Wednesday, 20 February 2013 13:32

Idle No More co-founder presents a very powerful message at Swift Current teach-in

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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Swift Current area residents had an opportunity to learn more about Idle No More from one of the movement’s co-founders during a teach-in gathering at the Great Plains College Feb. 15.

Sheelah McLean started the movement in November 2012 with three other Saskatchewan women — Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam and Nina Wilson — to highlight the impact of federal legislation on indigenous rights and the environment.
There were two other speakers at the Swift Current teach-in gathering. Tasha Hubbard is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who is currently working on a collaborative documentary feature about Idle No More and Dion Tootoosis is an educator, performance artist and activist.
McLean, who is currently finishing a PhD in anti-racism and anti-colonial education at the University of Saskatchewan, focused her presentation on the continuing impact of colonialism on indigenous rights in Canada.
“Indigenous people have been impacted by colonization for over 400 years on this continent and there has been resistance to colonization all along,” she said. “So Idle No More isn’t really new. We recognize that this has been a long history of struggle.”
She noted education is at the core of Idle No More and the movement started with a teach-in at Station 20 West in Saskatoon. Since then, it has become a global phenomenon.
“This movement speaks to indigenous people worldwide because colonization is a global issue and it speaks worldwide because environmental concerns are a global issue as well,” she said.
Social media has helped to spread the Idle No More message across the world, but McLean felt it was not the main reason for the movement’s explosive growth. She noted many other issues on Facebook and Twitter do not become global movements within three months.
“We really believe there is a spiritual heart to Idle No More,” she said. “So many elders and knowledge keepers have come to us and said that people have been praying for this movement for a very long time, that this is a spiritual movement.”
She discounted recent media reports that described the movement as fizzling out and losing momentum. According to McLean, the movement is still growing and they are planning more activities during the coming spring and summer months that will focus on education as well as strategic action.
“From my perspective and the work that we’re doing right now … this movement is actually taking root, it’s becoming much, much stronger,” she said.
She emphasized the importance of anti-racist, anti-colonial education as a way to understand inequality and to counter the dominant narrative in society that depicts Canada as a democratic, multicultural country free from racism and violence.
“So if this is the story of Canada, how do we explain inequality? How do we explain poverty? How do we explain over 130 reserves without proper drinking water?” she asked. “This story is so powerful that even today people will explain inequality in really problematic ways. They blame the victims of oppression for their own inequality, that’s what they grab for.”
She illustrated this dominant narrative in society through images of paintings created by the well-known Group of Seven artists, in which all the landscapes are presented as vast, empty wilderness.
According to McLean the fantasy of wilderness as an empty space is presented in all Canadian photography, art and film as a means to erase the presence of indigenous people.
“This idea of pioneers, this idea of voyageurs, these stories are so powerful that they become the original inhabitants of Canada rather than the indigenous people of Canada,” she said. “Right now with Idle No More I see the clash of these two stories — the truth of who really is indigenous to the land and then settler society who has claimed to be the original inhabitants of the land for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
She concluded her presentation by highlighting myths about racism and meritocracy in Canadian society. She noted society is not colour-blind, even if individuals could be, and the myth of meritocracy ignores how how dominant groups get access to social and institutional power.
“We are often uncomfortable confronting and discussing these issues, but it’s really important to do so,” she said. “One of the reasons that Idle No More has been so important is because not only is it raising consciousness on these issues, but people are starting to talk about and see that the story of Canada as a race free nation that is kind and gentle and democratic and peace keeping is not the real story.”
Hubbard, who is a lecturer at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Native Studies, spoke about her involvement with the creation of a collaborative documentary feature on Idle No More.
The media collective currently involves about 30 filmmakers from Canada, the United States and Australia and they are also working at involving people from Mexico and New Zealand.
“I don’t know what the story is yet,” she said. “The movement is continually growing, continually expanding and so we’re just filming as we go. ... It is worldwide, it does resonate with people more than a sort of basic media story.”
Dion Tootoosis touched on various aspects of the Idle No More movement during his wide ranging presentation. He spoke about the consequences of human actions on the environment and the skeptics who are denying scientific evidence of climate change.
“Right now what’s happening across Mother Earth is that we’ve been taking too much and we will be humbled,” he said. “Idle No More for me is the time to send this warning to everybody to prepare yourselves.”
He expressed concern people are reluctant to speak out about exploitation and environmental destruction, but the Idle No More movement is providing people with an avenue.
“There’s decay happening in our democracy in this country and that needs to change as well,” he said. “The politics have to change.”

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