By: Jennifer H.
In November 2012, four women began a protest of the Canadian government’s policies regarding treaty rights and environmental laws. These women, Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon were the sparks that ignited the Idle No More movement, a response to the Canadian Conservative government’s introduction of Bill C-45, which, among budget laws, included laws that stripped treaty rights and ripped away environmental protection. The protests grew in size and began spreading across Canada and in parts of the United States. Soon, people from all over the world, including indigenous* people from various parts of the globe, expressed great support and solidarity. Flash round dances, speaker events, and bigger rallies began being organized and the grassroots movement grew into something international. What I found remarkable as I watched the movement take flight was the connectedness of oppressed people all over the globe– the photos of signs held in solidarity were sent in from Afghanistan, Japan, England, and countless other nations from people of all backgrounds. There was an immense amount of solidarity expressed for indigenous people of Canada, who have been neglected to be treated justly for far too long. At first glance, one wouldn’t make the connection of feminism to Idle No More. However, they share quite a lot of similarities. Most importantly, Idle No More, like feminism, is another movement that hopes to bring justice and equality to a social minority. Both were started by women out of necessity to have their voices heard. From Native Studies classes and Idle No More speakers, I have learned that women in indigenous communities traditionally play a prominent role. While every First Nation has different roles and expectations of women, it appears that culturally, indigenous communities have a sense of gender equality. In fact, the prominence women had in indigenous communities have been noted even by early white feminists. Idle No More brings to light the power of women, not only in an indigenous context but in global, political contexts as well.
Despite the girl power positivity that Idle No More radiates, it faced a lot of oppression. One of the biggest stories regarding Idle No More was the Attawapiskat First Nation’s Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike. Chief Spence announced a hunger strike on December 11th, 2012 as a public demand for prime minister Stephen Harper and governor general David Johnston to meet with her about the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government. Her hunger strike lasted six weeks and ended on January 24th, 2013.
Because it was the most talked-about issue regarding the Idle No More movement, support poured in quickly. Many people fasted in solidarity, including several politicians. Amnesty International expressed support for Chief Spence, as did former prime minister Paul Martin. However, there were many appalling features to the hunger strike, as well. The government’s response was slow and inauthentic at best, as it took the prime minister five weeks since the beginning of the highly-publicized protest to agree to meet with Chief Spence. While the government’s neglectful response was upsetting, the most disheartening thing regarding the response to Chief Spence’s protest was the prominence of sexism. Although this woman was risking her health to have her political message heard, people were criticizing her relentlessly. Some said that she wore too much makeup, while others made fun of her for looking haggard. Her hair, clothing, and appearance overall was scrutinized during interviews while she was explaining the critical housing and living situations of her reserves. People had an endless fascination with her weight, trying to figure out how much she’d lost during her political starvation. Chief Spence, because she was a woman, faced the burden of having her looks critiqued, her motives questioned, and her message belittled. Similarly, the women who began the organization had their education and achievements overlooked and had the focus instead on their appearances. It was as though despite the importance of these women in the Idle No More movement, the most important thing about them were their looks. The media’s concentration on the physical attributes of these influential, important women was very reminiscent of the focus on Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the 2008 elections, or of the kind of coverage Pussy Riot got for their protests. The coverage of Idle No More was largely sexist and superficial.
Idle No More is a movement I’m following closely and supporting wholeheartedly. The media attention has faded, but the passion within the movement has only grown stronger. Youth from central Canada have marched for days towards parliament in protest, more flash round dances were, held, and the sense of solidarity is still strong. Considering the strong value women hold in indigenous cultures overall and the negligence and human rights violations the Canadian government has shown to indigenous communities, Idle No More is an absolutely necessary movement that will hopefully bring change and improved policy. Furthermore, it is a movement started by and held together by women of colour, where their often silenced voices are not only heard but amplified.
*Although there are several terms that describe indigenous people, indigenous is the term that was not given through colonialist laws and the one that I, along with most of the Idle No More movement, prefer to use.
Jennifer H. lives in Canada and is pursuing a double major in political studies and global development, concentrating on gender and social change. Her interests include intersectional feminism, documentaries, earl grey tea, and red lipstick. She is a firm believer in grassroots movements, girl power, solidarity, and Dr. Marten boots’ ability to be worn with any outfit.