Idle No More gets out of the courts and into the streets

Nationwide campaign urges grassroots organizations to engage in direct action in their communities

Shell Oil drum
Shell oil drum via O.F.E. and Flickr.

After years of attempting to fight for their rights through the Canadian legal system, First Nations across the country are denouncing the courts in favour of a season of direct action.

Idle No More and Defenders of the Land have partnered to spearhead the Summer of Sovereignty, a campaign designed to encourage direct action and civil disobedience at the grassroots level

The kick-off comes on the heels of another failed court challenge, this time a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada not to hear the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s constitutional challenge of Shell Oil’s Jackpine Mine expansion.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, co-director of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign at the Polaris Institute in Ottawa and co-founder of Indigenous rights group Defenders of the Land, said the nationwide campaign still has its sights set on the grassroots.

“Our priority is to really put emphasis on regional struggles, front line struggles, to magnify the issues that are going on across the country.” He said actions will also take place to increase awareness of the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and reconciliation for ongoing human rights violations.

Thomas-Muller said the campaign will bring together the fight against oil development all across the country, from the reversal of the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline to the proposed expansion of the TransCanada pipeline to mining from BC to Labrador.

“We will see intersections between Idle No More social media apparatus through the training initiatives we bring out, and of course, the ongoing campaigns being led by local grass roots and leadership.”

The two groups produced an online training seminar that features organizers from across the country offering stories and advice to anyone looking to use direct action in their own region.  

“There’s a lot of people who have different agendas and movements for themselves,” he said, adding that core values are still environmental protection, economic sustainability, particularly for First Nations people, land claims and human rights.

“I just know that in general that’s the core goal, the protection of the environment, elevating economic sustainability of native people, and then again there’s a lot of stuff going on in terms of land claims issues and human rights issues.

“It runs across a lot of these areas that have been neglected for a long time, and it seems that now that we’ve gotten organized, we’re able to work on each one in a different way.”

Danaan Dallas, an organizer with Idle No More in Vancouver, believes its long past time to abandon the court system.

“How often is the court process effective? It’s a waste of time, effort and money.”

He also sees the need to engage all Canadian, not just First Nations people, in the fight for environmental protection.

“If the government is not protecting the environment and the people, and the people aren’t protecting themselves and they’re leaving it up to the First Nations people to deal with it, it’s little bit backward right now.”

Dallas said the campaign is geared towards finding new ways to counter the federal government’s environmental and Indigenous rights policies, adding that Idle No More has all by given up on coverage from the mainstream media.

“We’ve counted out the mainstream media so we’re doing things through different channels. Social media networks, media from different communities, organizations are doing it for themselves.”

Idle No More has partnered with Greenpeace Canada and the World Wildlife Federation among others.

At the end of the day, he said, it comes down to what individuals are willing to put into it. There is no overarching plan for action across the province.

Instead, it will be up to groups and individuals to take the initiative to create direct action. It’s not a perfect solution, he said, but it’s the last resort.

 “If the people aren’t going to care enough to do something about it, it’s not going to work.”

Dr. Gordon Christie, director of Indigenous Legal Studies at the University of British Columbia, isn’t surprised Idle No More organizers are pushing a direct action mandate. He believes getting out of the courtroom and into the streets is the best available option now.

Christie used last year’s omnibus bills, C-38 and C-45, as examples of the broken system. He says the government should have been required to consult First Nations before tabling the bills, not after.

In some court cases, Christie said, courts have recommended that the process by which the Crown is required to consult First Nations should kick in well before development on the land begins. But he’s skeptical as to whether the law will ever change.

Right now, the best First Nations can hope for is to slow the process down to such a degree that it’s unfeasible for companies to continue. The best bet is to amass enough support from people all across the country that demands can’t be ignored any longer, he said.

“The next thing that happens needs to be that it explodes like it did in Quebec,” he said, referring to the student tuition protest of last year. There was a key moment part way through the protests when it stopped being solely about students at a few universities and became about education in Canada at large.

“That was a real turning point,” he said. “It wasn’t just the students but it was all the large groups allied with the students. You need the numbers.”

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