale-educated lawyer and Anishinaabe by the name of White Wolf (aka Aaron James Mills) called on "our settler allies" and more recent immigrants to engage in this dialogue for change that will restore treaty relations between Ottawa and Canada's First Nations, and right relations between people of this land and the land itself. "[D]espite the efforts of those who seek to keep your ambitions for change low through fear," he wrote, "it does not mean the end of Canada as you know it. It does, however, mean there must be profound changes in our relationship. It means that you must want those changes for your own identity as a Canadian, and for how you want to understand yourself."

YES, I find myself responding. I want to step closer to the sacred fire. I want to bring the largely forgotten legacy of my people to this dialogue for renewal. Partly this is my legacy as a fourth-generation descendent of Scottish Highlanders fleeing the clearances, who survived in rural Upper Canada in the 1830s and '40s partly because they grew the Mohawk foods of corn, beans and squash in settler clearings, and who helped found and run self-governing, self-organizing institutions like county agricultural societies, community work bees and farmer-owned cheese-factory cooperatives.

Partly, it's the legacy I've uncovered tracing my own tribal roots to Scotland, and how what had been direct relations with the land on tribal homeland in the Tay River Valley evolved into self-governing common farm communities called fermtouns and upland common pasturelands called shielings. Contrary to 'Tragedy of the Commons' lore, my ancestors strove for balanced relations with the land, setting 'stints' on the number of sheep sent to pasture much like the Cree on the Canadian Prairies tried to limit the buffalo hunt when repeater-rifle-toting European newcomers made it a commercial slaughter.

I think of settler communities on the Prairies and the common cause they formed with their Metis and Indian neighbours to found a first government there under Louis Riel. I think of New France, and what seventh and eighth generation Quebecois might cull from peasant traditions their people brought from Normandy as 17th. Century habitants. The casserole noise-making that gained such popularity during the Quebec Student Strike also has roots in rural Upper and Lower Canada. Then it was called 'charivari,' meaning 'tin-kettle music' and was a gesture of rural justice and protest against the power of local elites.

The Idle No More movement has partnered with Common Causes -- a network of social-justice, environmental, labour and other activist groups -- in planning a next National and International Day of Action for January 28th. So now is the time for those of us in various settler and recent immigrant communities to remember our past and to honour what our elders might have to say. Now is the time to organize our own gatherings to figure out what our contribution to the common-causes conversation might be.

I see this as part teach-in, a sharing, a 'commoning' of knowledge that has perhaps lain in the shadow of the narratives approved by the elites. It must also include some good history lessons, in which non-native Canadians brush up on the meaning and history of the treaties and the history of broken promises, and the promise of, for example, the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs, which called for native self-governance and an enlargement of native-held lands, not their privatization by stealth in the name of purely "economic development." I see faith groups of all kinds playing a part in developing this common-cause dialogue, along with environmental groups, union locals, the Council of Canadians, the PowerShift initiative,, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Occupy movement and the World Social Forum.

Together, perhaps we can revive the language of right relations and bring it back to Parliament Hill to give ethical voice to the repeal of bills C-38 and C-45, and to restore democratic due process to policy making in this country.


Heather Menzies is working on her tenth book, which speaks to the themes of this movement. Her first book, The Railroad’s Not Enough: Canada Now (1978) was an oral history of Canada in the 1970s National Unity Crisis.

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