Idle No More co-founder Sheelah McLean on Canada Day and Sovereignty Summer

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The founders of Idle No More. (Photo:

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Sheelah McLean is one of four women who initiated Idle No More last year, helping to spark a social movement that spread and changed the political conversation in Canada. In part inspired by Idle No More, over the past ten days has run a series of articles reflecting on Canadian identity and issues of Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

On Friday, editor Derrick O'Keefe interviewed Sheelah McLean on the Media Mornings show on Vancouver Coop Radio, asking her about the movement's prospects and what Canada Day means to her. Here is an excerpt from that interview. (You can listen to the full radio program here.)  

Derrick O'Keefe: Why launch your new website now, at the beginning of summer? Tell us about the thinking behind the timing.

Sheelah McLean: We've been looking at doing a new website since back, really, in December, when Idle No More became a global movement... We realized that we needed to update [our website] and have different ways to do things like text blasts, and be able to collect email addresses from people and get them involved in local events...

DO: What are going to be some of the hot spots with Sovereignty Summer?

SM: Idle No More is here to support pushing forward on the issues that people have been struggling with for a very long time, so of course some of the heavy extraction areas -- in B.C., with the pipelines, in Alberta, with the tar sands, and we've got [Enbridge's] Line 9 and we've got the issue of fracking in New Brunswick.

These aren't new issues; these are issues that have been happening in these communities for a very long time. But what used to happen before is that communities would do something, like a non-violent direct action, but they were isolated in it -- in other words other communities weren't necessarily joining in. They didn't have the capacity that we have now, to use social media, and corporate media, to let people be aware of what the issues are and get people behind the action.

So I think that what we're going to see across Canada is people taking these issues to the streets, and that's exactly what we want. Each community may do it in a different way, and have a different issue, but we really need Canadians to get behind these actions and to force this government to implement treaty and to see that justice is done in this country. Enough is enough.

DO: We've been running a series about nationalism, identity and sovereignty called 'Canada?' What would you say to allies of Indigenous struggles about Canada Day, and specifically about the ways in which the current government uses Canadian nationalism?

SM: I am a third generation white settler as well, and I think a lot about the idea of nationalism and what it means to be Canadian and the Canadian identity. And I think one of the problems with the Canadian identity is that we have been sold -- through education, through media -- the idea that we are a country where there's democracy, where racism is not an issue, and where we are peacekeepers globally. So we've got this image of ourselves, and I think there's a global image as well, of Canada as a place where there aren't these problems.

I mean, our prime minister even said Canada has "no history of colonialism," and I think that's frightening because it's not the truth of our history and of inequality in Canada. And what that does, when you don't explain the history, and the processes and practices and policies that are creating that inequality, then what happens is that people blame the victim. That's how racism occurs, that's how these divisions occur. People start to blame the victim for the inequality and for their own oppression.

So it's really important for Canadians to understand that, in order to feel good about your own individual identity in Canada, to look at and think about the reality of our history, and to think about groups that have been oppressed for hundreds and hundreds of years -- in some cases five hundred years on this continent.

Let's think about how we can change this conversation so we can feel like we're building equity and social justice, protecting our environment and pushing forward on sustainability, which is so key. The sustainability conversations are not even happening in our federal government, it's all about resource extraction and that is not the best way to build an economy, and of course it's very dangerous for us as the human species and for other species and for our environment.

So I think allies need to push for the polices and practices that actually create justice, and actually create environmental protection, and that's what Idle No More is about.


Between June 21 and July 1 -- National Aboriginal Day to Canada Day -- has been featuring a series of articles examining and critiquing the uses of Canadian identity, the resurgence of Indigenous movements for justice, and the ways in which activists and thinkers across these lands are addressing these fundamental questions. You can read all the reflections on Canadian identity and Indigenous struggles on this special issue page


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