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Column: Idle No More can bring about change

I cut through the Bay Centre last Friday on my way to meet a friend for lunch. It was busier than I’d expected, crowded with what I first took to be Christmas shoppers.

I cut through the Bay Centre last Friday on my way to meet a friend for lunch. It was busier than I’d expected, crowded with what I first took to be Christmas shoppers. Crossing through the centre court, however, I caught a glimpse of some TV cameras, and a few people carrying drums and a flag.

“Hunger strike,” I remembered vaguely, mispronouncing “Attawapiskat” in my head. I went on my way.

It was only several days later, when I stumbled across photos of the rally online, that I realized how many people had attended or had stopped in their shopping to watch and listen. I was impressed — especially because for a while, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and the nascent Idle No More movement was something that nobody in B.C. was talking about.

I’m the latest commentator to jump on the Idle No More bandwagon — but if everybody’s talking about it this week, nobody was talking about it the week before. I found out about it first through websites like tumblr and American-run social justice blogs — it was only after the rally in the Bay Centre that I heard it discussed via traditional media.

For those who haven’t heard, the Idle No More movement, of which Spence’s hunger strike is a part, is a swiftly growing and (to quote Jeff Denis) “the largest, most unified and potentially most transformative indigenous movement at least since the Oka resistance in 1990.”

(I have a master’s degree in history, and I had to Google “Oka.” This should tell us something about the degree of importance that we place on aboriginal history.)

First Nations communities are protesting not only socioeconomic issues such as the ongoing housing crisis that is plaguing Attawapiskat, but the Harper government’s destructive environmental policies and — most crucially — its recent violation of treaty rights through the passing of legislation without the consent of aboriginal groups.

Ever since four women in Saskatchewan began to raise awareness about the offending legislation, indigenous people and their allies have engaged in mass action across Canada, including rallies, sit-ins, and blockades, but only recently have they been receiving much media coverage.

Instead, much like the Occupy Movement before it, this is a movement that gained its initial momentum through a combination of social media and grassroots activism.

In the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut, it’s perhaps not surprising that Idle No More didn’t receive mainstream attention at first. Canada’s decision to be the first country to pull out of the Kyoto Accord has been similarly overshadowed — a bittersweet coincidence, given that Idle No More is protesting Canada’s denigration of its environmental safeguards.

I’m not surprised by our initial reluctance to address the Idle No More movement. We’re simply not used to seeing so-called “aboriginal issues” as important, or affecting our daily lives in any real way. (Even now, as I write this, I am assuming a certain type of readership by using the words “us” and “them”; walking through the Bay Centre, I was intrigued, but didn’t stop.) As usual, native people had to rely on their own voices and their own networks to get this story started.

But the movement has momentum now and the conversation is happening, whether our leaders are ready for it or not. I’m assuming not: Not only has Prime Minister Stephen Harper not agreed to meet with Spence (a decision that is legitimate, but disappointing), but his Twitter handlers also saw fit to tweet the phrase “Mmm … bacon” on Dec. 21, a Simpsons reference that is unbelievably disrespectful in the context of the hunger strike.

There’s a lingerie model on the wall behind the Bay Centre demonstrators. She is Caucasian and blond; through digital retouching, she glows with inhuman whiteness.

Meanwhile, the women who are beating drums in front of this advertisement belong to a demographic that has a lower life expectancy, less access to education, poorer living conditions and a higher likelihood of facing violence and sexual abuse than their white neighbours. Without insisting on a narrative of victimization for aboriginal women, it’s important — crucial — to recognize the inequalities they face.

Idle No More is not only calling for profound change in Canada’s relationship with its aboriginal citizens, but it also seems like they might be able to effect that change.

This conversation is happening now. Let’s hope our prime minister starts listening.