Idle No More – between reform and insurgency, the anti/alter-colonial struggle

I have been hesitant to write any commentary on the recent cross Canada first nations mobilization. Hesitant because I feel I don’t understand it terribly well, and that there are others who are better situated to write commentary on what is going on.

But I think that I now have something to say. The thing about Idle No More which is very interesting to me is the way it manages to be both a revolutionary and liberal, both insurgent and reformist movement at the same time. It is both radical and non-radical because it is at the level of principles not a straightforward anti-colonialist movement, but rather an alter-colonialist, which means reformist, paradigm. The goals are not to kick out the colonizer, but to ask the colonizer to abide by the treaties that were signed a long time ago, and which are not obeyed. The tactics are based on law, based on appeal to the legal basis of the Canadian state, based on appeals to the obligations not simply of the Canadian state but of the British crown. This is why the chiefs demand to meet with the Governor General – because, Canadian democracy aside, they argue it is ultimately the responsibility of the crown to force its local ministers to obey by the international treaties that the crown signed with indigenous nations.

The trick is – for the state to comply with these treaties would mean very deep changes to the Canadian economy, and in the end, to Canadian society. Existing capitalism, the resource economy, can’t survive without subsidies it receives from mining resources on first nations territory. So while the prescription “Obey the treaties” is liberal, its political situation is a radical one because it will take force, it will cause a rupture, for the state to comply with treaties that are damaging to its economy.

And indigenous people in Canada have the power to exert force. They know how to run blockades, they know how to occupy territory, and it is not very easy to label them as terrorists because in the Canadian situation racist slurs against indigenous people are no longer acceptable in liberal society. Indigenous people can shut down the border at Windsor, they can control bridges – they likely can’t win a military confrontation against the Canadian Forces, but the mere danger of such a confrontation has a political effect.

Of course, the use of force isn’t a magic bullet in struggle. Peaceful protest must come first, a grassroots movement must be broad-based and strong. Settlers must play a role in the movement – taking responsibility for their position as settlers, and pressuring their government to abide by the law. The most important thing settlers must do is combat the racist tendencies in settler societies to demonize the indigenous every time they demand their rights.

By being both liberal and radical, both reformist and insurgent, INM is an opportunity to mobilize a broad coalition of the political centre and the political left, those who vote NDP and those who boycott the elections. And, it is an opportunity for all these populations to participate in a single solidarity struggle, and to learn the complimentary virtues of pragmatism and hard-line commitment. The maoist left can get over its “workerism”, center-liberals can get over their allergy to community-rights, NDP supporters can deepen their analysis of colonialism, and anti-colonial activists can recognize the distinctness of one struggle against colonialism from another. And we need to; Idle No More is crucial because it is not only indigenous people in Canada who need liberation and dignity – settlers too are imprisoned by capitalism, and by the world-destructive view that short term profit is the thing of most value – even more than the survival of the planet.


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