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#IdleNoMore: Settler Responsibility for Relationship

December 27, 2012
Melaw Nahkeh’ko and Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox at the IdleNoMore drum dance in Yellowknife. Photo: Amos Scott.

Melaw Nahkeh’ko and Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox at the IdleNoMore drum dance in Yellowknife. Photo: Amos Scott.

by Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox

Being at the Idle No More drum dance in Yellowknife this past week was moving in many ways. It was led, in part, by strong young Indigenous women who have moved in their own decolonization journeys from frustrated anger to empowered loving action. In the cold afternoon air, the sun shone bright as more than a dozen drummers spoke loud and clear with a unified beat. Dancing to the drum in the middle of the city brought a hush over the dancers: the land was fed by the closeness and spirit of the people, receiving the offering and affirmation made by the drummers and the circle. The drum dance transcended the political context, revealing a spiritual bond that lives and breathes through Dene being indivisible from the land.

Many settler allies support Idle No More on the grounds of moral responsibility, or self interest. These are legitimate bases from which to act. But the calls from Idle No More organizers where I live are ones that are premised on recognizing and acting on relationship: calls that say “we need everybody.”

Relationship: it’s a constructive approach to harnessing settler support for achieving this movement’s goals. Everyone is needed. Its effectiveness rests on requests for specific settler actions to be taken in the context of recognizing and creating relationships. Relationship is fundamental to meaningful co-existence, and an antecedent to motivating change within settler society over the long term.

Co-existence through co-resistance is the responsibility of settlers, and we achieve it in part by making change in our own systems and among other settlers, taking our cue from Indigenous action and direction. For settler allies, having a place to land relationally creates a stronger rationale for unsettling established systems: knowing and being with Indigenous peoples, even if it is just to be welcomed to stand alongside at marches and rallies, or to join the drum dance circle, creates a tangible bond. Relationship creates accountability and responsibility for sustained supportive action. This does not mean requiring Indigenous energies for creating relationship with settlers; it means settlers taking initiative to live on a personal level what they claim on a political one.

What Idle No More highlights in part is not simply neglect and actions of the Harper government. What it highlights is that Harper’s extreme legislation is only possible because successive generations of settler Canadians have normalized looking to government rather than themselves to resolve “the Indian problem.” Canadians don’t tend to get riled when Canada gets it right (such as impetus toward such initiatives as a residential school apology, the Kelowna Accord); nor do they get riled when the appalling undoing of decades of slow progress on Indigenous issues occurs, as has been accomplished by the Harper government over the past few years. For the most part, settlers simply have no clue, are not engaged in relationship with Indigenous peoples, and assume that the government is following the rule of law and doing right by Indigenous peoples.

I am somewhat skeptical about the willingness of settlers to support a movement in a sustained way on the basis of either moral responsibility or self-interest. I have found that even the most supportive settlers have a privilege line they refuse to cross. It is the existence of that line and the refusal to cross it, which requires long-term effort. Erasing that line is predicated on personal transformation. In the short term some settlers may show support as a way to leverage Indigenous unrest to achieve their own social or environmental agendas. But over the long term, settlers must engage in personal transformation to entrench meaningful decolonization. Idle No More may assist in moving such settlers past merely supporting their own interests toward the more difficult task of supporting interests of decolonized justice.

I am convinced that such a shift needs to start early: it has been said that it is easier to build strong children than repair broken men. As the mother of two boys I am convinced that they are the key to settler change: they and all the other settler children in Canada who will in future people Canadian institutions and society. A critical settler responsibility is consciously educating our kids away from the constant barrage of social, educational, and structural influences that reinforce an omniscient patriarchal heterosexual white male birthright. This task is crucial because children are open; their “normal” is created by us as parents. What this means is parenting in a consciously decolonizing way. So far some basic rules for me include supporting my boys’ developing relationships with people and places that are decolonizing; fostering their respectful spiritual and physical relationship with the land; and, supporting them in developing critical thinking faculties necessary for an ethics of compassionate discernment. In this task, a movement such as Idle No More is a lifeline.

Idle No More has the potential to motivate societal change in so many ways. It is an opportunity to shift awareness among settlers and so shift the context on which settler privilege is premised. Over the long term it has the potential to contribute to changing how and what settler children learn about Indigenous peoples, and the history and current Indigenous-state relationship. It will stand as part of a longer record of documented injustices and Indigenous responses, opening young minds to understanding the complexity of injustice in which settlers live and prosper. A gift that it stands to impart to settler society is one of both awareness and self-awareness, sustaining a basis for a fundamental shift toward decolonizing settler consciousness, creating a tool for fashioning a shared future of all of our children in the shape of justice.


Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, PhD, is the author of Finding Dahshaa: Self Government, Social Suffering and Aboriginal Policy in Canada. She works as an advisor for Indigenous organizations in the Northwest Territories. She lives in Yellowknife with her husband and two young sons.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2012 2:15 pm

    I’m with you but I don’t think referring to us as settlers is the best way to attract people. I am a Canadian – 12 generation. I am aware enough of the seriousness of the cause not be be alienated by the “settler” rhetoric but it could push those who are less informed into the fascist Harper camp. Also, it is important to emphasize that the Harper govt methods of not talking or listening to anyone, including provincial premiers, scientists or experts in various fields before making laws impacts us all. When people see that they are being treated the same way as FNs they will be more open to your position. Also, Bill C-45 impacts us all. Not only does it infringe on treaty rights enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1982 it repealed 100 years of environmental law including the Navigable Waters Act, the Wages and Hours of Work act and raised the age to receive pension benefits to 67. It was pushed through breaking all the traditions of respect for Parliament and without even on of 1000s of opposition amendments being accepted, not even a coma.

  2. December 28, 2012 11:36 pm

    I am 6th generation and I recognize and understand the gravity of the statement. I am a settler. My ancestors were settlers. I would not be here on this soil if it were not for the emigration of my (desperately poor) Slavic ancestors. They were desperately poor, and being Slavic, were not considered to be “White” by the WASPs who had previously settled in the prairies. But. They were still settlers. And they were still taking something that was perhaps not theirs to take.

  3. Matt Brill permalink
    March 17, 2013 10:01 am

    Language is a very powerful symbol of thought, and changing how we speak about things can change the way people internalize and think about things.

    While the term “settler” may seem offensive or divisive to some, I think that it calls attention to the truth of the colonial relationship and this is more beneficial than the potential harm of turning people off. I think we do a disservice to everyone – Indigenous people and settlers alike – when we avoid or sugar coat the truth in order to score PR points.

    PS. As a settler-ally, I recognize that “Settler” is literally “one who has settled”, which is a very charitable and generous term for those who could easily and truthfully be called “squatter” or perhaps “genocidal beneficiary”.

    • robbear13 permalink
      June 16, 2013 2:19 pm

      This has just come to me, in June. I find it fascinating, and thought-provoking.

      The more offensive part for me, Matt, is the FN message that “All settlers are evil people.” That makes as much sense as saying, “All Indians are drunken bums.” I am encouraged by the tone of this blog post because of its understand in that “we are all in this together,” whether FN or settler. (I don’t mind the use of “settler”; that’s precisely what my forbearers were.) So I need a clearer understanding of FN perspectives on the things we all see. That’s my learning curve. I’m always happy when my FN sisters and brothers can explain things to me, because I believe the better I understand, the more effective an ally I can become.

      Blessings and Bear hugs!

  4. Chris permalink
    June 3, 2013 6:35 pm

    Whether I’m an occupier or settler or colonial or white I’m still privileged because am such.


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