Idle No More panelists at First Nations House of Learning at UBC discuss the power of a movement

Panelists at the First Nations House of Learning teach-in at UBC discuss erasure of Indigenous histories and modern misconceptions standing in the way of progress, and much more about Idle No More.

Panelists addressed a full house of students and community members at the UBC Longhouse Friday afternoon

Teyotsihstokwáthe, a member of the Mohawk Nation and visitor from Six Nations territory near Caledonia, ON, was 17 the first time she experienced racism first hand. In the 2006 crisis that pitted Six Nations people against the people of Calendonia and the Ontario Provincial Police, she was exposed to racial slurs and ignorance on the part of the residents from the town.

But she said she doesn’t place blame on those individuals. Rather, it belongs on a government that has long failed to adequately educate its people about what it means to be Canadian.

“From the time that you can go into kindergarten, Grade 1, you learn the national anthem, but there’s no acknowledgment of the fact that this country is largely unceded. The caretakers are first nation people.”

Teyotsihstokwáthe is now a master’s student in the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC and she believes education has the power to bolster the grassroots Idle No More movement and spur the kind of broad shift in mentality required to make change.

 “My education has been building on that idea. I can have one-on-one interactions with people, but in order for it to be effective it needs to be full scale and with the full cooperation of the government of Canada.”

She spoke as part of the discussion session at today’s teach-in held at the First Nations Longhouse on campus. A panel of four speakers gave short presentations about issues ranging from First Nations feminisms to treaty issues and the most effective forms of protest and resistance.

She said the structure of the relationship between academia and grassroots movements such as Idle No More mimic the relationship between chiefs and their people.

“If you look at it from the tradition stance, academia is the leadership and grassroots is the people. When we talk about a chief being put up, the first thing that happens when you put up a chief is their voice gets taken away,” she said. “When a chief speaks, he speaks with the voice of his people. He’s constantly looking behind him to see his people, ask what are the opinions and view that they’re telling him to give.” She said she’s pleased to see academia asking the community for guidance.

“When they ask themselves that question, then curriculum can be built around it.”

Dr. Linc Kesler, director of the First Nations House of Learning, said there is a direct connection between activism and the academy.

“The things that people learn here are really useful in their activism. They’re useful tools in having the capacity to put their energies to the best use,” he said. “They build the capacity of our community.”

Glen Coulthard, professor of First Nations studies and political science, addressed the failures of education surrounding the methods by which the struggles of indigenous peoples have been won.

“Emphasis is usually placed on formal negotiations coupled with symbolic acts of peaceful, non-disruptive protest that respects the rule of law.” There are diverse means by which First Nations have fought for their rights throughout Canada’s history, he added, from disruption of means of transport and temporary blockades to permanent repossession of territories.

“Most of these approaches get branded in the media as a typical native blockade,” he said. “The assumption here, of course, is the most productive way to forge real change in the lives of Indigenous people is through negotiations.” This, he said, is a fallacy.

“All negotiations over the scope and content of Aboriginal rights over the last forty years have piggy-backed over these assertive direct actions.”

This failure to recognize the role of more forceful action in gaining ground undermines efforts to move forward by setting up a divide even within the movement between legitimate and acceptable forms of resistance and those deemed disruptive.

Dr. Dory Nason, a professor of English and First Nations studies, said a similar misdirection occurs in discussions of First Nations women’s history where dominant narratives of men in power vilifying those women leading the fight against colonialism.

“Their power and their love for who they are and where they come from becomes distorted in mainstream consciousness,” she said. “Normalizing this hate seems alarmingly easy in popular consciousness.” She said women’s research and activism makes them a target of violence and oppression.

She added that the slow-moving nature of institutions means academia’s role in the Idle No More movement is a humble one. It’s incumbent upon academics, she said, to take their role as educators, not merely researchers, seriously.

“What I try to do, and this is just my classroom, is to kind of keep a finger on the pulse, and usually it’s what my students do for me. We start every class with time to discuss Idle No More and then put it in context with what we’re talking about.”

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