Skip to content

#IdleNoMore in Historical Context

December 24, 2012

by Glen Coulthard


This article is also available in mp3 format.


Much has been said recently in the media about the relationship between the inspiring expression of Indigenous resurgent activity at the core of the #IdleNoMore movement and the heightened decade of Native activism that led Canada to establish the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) in 1991. I offer this short analysis of the historical context that led to RCAP in an effort to get a better sense of the transformative political possibilities in our present moment of struggle.

The federal government was forced to launch RCAP in the wake of two national crises that erupted in the tumultuous “Indian summer” of 1990. The first involved the legislative stonewalling of the Meech Lake Accord by Cree Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper. The Meech Lake Accord was a failed constitutional amendment package negotiated in 1987 by then Prime Minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, and the ten provincial premiers. The process was the federal government’s attempt to bring Quebec “back in” to the constitutional fold in the wake of the province’s refusal to accept the constitutional repatriation deal of 1981, which formed the basis of the The Constitution Act, 1982. Indigenous opposition to Meech Lake was staunch and vocal, in large part due to the fact that the privileged white men negotiating the agreement once again refused to recognize the political concerns and aspirations of First Nations. In a disruptive act of legislative protest, Elijah Harper initiated a filibuster in the days immediately leading up to the accord’s ratification deadline, which ultimately prevented the province from endorsing the package. The agreement subsequently tanked because it failed to gain the required ratification of all ten provinces within 3-years of reaching a deal.

The second crisis involved a 78-day armed “standoff” beginning on July 11, 1990 between the Mohawk nation of Kanesatake, the Quebec provincial police (SQ), and the Canadian armed forces near the town of Oka, Quebec. On June 30, 1990 the municipality of Oka was granted a court injunction to dismantle a peaceful barricade erected by the people of Kanesatake in an effort to defend their sacred lands from further encroachment by non-Native developers.  The territory in question was slotted for development by a local golf course, which planned on extending nine holes onto land the Mohawks had been fighting to have recognized as their own for almost 300 years. Eleven days later, on July 11, one hundred heavily armed members of the SQ stormed the community. The police invasion culminated in a twenty-four second exchange of gunfire that killed SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay. In a display of solidarity, the neighbouring Mohawk nation of Kahnawake set up their own barricades, including one that blocked the Mercier Bridge leading into the greater Montreal area. Galvanized by the Mohawk resistance, Indigenous peoples from across the continent followed suit, engaging in a diverse array of solidarity actions that ranged from leafleting to the establishment of peace encampments to the erection of blockades on several major Canadian transport corridors, both road and rail. Although polls conducted during the stand-off showed some support by non-Native Canadians outside of Quebec for the Mohawk cause, most received their information about the so-called “Oka Crisis” through the corporate media, which overwhelmingly represented the event as a “law and order” issue fundamentally undermined by Indigenous peoples’ anger and resentment-fuelled criminality. [i]

For many Indigenous people and their supporters, however, these two national crises were seen as the inevitable culmination of a near decade-long escalation of Native frustration with a colonial state that steadfastly refused to uphold the rights that had been recently “recognized and affirmed” in section 35 (1) of the The Constitution Act, 1982. By the late 1980s, this frustration was clearly boiling over, resulting in a marked rise in First Nations’ militancy and land-based direct action. The following are some of the more well-documented examples from the time[ii]:

  1. The Innu occupation and blockade of the Canadian Air Force/NATO base at Goose Bay, Labrador. The occupation was led largely by Innu women to challenge the further dispossession of their territories and the destruction of their land-based way of life by the military industrial complex’s encroachment onto the Innu peoples’ homeland of Nitassinan;
  2. The Lubicon Cree struggle against oil and gas development on their traditional territories in present day Alberta. The Lubicon Cree have been struggling to protect a way of life threatened by intensified capitalist development on their homelands since at least 1939. Over the years, the community has engaged in a number of very public protests to get their message across, including a well-publicized boycott of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and the associated Glenbow Museum exhibit, The Spirit Sings;
  3. First Nations blockades in British Columbia. Throughout the 1980s, First Nations in BC grew extremely frustrated with the painfully slow pace of the federal government’s comprehensive land claims process and the province’s racist refusal to recognize Aboriginal title within its its borders.  The result was a decade’s worth of very disruptive blockades, which at its height in 1990 were such a common occurrence that Vancouver newspapers felt the need to publish traffic advisories identifying delays caused by First Nation roadblocks in the province’s interior. Many of the blockades were able to halt resource extraction on Native land for protracted periods of time;
  4. The Algonquins of Barriere Lake. By 1989, the Algonquins of Barrier Lake were embroiled in a struggle to stop clear-cut logging within their traditional territories in present day Quebec because these practices threatened their land and way of life. Under the leadership of customary chief, Jean-Maurice Matchewan, the community used blockades to successfully impede clear-cutting activities affecting their community.
  5. The Temagami First Nation blockades of 1988 and 1989 in present-day Ontario. The Temagami blockades were set up to protect their nation’s homeland from further encroachment by non-Native development. The blockades of 1988-89 were the most recent assertions of Temagami sovereignty in over a century-long struggle to protect the community’s right to land and freedom from colonial settlement and development.

From the vantage point of the colonial state, by the time the 78-day standoff at Kanesatake had begun things were already out of control in Indian Country. If settler-state stability and authority are required to ensure “certainty” over lands and resources to create a climate friendly for expanded capitalist accumulation, then the barrage of Indigenous practices of disruptive counter-sovereignty that emerged with increased frequency in the 1980s was an embarrassing demonstration that Canada no longer had its shit together with respect to managing the so-called “Indian Problem.” On top of this, the material form that these expressions of Indigenous sovereignty took on the ground – the blockade, explicitly erected to impede constituted flows of racialized capital and state power from entering Indigenous territories – must have been particularly troubling to the settler-colonial elite. All of this activity was an indication that Indigenous people and communities were no longer willing to wait for Canada (or even their own leaders) to negotiate a just relationship with them in good faith. There was also growing concern that Indigenous youth in particular were no longer willing to play by Canada’s rules – especially regarding the potential use of political violence – when it came to advancing their communities’ rights and interests. As then National Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations, Georges Erasmus, warned in 1988: “Canada, if you do not deal with this generation of leaders, then we cannot promise that you are going to like the kind of violent political action that we can just about guarantee the next generation is going to bring to you.” Consider this “a warning”, Erasmus continued, “We want to let you know that you’re playing with fire. We may be the last generation of leaders that are prepared to sit down and peacefully negotiate our concerns with you.”[iii]

In the wake of having to engage in one of the largest military operations since the Korean War, the federal government announced on August 23, 1991 that a royal commission would be established with a sprawling 16-point mandate to investigate the abusive relationship that had clearly developed between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state. Published two years behind schedule in November 1996, the 58 million dollar, five-volume, approximately 4,000 page Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples includes 440 recommendations which call for a renewed relationship based on the core principles of “mutual recognition, mutual respect, sharing and mutual responsibility.” The material conditions that informed the decade of Indigenous protest that led to the resistance as Kanesatake created the political context that RCAP’s call for recognition and reconciliation was supposed to pacify – namely, the righteous anger and resentment of the colonized transformed into an insurgent reclamation of Indigenous difference that threatened to un-settle settler-colonialism’s sovereign claim over Indigenous people and our lands.

With respect to the emergent #IdleNoMore movement, although many of the conditions that compelled the state to undertake the most expensive public inquiry in Canadian history are still in place, a couple of important ones are not. The first condition that appears to be absent is the perceived threat of political violence that was present in the years leading to the resistance at Kanesatake. #IdleNoMore is an explicitly non-violent movement, which accounts for its relatively wide spectrum of both Native and non-Native support at the moment. However, if the life of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence continues to be recklessly put in jeopardy by a Prime Minister who negligently refuses to capitulate to her reasonable demands, it is my prediction that the spectre of political violence will re-emerge in Indigenous peoples’ collective conversations about what to do next. The responsibility for this rests solely on the state. The second condition that differentiates #IdleNoMore from the decade of Indigenous activism that lead to RCAP is the absence (so far) of widespread economic disruption unleashed by Indigenous direct action. If history has shown us anything, it is this: if you want those in power to respond swiftly to Indigenous peoples’ political efforts, start by placing Native bodies (with a few logs and tires thrown in for good measure) between settlers and their money, which in colonial contexts is generated by the ongoing theft and exploitation of our land and resource base. If this is true, then the long term efficacy of the #IdleNoMore movement would appear to hinge on its protest actions being distributed more evenly between the malls and front lawns of legislatures on the one hand, and the logging roads, thoroughfares, and railways that are central to the accumulation of colonial capital on the other. For better and for worse, it was our peoples’ challenge to these two pillars of colonial sovereignty that led to the recommendations of RCAP: the Canadian state’s claim to hold a legitimate monopoly on use of violence and the conditions required for the ongoing accumulation of capital.  In stating this, however, I don’t mean to offer an unqualified endorsement of these two challenges, but rather a diagnosis of our present situation based on an ongoing critical conversation about how these differences and similarities ought to inform our current struggle.

[i] On the lasting signifance and impact of the Mohawk resistance at Kanesatake, see Leanne Simpson and Kiera Ladner (Eds.), This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades (Winnepeg: Arbeiter Ring Press, 2012).

[ii] For a useful discussion of these and other examples of First Nations activism of the time, see Boyce Richardson (Ed.), Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country (Ottawa: Published by Summerhill Press and The Assembly of First Nations, 1989).

[iii] “Act or Face threat of violence, native leader wars Ottawa,” Toronto Star (June 1, 1988), A1.


Glen Coulthard is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and an assistant professor in the First Nations Studies Program and the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia, traditional and unceded territories of the Musqueam First Nation.

39 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2012 12:03 pm

    Reblogged this on the anthropo.scene and commented:
    A good backgrounder on the current Idle No More movement sweeping across Canada.

  2. John Melland permalink
    December 24, 2012 2:55 pm

    It’s a shame we have to resort to violence to achieve our objectives when governments claims to be superior when they cannot sit down and negotiate like humans and they call us savages.

  3. Vince Diaz permalink
    December 27, 2012 1:00 am

    My only quibble is with Dr. Coulthard’s use of the word, “shit,” to characterize what exactly it was that the Canadian state lost control over as the so-called “Indian Problem” began to boil over by the early 1990s. I’d have used a more academic descriptor, like “fucking shit.”

    • Glen Coulthard permalink
      December 27, 2012 7:33 pm

      You Pacific Islanders are so formal, and picky!

  4. Peter Fortna permalink
    December 27, 2012 1:35 pm

    Great article. Another point I think worth talking about is that the #IdleNoMore movement has been able to gather momentum through extensive use of social media and a lack of clearly defined individual leadership.. This, in turn, has enabled a broad segment of a diverse population with multiple and varied issues to coalesce and develop a nebulous social movement that will require a complete shift in traditional societal response where a single response i.e. RCAP will not appease. Instead a complete overhaul of societal norms will be the only successful outcome. This is why Mr. Harper and the rest of those on the right have chosen to ignore this movement to date. I think they realize it is more than a hunger strike, twitter hashtag and a series of round dances. They see the title wave of change coming and are still calculating the proper response. I think too they already realize they are too late and that the change is coming with or without them…

  5. Glenna Miles permalink
    December 28, 2012 12:56 pm

    This could be a dynamic shift if the Harper Gov’t was willing to participate. In which case they would look like the heroes. However, from my observation of the Harper Gov’t, this is unlikely to happen as they have the numbers and the money in their hands and FN concerns are not part of their ‘agenda’ for ‘jobs, growth and prosperity” unless they are planning to disband all FN’s and take over their resources. That sounds like a plan they would get behind so C-45 was hatched to do just that while pretending to care about FN rights and freedom to live like the rest of us. So they are intending to rob the FN’s of their real rights and freedoms of self determination to pay homage to resource extractors from wherever with a pretense that in the long run the FN’s will appreciate their freedom and we will all be rolling in $$$. Beyond insulting the intelligence of all of us who don’t believe a word they say anyway, this silence is meant to convince us they are still in control and there is nothing for us to worry about.

    Harper is a vengeful man in my view. I think his retaliation will be stealthy and viscious. He will try to make it look like he had no choice and his base will support him no matter what. I’m not thinking necessarily in a physical sense as an attack, as he has shown himself capable of using his office to wield a big stick, but perhaps a back door deal with lots of money,from ‘investors’, on the end of the stick. Idle No More is still talking about treaties, lands, earth health, people and human rights and dignity. The Harper Gov’t only talks $$$. That is a big gap to jump across in terms of mental understanding about what is important to whom. It’s a hard concept for people who love money and fame to wrap their heads around the idea that a lot of people just want a decent life, honest work, family and friends, liveable conditions, freedom of speech and movement and are prepared to put their lives on the line for these basic human rights.

    I believe FN’s is poised to make a huge shift if they are fearless in their peaceful protests,
    winning the hearts and minds of non-native Canadians, who are waking up to the facts of what real life as FN’s peoples is like. As Harper tries to institute more control over the rights and freedoms of the average Canadian citizen they may gain some small measure of understanding of the constraints FN’s peoples live with now.

    Chief Spence is doing all she can to shine a light on this abominable situation. Idle No More has given the FN’s of Canada a collective voice. It looks like a good thing to me. I don’t think the people will allow themselves to be confined to a box any more.

    I hope this ends well.

    • December 30, 2012 2:05 pm

      I don’t know a lot about Harper (I live in Florida) but from what I have read your analysis sounds very true and somewhat disturbing. I think the global nature of this could allow us to start talking $$$ as was done in opposing aparthied years ago. Divestment and boycotts worked there and they always seem to get colonizer attention-Israel just passed a law making such things illegal-tho how they propose to prosecute those of us in other sovereign nations is a bit unclear;-)

  6. December 30, 2012 2:25 am

    Reblogged this on pdxthoughts.

  7. December 30, 2012 11:39 am

    very important points and context. i find myself constantly at odds in conversations with people who believe they have all the answers to the questions the #Idle No More movement puts forth, without understanding the bigger picture. i find myself constantly recommending andrea smith or thomas king books, but i’ve been looking for a shorter link for more online folks. this is a great article.

  8. December 30, 2012 2:08 pm

    Reblogged this on 2012 Spirit In Action and commented:
    This is a great intro to the background of #IdleNoMore, and I would very much suggest checking out the rest of this informative blog as well.

  9. January 7, 2013 9:39 pm

    Reblogged this on syndax vuzz.

  10. Miss Molly permalink
    January 10, 2013 2:13 am

    Reblogged this on Life as I know it… and commented:
    A good post regarding the background on the current Idle No More movement sweeping across Canada and other parts of the world.

  11. Karyn permalink
    January 14, 2013 12:07 am

    Great article, Glen. I’m really lucky to have taken a course with you at UBC.


  1. Indigenous Resistance in Canada
  2. #IdleNoMore in Historical Context | Warrior Publications
  3. #IdleNoMore in Historical Context « Onkwehón:we Rising
  4. Indigenous issues & a post-growth world – some links | Degrowth Decroissance Canada
  5. Idle No More – Links
  6. #IdleNoMore in Historical Context
  7. #IdleNoMore in Historical Context « Decolonization | robot son link blog
  8. Placing #IdleNoMore in Historical Context | flexosaurus
  9. #IdleNoMore in Historical Context
  10. Indigenous Resistance in Canada | Wrong Kind of Green | the NGOs & conservation groups that are bargaining away our future
  11. Placing #IdleNoMore in Historical Context | Social Policy in Ontario - Your complete resource for everything relating to social policy in ontario
  12. #Idle No More « Women Suffrage and Beyond
  13. Episode 21 – Screw Being Idle! Take Back the Land #IdleNoMore « progressivepodcastaustralia
  14. The Sustainability of Indigenous Resistance « Decolonization
  15. IDLE NO MORE MOVEMENT: Resources from Garçonnière | MIXED BAG MAG
  16. Idle No More: A Round-up of Blogs, Media, and Other Required Reading | AHORA
  17. Indigenous Settler? Decolonization and the Politics of Exile
  18. Indigenous Settler? Decolonization and the Politics of Exile | Earth First! Newswire
  19. Building connections across decolonization struggles | ROAR Magazine
  20. Building connections across decolonization struggles
  21. Building connections across decolonization struggles « WORDVIRUS
  22. Between freedom and oppression: building connections across decolonization struggles | CULTURITE
  23. Between freedom and oppression: connections across decolonization struggles | CULTURITE
  24. uilding connections across decolonization struggles | Unsettling America
  25. Building connections across decolonization struggles | Unsettling America
  26. Building connectionz across decolonization strugglez | Moorbey'z Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: