A year ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the growing tensions between environmental activists and the Conservative government in Canada, particularly with regards to the Gateway and Keystone oil pipelines. The Conservative government portrayed environmental activists and organizations as radical and in many ways, depicted campaigns against the pipeline as coming from outside of Canada backed by foreign interests. But over the course of 2012, environmental issues became less salient with the public and garnered less attention from the media. Then, in a November 2012 Globe and Mail article, it was suggested that a recent Natural Resources Canada study finding that the chemical in the oil sands is not more corrosive than other oil, is a “major strike against a key argument made by opponents of pipelines.” With a lack of interest, apparently damning evidence against environmental activists, and determination on the part of the government to continue resource development (including the oil sands project), things were not looking good for environmental activists. The Conservative government has continued to champion the pipeline and has called for more proposals for future natural resource development.
But environmental activists may have found a new ally. As activist Naomi Klein writes in her December 24 Globe and Mail commentary, “If Canadians have a chance of stopping Mr. Harper’s planet-trashing plans, it will be because these legally binding rights – backed up by mass movements, court challenges, and direct action will stand in his way.”
Klein is referring to the Idle No More movement that arose seemingly out of nowhere and in full force in early December. According to Gloria Galloway who has been following the movement since its inception, the movement got its name from a Saskatchewan teach-in. The event was held by concerned lawyers and environmental activists who had grown frustrated with the federal government’s environmental and natural resource development policy, as well as the First Nations political leadership who they accused of failing to disseminate information about proposed federal policies that would affect the environment and First Nations people. Since then, several chiefs, including Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation, went on hunger strikes, and a growing number of First Nations people held protests on Parliament Hill, blocked railways, and set up road blockades. The use of direct action continued into the following week and according to Galloway’s December 23 article, organizers of Idle No More continued to protest because their grievances had still gone unaddressed. The key issue? The budget bill that passed which “includes a number of environmental changes that critics say will loosen controls on the development of the land and water upon which first nations rely.”
As the movement grew, goals and issues expanded to include the overall wellbeing within First Nations communities, and, a specific demand to meet with both the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and the Governor General, David Johnston. Harper’s lack of response fuelled protests and continued hunger strikes while other politicians from opposition parties, including potential Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, met with movement leaders. Finally Harper met with leaders but rather than demobilizing Idle protesters, it fueled the movement. Harper excluded certain leaders from talks, did not meet them at their hotel , and only gave them half an hour of his time (leaving the rest to his ministers). According to Galloway, First Nations and Idle leaders felt Harper met with them on his terms, not theirs. In addition, Chief Spence did not attend because the Governor General (who represents the Crown) did not attend (apparently it is inappropriate for the Governor General to attend such a meeting especially without permission from the Prime Minister). What did the meeting accomplish? Opinions among activists are split. Some say it was a “new movement toward resolving treaty issues” while others, like Grand Chief Nepinak, think it was “a sideshow.”
Idle No More, in a very short time, became a multifaceted and complex movement: from the issues at hand, the people involved, to the tactics used. Protest was no doubt an important part of this movement. It raised public awareness and got political attention – except from the Conservative government and the person leaders wanted the most attention from – the Prime Minister. Movement activists and leaders, however, have also used other strategies and tactics. They have increased participation via a website, have created worldwide interest and activism, and have also turned to the courts seeking to mobilize the law. “The Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Frog Lake First Nation, both located in Alberta, will file documents in Federal Court on Tuesday arguing that two omnibus budget bills that reduce federal environmental oversight violate the government’s treaty obligations to protect traditions aboriginal territory.” Why use the courts (a question for Mobilizing Ideas’ upcoming February essay Dialogue)? Leaders are optimistic that they will have a favorable outcome since the courts tend to rule favorably on treaty rights cases, and they see a court challenge as a way to force Harper to respond. The Chief of Mikisew, Steve Courtoreille, said that “they [referring to Harper and his ministers] will probably see us in a different forum with this [court] challenge they are going to be facing.” At the same time, leaders also see the use of direct action, especially blockades, as having an important economic impact on the country. Wallace Fox, Chief of the Onion Lake Cree Nation is quoted as saying “The rallies are going to continue the blockades are going to escalate – roads, highways, whatever, it’s going to happen. And if they don’t want to deal with us [the chiefs], they are obviously going to have to deal with the economic impacts that are going to appear as a result of these blockades.”
Idle No More has grown from a teach-in to a massive grassroots movement with specific goals (such as stopping proposals that would lead to important changes to environmental and resource development) and targets (the Prime Minister), and the simultaneous use of institutional (i.e., the courts) and extra-institutional tactics (i.e., blockades, protests). It is true that some First Nations chiefs distanced themselves with what they perceived as radical tactics but nonetheless, they are also able to use that momentum in seeking a more concerted effort on the part of the Harper government to pay more attention to aboriginal rights and wellbeing. In addition, they have brought environmental concerns back onto the public and political scene, addressing specific bills that many believe would have negative impacts on the environment. January 2013 saw the continued use of protests and blockades. As long as the Prime Minister and government deny Idle No More activists and First Nations leaders the kind of attention they are demanding, it seems that protests will continue.