Native drummers take part in an Idle No More demonstration in Ottawa Jan. 11.


Native drummers take part in an Idle No More demonstration in Ottawa Jan. 11.

January 21, 2013

As the Idle No More movement shows no sign of running out of steam, two observers urge a fresh vision for a new relationship between Canada and aboriginal peoples.

"There has to be a conversation about what is the Canada we're aiming for and what place will aboriginal peoples have in that Canada," said Cecil Chabot, who has advised churches, First Nations and governments on aboriginal issues.

That conversation has to include whether the future vision is just or not, he said.

This vision needs to include indigenous peoples to participate not only as individuals but also as nations, he said.

University of Saskatchewan professor Kenneth Coates said Sean Atleo, who has taken a leave from his position as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and many other native leaders are now saying that while the past cannot be fixed, relationships can be improved in the future.

"There is an opening to rethink our relationship with aboriginal peoples in a collaborative way, to revisit the whole enterprise," Coates said.

"It would be one of the most powerful and influential things we could ever do as a country. That takes real courage to do that kind of thing and I hope we find it."

Coates called Idle No More a needed "wake-up call" for Canada. While critics of Idle No More have painted it as "hard left," Coates says the movement is diffuse, with many differing points of view.

As more than a thousand Idle No More protestors rallied in Canada's national capital Jan. 11, some First Nations leaders, including Atleo, met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and some cabinet ministers.

Others took a harder line, boycotting the meeting and threatening blockades of border crossings, rail lines and highways in a Jan. 16 day of action.

While much of the rhetoric, not only from Idle No More, but also from some of the mainstream media, has been highly polarizing, Coates said the movement has made it obvious that aboriginal Canadians have varying viewpoints just as much as the rest of Canadians do.

Atleo is pushing for a "reasoned cooperation," said Coates, but at the same time, he is "really saddened" by the plight of many aboriginal communities and "desperate to have things changed."

"We've tried bold visions in the past," said Coates, pointing to those that led to establishing residential schools, the setting up of reserves, and economic development strategies.

There are more than 600 First Nations and no one model or policy will work for all of them, he said.

"What the government has done is take a toolbox approach to aboriginal affairs," he said. This involves passing legislation that makes it possible for each community to decide for itself whether to use those tools.

"The goal is not for Ottawa to tell aboriginal peoples what to do with their land," he said. "The goal is to give capacity as communities if that's how they want to proceed."

Many aboriginal communities are success stories and not under the Indian Act any longer, he pointed out.

For Chabot, polarization will not lead to solutions.


One extreme position is that aboriginal people are victims, and all the blame goes to governments, negligence and colonialization, he said.

The extreme position on the opposite side says "There's nothing valuable about native culture. Get a job," Chabot said.

What is clear is that native peoples are "highly disadvantaged" in many contexts, experiencing Third World conditions, enormous structural problems of government and deep social problems, Chabot said.

"Everyone is in agreement there is a problem," Chabot said. "The most important thing is to break down the polarization."

Some aboriginal voices in the Idle No More movement are focused on a "constitutional, activist approach, with a preoccupation with sovereignty rights," said Coates.


The sovereignty and constitutional model is "quite unachievable," Coates said. Based on idealism, the aboriginal sovereignty approach is, in effect, asking the government to write itself out of its own history. "That's not going to happen."

As a result of the meeting between the prime minister and First Nations' leaders, Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan announced Harper had agreed to: high level dialogue on "the treaty relationship and comprehensive claims;" enhanced oversight of aboriginal matters from the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office; and a commitment to debrief cabinet on the discussions and meet again with Atleo "to review the next steps."


Coates said it is incumbent on Canada's political parties not to take a partisan approach. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair "took a responsible approach" by giving support to the steps the government has taken, he noted.

The analysis coming from chains like Sun News Media, even if it is highly critical, is healthy, Coates said. "It's far more respectful to engage with aboriginal folks and to engage with their ideas than to tip our hat in public and then dump on them behind closed doors."

As Idle No More continues, it will attract more analysis of its ideas and receive more criticism of some of its intellectual foundations and conceptual approaches, said Coates. "As that happens, people will begin to draw away from it."