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  • Commentary: The “Idle No More” Movement in Eastern Canada
  • L. Jane McMillan, Janelle Young, and Molly Peters1

The Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and other Indigenous nations in Atlantic Canada were never idle; they have resisted colonial oppression for centuries. Prior to Confederation, they signed peace and friendship treaties. Post-Confederation, they petitioned the Crown to protect their treaty rights. 2 Throughout the 1980s, Grand Council members made appeals to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. 3 Then, the explosive Supreme Court of Canada decision in R v Marshall affirmed Mi’kmaq treaty rights, a decision that sparked racist public outrage. 4 In response, Indigenous peoples and allies across Canada marched and organized protest fisheries, but even now, fifteen years later, the struggles for sovereign resource management and appropriate accommodation are yet to be resolved.

Today, in a significant return to matriarchal roots that were largely marginalized by colonialism, Indigenous women and their allies are on the front lines of political and cultural activism, shining light on critical social justice issues through peaceful protest. This comment explores the advent and actions of Idle No More in Atlantic Canada and pays particular attention to the role of women.

Despite Supreme Court recognition of treaty rights, Indigenous nations of eastern Canada, in order to bring attention to the denial of hunting and fishing rights and, more generally, of self-determination, have had to organize protest moose hunts, create blockades to protect sacred territories against unethical development, and shut down highways. 5

These actions represent only a small sampling of all those that constitute the Idle No More (INM) legacy of resistance to injustice. Idle No More activities protect [End Page 429] and advance this legacy through their capacity for knowledge translation using social media and the customary practice of gathering nations. The great vision of Nina Wilson, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon, the founders of INM, blossomed against the barren landscape of failed federal policies, sanitized Canadian history, and blatant rejection of Indigenous treaty rights. Through teach-ins, Facebook, and Twitter, they formed an Indigenous/non-Indigenous alliance and generated a grassroots movement to protest the Conservative government’s failure to consult Aboriginal peoples on the Jobs and Growth Act, legislation that directly impacts Indigenous rights and title. The INM movement became a national call to action to stop such colonial practices, and it now serves as a platform for collective cultural resurgence and environmental protection activism.

The strength of the matriarchal movement spread quickly to eastern Canada. Outraged by the unilateral imposition of legislation in C-38 and C-45 that contravenes treaty and inherent rights, many like-minded people joined in the national movement to help protect Mother Earth. Inspired by the events in Ottawa, two university-educated young mothers, Molly Peters and Shelly Young, became the eastern INM coordinators. They started a solidarity campaign among youth, teaching them traditional Honour songs, educating them about the history of residential schools and their treaty rights, and encouraging them to become caretakers of the earth.

Idle No More work in the Maritimes, as elsewhere, is focused on empowering youth through treaty education. Peters and Young encourage youth to be “defenders of land,” as land and its resources are the primary connection to their ancestors and cultural teachings. They also work with non-Indigenous organizations, building the critical alliances necessary to alter systemic discrimination and find common ground in environmental protection and cultural exchange. Rallies, traffic slowdowns, rail obstructions, flash mob round dances, traditional fasts, national events, benefit concerts, videoconferences, myth-busting exercises, and extensive community outreach successfully create spaces for talk and action. These activities instil in youth a sense of responsibility for carrying on the work of their ancestors as defenders of Indigenous rights and stewards of future sustainable resource management.

Through a set of sophisticated negotiations, the Idle No More group of eastern Canada worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to close off the MacDonald Bridge, a major thoroughfare leading into the city of Halifax, in order to facilitate a march to Citadel Hill. Held on a bright but very cold winter day, the peaceful event was attended by thousands and was an impressive collaborative success. Elsewhere...


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