#IdleNoMore, Histories, and Historians

By Adele Perry

Idle no more protesters marching along Government Street in Victoria on December 21, 2012

Idle no more protesters marching along Government Street in Victoria on December 21, 2012

Recently, there have been some good cases for the utility of history as a discipline in explaining #IdleNoMore.  Here I want to add to, and shift, the terms of this discussion by urging historians who study Canada, and the societies that preceded it, and who presume a connection between scholarship and social change, become active allies of #IdleNoMore.

Historians study change over time.   A lot of the time the historical record seems to offer up a compelling but deeply depressing litany of horror and trauma: plagues, slavery, dispossession, war, relentless and deadening structures of patriarchy that stunted and ruined lives.  Sometimes it seems to go on and on without much respite.  But history also shows us that things change, sometimes in ways that we might never anticipate.  For those of us committed to social change, history can provide remarkable evidence that however seemingly intransigent and unmoveable, political and economic structures can also give way, shift, and alter, sometimes when they seem perhaps least likely too.

As I no longer can expect a shared core of generational experiences with my students, I bore them with stories to illustrate this point, and the main one I turn to is Nelson Mandela in the middle of the 1980s.   At that point, Mandela had been jailed on Robben Island for more than two decades and was not a young man.  Internationally, people who followed the version of the story that they might readily extract out of the Apartheid state’s staggering control of information quite reasonably predicted that it was retrenching in the face of opposition, and Mandela would die in jail.   Others might have known better, but I would not have believed anyone who might have then told me that Mandela would be released from jail, become president of South Africa, and go on to live to a venerable age as a world-regarded statesman.

A year ago, I would not have predicted the extent to which mainstream Canadian headlines and consciousness would be shaped by a grassroots, non-hierarchal, feminist and environmentalist social movement founded by women and lead by Indigenous people known by an evocative twitter hashtag, #IdleNoMore.  I would not have expected that 44 days of the news cycle would be marked by the gentle and resilient Chief of Attawapiskat, Teresa Spence, using deeply embodied and distinctly Annishnabe tools of protest.

But this has happened.  For me, both as a historian who has argued for the need to more rigorously situate Canadian history as the history of settler colonialism and as someone who is committed to anti-racism and feminism, this has been one of the most exciting political developments of my life.  The round-dances, the webcasts, the loving and fierce words have been everything we might want in a social movement for social change: joyous, smart, generous, funny, creative, working hard to embody the change it seeks.

None of this is really new.  Political scientist Glen Coultard has made the compelling case for registering Idle No More as a stage in a history of twentieth-century Indigenous protest that began with responses to the Trudeau Government’s 1969 White Paper.  I think it also continues and revives a history of Indigenous women’s activism that has called particular attention to  the toxic combinations of sexism and racism and to the limitations of Indian Act produced and regulated systems of leadership,  governance and reckoning questions of identity, community, and membership.   In this tradition we have Nannebahwequa or Catherine Sutton, an Annishnabe woman born in 1824 who travelled to Britain in 1858 to protest her community’s loss of land when the legislatures of Upper Canada proved unwilling to take action. [1]   In this tradition we have the people, many of them women, who established Indian and Metis friendship centres across Canada in the 1950s and 60s. [2]  In this tradition are the variety of Indigenous women’s organizations, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada and individuals like Sandra Lovelace, who between 1983 and 1986 challenged the Indian Act’s codification of male authority and patrilineal descent, ultimately securing constitutional and legislative amendments that substantially changed the Indian Act’s criteria for who was and who was not an “Indian” under the law. [3]

Although many of the issues are not new, #IdleNoMore draws a new sort of attention to the particularly Canadian iteration of settler colonialism.  I am mindful of the limitations of the framework of settler colonialism, but think it still has power to shed light on the political present in Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and Australia.  Settler colonialism works to obscure and render seemingly natural and seamless the work that it does, which is to reorganize Indigenous space as settler space.  It can be hard to track, especially for settlers, and there is nothing accidental about this.   Colonialism has never functioned in even or uncomplicated ways and different groups of non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people have had very different experiences of it.  There are no villains or heroes here, and no real gains to be had in framing these discussions in terms of good or bad intentions.  To discuss colonialism is to discuss a global structure within which people’s lives have played out, which has befitted some groups and damaged others, and from within which there are very few places of grace.

For the spluttering, anonymous authors who fill out comment boxes on mainstream news sites and write with venom that sears the eyes, #IdleNoMore has clearly been a provocation to vent a long-standing and closely-held racism.  For myself, both as a historian and as a non-Indigenous person and a settler,  #IdleNoMore has been what Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair has called a gift.   It has been an invocation to think critically about where we sit in the ongoing relations of colonialism and to join in a process of change and decolonization, one that promises to deliver a different and better relationship to the places where we live and work and with the people we live and work amongst.  This process will not always be a welcoming round-dance: sometimes it will be messy, complicated, and painful.   How non-Indigenous and settler people might be effective and graceful allies is a topic that has occasioned some good and useful writing.

People who study Canada’s history have a particular stake in these questions and, I think, a particular obligation to these movements and the changes they demand.   We need to be alert to when our scholarly and pedagogical practice colonize instead of decolonize, to find ways to better circulate the stories we find: stories of wars, of treaties, of marriages, of smallpox, of land, of communities and alliances, missions, residential schools, trade, labour, and of protest.  These histories illustrate that colonialism has shaped the history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike; they make clear the stake we all have in making something different of the future, and remind us that  things can and do change, sometimes when they seem most unlikely too.

 Adele Perry is the Canada Research Chair in Western Canadian Social History at the University of Manitoba. This post was originally presented at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Applied Ethics forum on Idle No More on 11 February 2013, and I thank Robin Jarvis Brownlie, Mary Jane McCallum, and Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair for the feedback and interventions.

[1] Celia Haig-Brown, “Seeking Honest Justice in a Land of Strangers: Nahnebhawequa’s Struggle for Land,” Journal of Canadian Studies 36 (2001): 143-70.

[2] See Heather A. Howard, “Women’s Class Strategies as Activism in Native Community Building in Toronto, 1950-1970,” American Indian Quarterly, 27: 3-4, (2003): 566-582.

[3] See Joanne Barker, “Gender, Sovereignty, and the Discourse of Rights in Native Women’s Activism,” Meridians, 7:1  (2006): 127-161, accessed http://www.jstor.org/stabl.e/40338720

4 thoughts on “#IdleNoMore, Histories, and Historians

  1. Superb article, Adele. This is a very good cautionary reminder to historians of the risk of falling on the wrong side of history during moments like these. When we shrink from the challenge of movements like #IdleNoMore and we fail to sympathize with those who seek to disrupt the structures of power of the few who oppress and marginalize the many, our prudence will only lead us to miss the opportunity to witness those rare moments of social change from the side of justice.

    Readers might also be interested in this article by Tobold Rollo on similar issues for journalists:


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