#Idlenomore as an existential threat

Almost three years ago (although I only worked up the nerve to post it two years ago, so sensitive is the topic), I wrote a blog post about First Nations youth, and how I suspected they were going to radically alter Canada’s relationship with First Nations, and likely change the very notion of how people understand and think about First Nations peoples.

If you haven’t read that old post, please consider taking a look.

To be clear, I’m not claiming I predicted #idlenomore, but thanks to an amazing opportunity to be part of the Environics Institute and the  Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, it was plainly obvious to me some tectonic shifts were occurring.

Now I want to go further out on a limb.

Back in May 2010, I said the next First Nations debate won’t include you (e.g. non-aboriginals). And despite what Idle No More looks like, I don’t think it does include most non-First Nations. My sense – which could be completely off-base, but which I posit in my previous post – is that there is an internal debate within the First Nations community about leadership, identity, power, institutions and First Nations’ relationship with Canada. Yes, #idlenomore is about the omnibus bill, and about First Nations’ role in Canada, but it is also about  how First Nations organize and see themselves. And it is fostering conversations and relationships within their community that will not create a single unitary consensus, but that will change the way First Nations relate and talk to the rest of Canada, their expectations of their leadership, and equally importantly, their expectations of us. They will be better prepared for the next conversation they want to have with non-aboriginal Canadians.

It will be exciting. And we non-aboriginals will be utterly unprepared.

This is because we don’t want to talk about these issues. Worse, we don’t know how to. And, most critically, we’re deeply scared to. In the minds of many Canadians, Idle No More represents an existential threat to the notion of Canada.

Why? Because it challenges us in deeply uncomfortable ways.

It challenges core notions of Canadian identity. Canadians believe people should be given a fair chance and that they should be treated equally. A conversation about #idlenomore would force Canadians to engage in a dialogue about equality and fairness on terms we might find uncomfortable. Canadians know many First Nations live in third-world conditions, but they mostly want the government to make the problem go away.

It challenges our sense of history. Few Canadians – and the current government especially – like to explore or understand the role of First Nations in our history. The First World War and our connections to “empire” earn more attention in curriculum than a complex exploration of the fact that Canada is a colony, and has embraced some of the darkest aspects that come with colonialism. There is racism in Canada. There is structural inequity. It doesn’t mean that Canada is racist, or that Canadians are racist. But there is racism. And we can’t even talk about it. Indeed, at present we seem fixated on celebrating pitched battles that defined the state, not the relationships, choices, and elements of our history that define our culture and critically explore who we are as a people.

And it challenges our institutions: Canadians fear that a conversation about First Nations threatens to undermine the role of parliament, of non-aboriginal rights to decide what happens in their community. In Vancouver – a complex place for First Nations/non-First Nations relations – many residents pass a giant glowing billboard erected by First Nations next to the Burrard Street bridge and fear that is the future in a renegotiated world. Don’t underestimate the scope and power of these fears. Just look at Christy Blatchford – a columnist who in one week mocks both the validity of First Nations as entities and the treaties we signed since they “were expected to be in place ‘as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows,'” and sees no irony in arguing the very next week that the unwillingness of the police to execute a judge’s order to dismantle a First nations barricade is a threat to the rule of law. So clearly, inconvenient treaties with First Nations – cited in our constitution – are disposable, while an order from a provincial judge is sacrosanct. It takes a special sense of privilege to believe these two ideas are compatible. Challenging our institutions will feel threatening, particularly to the beneficiaries of our current system (and let’s face it, non-aboriginals do pretty well by the status quo). This will create fear. Some of the concerns will be legitimate. Just as the fears, concerns and aspirations of First Nations are also legitimate. But fear is not a legitimate reason to avoid having a conversation.

Today, First Nations are having an internal conversation, as well as a debate with the Canadian state. But at some point, this conversation will be had with Canadians writ large. It might not be a single national conversation – it might be a million small ones that happen as an increasingly urban, educated and confident First Nations cohort become co-workers, neighbours and friends of more and more Canadians. And when that conversation happens, my hope is that we’ll recognize that it is an existential threat to what we believed Canada was. And much like #idlenomore is changing First Nations communities, this conversation will create a new understanding of Canada – in the same way a still ongoing conversation about Sikhs, Chinese, Jamaicans and other immigrants changed who we are and how Canadians saw themselves.

I just hope we handle the conversation well. And I confess I have no idea how to get prepared. Engaging the other is never easy, whether you are aboriginal or non-aboriginal. But think about attending a protest; don’t shy away from the articles (though, try to find stuff actually written by someone who is First Nations, rather than a pundit in a newspaper); and mostly, be open to the possibility for conversation and prepare to be triggered, and think about how you want to react when it happens.

So far, New Zealand is the only country I’ve seen that has had this conversation with its indigenous peoples in any meaningful way. I’m working on trying to find out more about how that process – which I’m sure was far from perfect – emerged and took place.

Because maybe it is time non-aboriginals get prepared, too. It would be a basic expression of respect.

21 thoughts on “#Idlenomore as an existential threat

  1. beltzner

    Great piece, Dave.

    I think one of the first things to do is help everyone down from their ledges of fear, and to leave talk of reparations aside and focus instead on talk of ideals, values and  the nature of the relationship that people want to build.
    It’s hard to do that in a culture where there is increasing focus on absolutes and escalations, as well as a desire to classify everything as “conservative” or “progressive.” Let the ideas flow without labels for a little while.

  2. Justin

    Thanks so much for this post. To be honest I hadn’t seen the
    earlier post, but it was interesting to see what you were writing years ago on
    this issue.

    I think one of the most interesting possible conversations that could be had in
    would be in linking up New (recent?) immigrant communities with First Nations.
    I think this would be a fascinating and interesting conversation to have, and
    one that is raised in the book A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul.

    I’m of half New Zealand
    descent and when I went there a few years ago I was fascinated by the degree to
    which they have engaged the Maori, and they have become an integral part of
    their national identity. Being a small state with only a single indigenous
    group helps the process along in many ways, as they have a centralized state,
    with no provincial governments.


    That being said the use of the Treaty of Waitingi, as a sort
    of founding document that established the relationship between the New Zealand
    state and the Maori was fascinating. I saw this in a ton of museum exhibits,
    and a general sense of this document as marking something important in their


    I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there has been some talk
    about emulating the New
    Zealand model of having a set of Maori seats
    in their Parliament (which is a PR system, and a whole other topic).  I’ve seen a few CBC news articles and
    interviews here in Ottawa
    about this idea. It’s an interesting idea, as any Maori can choose whether to
    vote in those seats or their regular seats.


    The one question I would have for you, is to what extent do
    you think your views of First Nations are shaped by being in the west in
    general and B.C. in particular. B.C. of course has a unique set of challenges
    when it comes to First Nations issues. I know that here in Ontario, there appears to be a lot less of
    an understanding because the First Nations tend to be in the North, and more
    easily ignored.


    Hope you share anything you learn about the New Zealand
    experience with us.

  3. Janis Magnuson

    Very thoughtful piece, Dave – thank you. I’m sharing this with my kids and friends because, as you’ve said, there is little thoughtful examination of the reasons for the movement. 

    It is very challenging to have difficult conversations – they require different skills (active learning, empathy, reframing to name a few).  We’ve been trained to honour debate, rather than dialogue.

    I think we need to engage in community dialogue processes, similar to those used across the US after the Rodney King incident. 

    It would be great if conflict resolution and public engagement practitioners would meet and create ways for these community conversations to occur.

    I’m in California for a few months but I’ll see what I can do through the wonder of technology :)

    If anyone else is interested in this, please feel free to contact me.


  4. Janis Magnuson

    Hi Dave,
    It looks like my name did not show up on my earlier comment  (Very thoughtful piece, Dave ….) 

    Hard for people to contact me without that :)

  5. Yoya2

    Wonderful article. I’m always horrified by the blatant racism in mainstream newspapers (both from journalists and commentators) towards First Nations people. It’s a conversation that desperately needs to be had, because I don’t believe that most Canadians have the slightest inkling of the history of Canada’s relationship with First Nations.

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  7. Max Fawcett

    I think the example of, and comparison to, New Zealand isn’t
    a very good one when it comes to the challenge we face here in Canada.
    New Zealand is a relatively homogenous population with one dominant
    aboriginal nation – and one that makes up 15 per cent of its population
    as of the 2006 census. In Canada, of course, we are far more ethnically
    diverse, and the approximately 600 different recognized First Nations
    and bands in this country make up just under 5 per cent of our
    population. I’m sure you can see the problem here.

    But let’s get to the core of your argument here, because I think it’s
    an interesting one. I think, upon reflection, that you’re probably
    right that many Canadians view Idle No More as an existential threat.
    But can you blame them, given the kind of rhetoric that’s coming out of
    the mouths of people like Pam Palmater? Nobody, after all, wants to be
    accused of committing genocide, and that’s particularly true of people
    who haven’t actually committed it. After all, most “white” Canadians
    have no ties to the crown, the Canadian government of the time or the
    policies that it implemented when it came to dealing with aboriginals.
     Hell, most “white” Canadians aren’t even British, and most of the ones
    who are came here because they were also being oppressed by the crown.
    We are, as is plain to see for anyone who cares to look around, a nation
    of immigrants.

    As such, any efforts to use historical wrongdoing (or our collective
    ignorance thereof) to shame Canadians into supporting the kind of
    sweeping redefinition of the relationship between their government and
    aboriginal people that Idle No More activists want are almost certainly
    guaranteed to fail. I don’t think a family that immigrated recently from
    Vietnam or Ghana is going to be particularly interested in being told
    that they’re responsible for residential schools or the abuses of the
    Indian Act, and they’re not going to be terribly sympathetic to those
    who would use those arguments to advance their own cause.

    The courts cannot, and will not, trigger a radical redefinition of
    the relationship between aboriginals and Canada. Their job is to
    interpret and enforce the law, not to create it, and as we saw with the
    secession reference case of 1998 they will punt matters of an
    existential nature back to the duly elected legislatures and Parliament
    to decide. And those legislatures and that parliament will be, for the
    forseeable future, populated by an overwhelming majority of
    non-aboriginal Canadians. That’s why, if aboriginals want to move
    forward, they will have to move forward together with the rest of

    I think that’s possible, and desirable. But if Idle No More is to
    succeed, in my view, it must dramatically change its messaging. It must
    move away from emphasizing notions of collective guilt and lingering
    colonialism and start to focus on the spirit of generosity in which many
    aboriginal communities greeted white colonists (and yes, in that
    context, they were colonists) upon first contact. John Ralston Saul’s “A
    Fair Country” ought to be mandatory reading for all Canadians. His key
    point, and one that would resonate with all Canadians, I think, is that
    we are all depriving ourselves of something by maintaining this perverse
    and antagonistic relationship with each other. Strong aboriginal
    communities would make Canada stronger, and vice-versa. Indeed, we are,
    as he argues, a fundamentally aboriginal nation in character, and we owe
    many of the things that we take pride in to aboriginal influence.

    That is what should be being taught in schools. Not that
    non-aboriginals are settlers, or that we’ve committed terrible,
    unspeakable wrongs (although, no doubt, some of our ancestors did). We
    should be teaching kids that Canada’s greatness is in part – maybe even
    in large part – a product of our early contact with aboriginal people,
    and we owe them a share of that prosperity. Not because we stole the
    land, not because we’re occupiers, but because we’re in this together.
    Solidarity: it’s a sentiment that, as Terry Glavin has noted in his
    writing on Afghanistan, has been largely abandoned by the left. But it’s
    a good starting point for that conversation that we will, as you point
    out, be having soon enough.


  8. Erik Waddell

    Very interesting post, David. I find the notion that there is an ongoing, complex and multifaceted conversation going on withing aboriginal communities very compelling. I have to say I also think Mr. Fawcett’s comment is also right on the nose.

    I feel that, before there can be a real conversation between aboriginal Canadians and non-aboriginal Canadians, the internal conversation you talk about has to be resolved. There’s also no guarantee that it will be resolved well, and it’s entirely possible things will get worse before they get better. The decentralized nature of this intra-aboriginal conversation can be a curse as much as a blessing.

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  10. karen

    I believe that Mr. Fawcett misses the most important aspect of Idle, Know More (Idle No More) and, in my opinion, your post: The narrative of this particular conversation will not be dictated by those of us who have come to expect the storylines of this country to be comfortable ones within which that we can live.

    Through Ms. Palmater and many others, this conversation is being conducted without us. It is that simple. Whether we like it or not, whether we feel people have the right to define us, or not, they are doing it. For themselves. And in my observations, some Indigenous people agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Palmater, some partially, and others not at all. It’s a spectrum, which is to be expected from any large, diverse body of people.

    But make no mistake: Indigenous people are giving names to the different players in their story, whether or not those players like it, in order to make sense of their shared history, a history that is very much entangled with ours. Using the word settler, in my opinion, is as good as any other. To date, we settlers — or descendants of immigrants (or whatever, really, what does it matter when there exists poisoned water? Missing and murdered women and men? Corrupted on-our-government’s-side treaty negotiations crafted to pave the way for bitumen-and-chemical carrying pipelines through lands to date unceded?) — we settlers have enjoyed the right to choose words to narrate the past several hundred years here. Our predecessors, the people our ancestors voted or accepted as leaders and yes, our grandparents who worked in the residential and day schools and hospitals, who accepted lands never actually purchased and then passed down as land or money inheritance to us, our predecessors removed rights to cultural practices, to speaking languages not our own, to religious practices, to parent children in the traditions that predated our arrival.

    And it is our representatives who publish the textbooks for our schools, our people who own the media (both public and private) that tells stories we claim as Canadian. Whether we agree with those people or not, they are ours, we have long accepted and participated in the capitalized market in which they operate. We accept that the CBC lacks representation on morning and afternoon shows, on newscasts, to tell “our” stories. It is a fact that we, who others are calling settlers, are fully overrepresented in every aspect of our society, and we make certain our voices are heard. To the exclusion of other voices, for the most part, unless they agree with us. And when we don’t, we ensure they understand how disagreeable this is. So they are having their conversations elsewhere. We’d better grow up and get over it, because this is the bed we’ve made.

    And I am not writing any of this in guilt. Guilt would not leave me the room to be clear: there *are* things I can do to prepare for the conversations. I can read the Indian Act. I can read the once-commissioned, shelved because it was inconvenient Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), but for a limited time only, as the government is removing access to it in a week’s time. I can listen, silently and without fighting against it, someone else’s experience of my racial group (today) and how we affect them. These are things I can do. It is uncomfortable to learn history from a different point of view, it is not nice to consider what it might mean to know that my grandfather and great-grandfather both taught in a residential (on-reserve) day school.

    I strongly suggest anyone who is discomforted by the conversations they are privileged to be exposed in Idle No more to bite their tongue (or sit on their hands) and simply experience the discomfort for longer than the moment it takes before one fires off a long drawn out retort. You might actually see things from a different point of view and learn something. As I read David saying here, it is our job to be ready to have the conversations, which will include a *lot* of listening, and even more *waiting* to be asked our opinions, habits I contend our culture has not yet mastered in any way, shape or form. They may be the only way forward.

  11. Max Fawcett

    Ah, yes. Waiting to be asked our opinion. Not consulted about what we’re called. Being identified with racially-informed slurs. “Growing up and getting over it.” So, if I understand your argument correctly, Karen, your solution to is for aboriginal people to treat us the way we used to treat them a generation or two ago?

    I happen to think that’s a profoundly, almost laughably misguided approach to pursuing any kind of meaningful reconciliation. If we’re to be partners, we must approach each other as equals. If one – us, in your view – is morally compelled to stand on bended knee, genuflecting before the crimes of our past, well, that seems more or less impossible.

    Hannah Arendt, as keen a student of the subject of collective guilt as there probably ever was, once said that “Where all are guilty, no one is;
    confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against
    the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best
    excuse for doing nothing.”

    She was right then, and she’d be right here, too. And you know what else she said? “Forgiveness is the key to action and freedom.”

    I, like most Canadians, have done nothing wrong, not a single thing, when it comes to the treatment of my aboriginal brothers and sisters. Will I help them? Of course. Will I listen to them? Absolutely. But will I be shamed into not speaking honestly, as I do now, as you suggest I should? Never.

    1. David Eaves

      Neither Karen or myself is asking anyone to individually be culpable, but to recognize that we are part of a system that not only gives us that privilege but that has, and continues to, harm and marginalize some more than others. You can bend that into being called collective guilt. Or you can understand it as critical thinking and analysis. Max has chosen the former. I choose the latter. The challenge for non-aboriginal Canadians is to persuade more to choose the latter frame as well. It won’t be easy, because it isn’t easy.

      Max Fawcett’s response above is a wonderful example of everything my post is about. The inability to understand his own place of privilege, along with the defensiveness and fear the debate creates for his view of Canada and his own sense of identity is precisely my point. You can read the emotion spilling off the screen in his response. I don’t say that out of disrespect, but to illuminate just how triggering, to just how much of existential threat this debate feels to many Canadians.Max does misunderstand much of my post. And his conclusion, roughly unpacked, reads “when first nations start talking in ways that make me comfortable, then they will succeed.” In other words… when this conversation no longer poses an existential threat to my identity and to how I perceive my country… we can continue. This is a fascinating position. One that again takes incredible privilege to hold. It is to seek to negate any real debate before it even begins. It is also terms that First Nations will not accept. This wonderful post – Why Idle No More Never Needed Your Sympathy dives somewhat deeper in to this point. This isn’t a transactional land claims negotiation. This is a conversation about identity, rights and history. It is going to last for decades, possibly longer.And the non-aboriginal side of the conversation, if we choose to have it, is going to challenging. How much so? Consider Max’s second post where he affirms he will not be “shamed into not speaking honestly.” I don’t recall either myself (or Karen) making any such request. Of course, we did ask people to spend more time listening, and engaging that which makes us uncomfortable. But that is a far cry from censorship or even shaming. Indeed it speaks volumes about the privilege some of us have that even just been asked to listen and emerse ourselves in the discomfort of others views is seen as “shaming.”It’s going to be a long, uncomfortable ride. Or worse, it will all melt away and we’ll be allowed to continue our lives ignoring the issues altogether. 

      1. Max Fawcett

        Oh, David. I tried to respond to your thoughtful post in a respectful manner and you go straight for the throat. Very well, then.

        You can rest easy: your view of the situation, coloured as it by such an enormous sense of personal and cultural self-loathing, has, I assure you, no bearing on my identity and how I perceive my country. I see it as it is – a place where bad things happened, and indeed, in many cases, continue to happen, but which, on the whole, is doing its best, however awkwardly, to make this situation right.

        I readily acknowledge my status a member of a privileged class – I’m white, male, heterosexual and I live in Canada. It doesn’t get much better than that. But I see no reason why that entitles other groups to call me names and to refer to me in explicitly racist and discriminatory terms. I can acknowledge the privilege without having to lie silent and prostrate in apology for it, and I don’t think the debate that aboriginals are having among themselves, or will theoretically one day have with us, depends on that for its success.

        (Oh, and as to whether Karen made “such a request”? Here it is: “I strongly suggest anyone who is discomforted by the conversations they
        are privileged to be exposed in Idle No more to bite their tongue (or
        sit on their hands) and simply experience the discomfort for longer than
        the moment it takes before one fires off a long drawn out retort.”  In other words, if you’re not willing to flagellate yourself over your moral and cultural complicity in, keep it to yourself. )

        Now, you can call this “immersing yourself in the discomfort of other views,” and you can flatter yourself (as you have) by referring to your views as “critical thinking and analysis” and write mine off as mere “collective guilt” and put my arguments inside scare quotes. Heck, you can even call call me privileged, and any other name you like – it’s your sandbox, after all. But the fact remains that I’m trying to engage you in good faith in a conversation about your views on this issue, and you have yet to respond in kind.

        1. karen

          Thank you David and Max. Max, I want you to know that I learned this “sitting with uncomfortable feelings” stuff when I worked through PTSD and other issues that stemmed from my upbringing, a good 20 years ago. It had nothing to do with anything political, but boy does it ever allow me to hear what others are saying, even when I don’t agree with them. And for the record, I made a suggestion based upon how I’ve come to hear things that are not congruent with my own internal monologue. It is a take it or leave it offer.

          I do not suggest that you or anyone accept the term settler, I don’t really think it matters to anyone but you whether or not you choose to identify with it. I’m certain it can be used with hate-filled undertones, but it has also been used without rancour. In my experience, I can argue with everyone in point-by-point form about everything with which I don’t agree, but I find the result is akin to eating too much convenience food: totally unsatisfying. This choice to listen belongs to each of us, and each of us gets to live with whether or not we gain new insight from the conversations in which we are involved.

          And I do not feel that I am an idiot, a bleeding heart, a guilt-wracked liberal or anything else for having no issues with the term settler, for identifying it not as racism but rather as a tool some people are employing to facilitate conversations whereby no one group is the default norm. I’m just glad it is “settler”, which makes some logical sense, rather than “honky” or other actual slurs I’ve experienced when traveling overseas. This one seems so much less … polarizing. My people settled here. *shrug*. Works for me.

          I’m truly more comfortable in my own skin as I hone better listening skills and lowering my defences, both within these conversations and in others. I’ve been where you are, horribly uncomfortable with my feelings and of being shut up and shut out. (I no longer see it quite like that, once I stopped thinking I should control the narrative exclusively.) I hope you hear what I’m saying not as condescension (it is not) but encouragement. The conversations are so much more hope-filled and engaging for all of us — settlers, new immigrants and Indigenous people alike — from where I now stand.

          This is not to say that I am welcomed everywhere, nor with open arms. I am not. But when I go out into the bigger world, I am not welcome in every conversation happening along the street. Heck, in governmental operations I am less and less welcome to see the inner workings of the parties I’ve elected to represent my interests …

          I’m unafraid of what I have to lose through Indigenous people having conversations to which I’m still amazed I’m invited to witness, and more worried about the heavy-handed decision making that is unaccountable for its own actions and circumnavigating meaningful input from the citizenry at all levels of government (and I was at that ridiculous sham of a Vancouver Parks Board meeting that went till 4 am this morning).

          Thank you both again for the opportunity for this ongoing respectful discussion. I appreciate your candour and am working to return it in kind.

          1. Max Fawcett

            Karen: Appreciate the honesty, and I don’t take what you’re saying as condescension. But I think there’s an important point to be made here. I, like many, many Canadians – I would hazard to guess the majority of them – trace my roots in this country not to settlers, to people who took or purchased land from the government, but to poor immigrants who were either forced to leave their homeland or left in search of a better life for their children and grandchildren. They took nothing. They settled nothing. They colonized nothing. They simply worked, and worked, and worked, often in the face of racism and cultural bias, to build a life here. And I think that hard work, that sacrifice, and that suffering should be respected – at the very least, it shouldn’t be commingled with the behaviour of the British Crown and used as a cudgel that some folks want to use to beat people like me over the head.

            That’s why I find settler offensive. Why can’t I just be called a Canadian, and have the conversation proceed from there? It doesn’t impair my ability to understand this country’s history or the debt it owes to aboriginal people. This insistence of mine here has nothing to do with my existential self-understanding as a Canadian, or the fact that I’m trying to ignore or avoid some shared stain that I wear. It has to do with basic principles of human decency and fairness, and an abiding interest in actually making genuine progress on this front.

            I mentioned the importance of solidarity earlier, and I’ll mention it here again because I think it’s very important. We don’t move forward by labeling each other and deliberately creating a sense of otherness. We move forward in solidarity, united by a common cause, which is something that I believe the majority of Canadians would support.

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