Indigenous Sovereignty and Human Rights: Idle No More as a Decolonizing Force
by Kirstin Scansen
Last week I was compelled into a leadership role with the Prince Albert Idle No More rally. Prince Albert is a growing city in central Saskatchewan, with a population of about 35,000. The traditional Nehithaw place name is kistahpinanihk, which means “meeting place”. Prince Albert has a high Indigenous population and is surrounded by key sites in the history of Treaty 6. It would be ideal to say that Indigenous-Settler relations here have been harmonious, a peaceful meeting place of sorts, but the presence of colonialism is heavy. Surrounded by medium and maximum security prisons, housed disproportionately with Indigenous inmates, oppression can be felt strongly. Racism and racialised violence are pervasive. But there is also a strong regional history of Indigenous resurgence and resistance to colonialism; key sites of the Riel Rebellion are within a 30 minute drive from city limits, and Indigenous languages, ceremonies, and land-based teachings thrive despite centuries of genocidal policies.
In solidarity with the wider movement, myself and a small group of committed people organized a teach-in, march and round dance in Prince Albert’s downtown core for December 21. I phoned city planners out of respect to advise them of our routes and to possibly have some cooperation with local police officials. I was told by a city employee that the route requested would probably be denied. I thought nothing of this possibility until the mayor phoned me on my cell phone and left me a message. He stated that he would “not allow” the route down busy streets, and that our rally could not be “permitted”.
To be sure, I did not call for their permission. Asserting Indigenous sovereignty does not require permission. Protecting treaty rights and fundamental human rights does not require permission. However, the reality of my communication with the mayor begged the question: was he implying that force would be used upon my people to prevent the protest? Since we were not breaking laws, what basis did he have to assert jurisdiction over our rights to freedom of assembly and free speech? Should Idle No More Prince Albert back down from asserting Indigenous sovereignty and use the dusty backroads suggested by the mayor? Upon consulting with Idle No More Prince Albert, the answer to this last question was an overwhelming “NO!”
One cannot fully comprehend the true nature of the colonial relationship until being forced to ask yourself whether or not 500 people are being led into a potentially violent confrontation with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. One cannot fully comprehend the true nature of colonialism until the right to life, liberty, and security of 500 people, including children, youth, and Elders, is at risk.
Regardless of the unwelcoming political climate, the rally went ahead as planned. Idle No More Prince Albert was very much a success. Nobody was hurt and nobody was arrested, although there were a handful of irate drivers. In Prince Albert, we fought for our right to fight for our rights, and we won. The sound of drumming had not rang so freely in the city for hundreds of years. The spirit of Idle No More makes it possible to decolonize times and places, and to live out the freedom that guided the lives of our ancestors. For Prince Albert, the movement has meant a reconfiguration of Indigenous and Settler relationships; we asserted Indigenous sovereignty by re-establishing the justness of our presence in the city.
Idle No More presents a challenge to the old colonial order that forms the basis of Canadian society. This movement has been about challenging oppression in very real and very meaningful ways. It has meant questioning the legitimacy and authority of colonial laws by pushing the limits of these laws. Idle No More means not only speaking of Indigenous sovereignty, but living out our inherent sovereignty as nations. This is especially important in the case of Omnibus Bill C-45, where our fundamental human rights to clean water, lands and foods are at risk. Essentially, Harper and the Conservative government of Canada are legislating the extinguishment of our Indigenous nationhood. Our response has been two-fold: to re-situate ourselves as nations, and to rejuvenate the commitment of our people and Settler society to the Treaty relationship.
At first I was skeptical about the Idle No More movement. I didn’t want to lead my people to the government and beg for rights and responsibilities that the Creator gave to us. But I became involved with Idle No More because I could feel the energy of the youth rising and I did not want this energy to go to waste. I wanted to show them that the energy which we as peoples often internalize in negative ways is better directed to challenging the colonial framework that operates in all our lives. As the movement grows, the challenge of Idle No More is to continue moving beyond rhetoric and towards a fundamental reconfiguration of the colonial structure of Canada. Above and beyond, it must always be more than an emotionally frothy appeal to the Canadian government for justice and morality. We must be strategic, yet we must also act on the nation-to-nation spirit and intent of Treaty. The message of love, peace, and non-violent protest is essential to the movement. With this spirit at the forefront, we must seek to educate Settler populations and heal our Indigenous nations from the processes of genocide which we have experienced. Idle No More means re-establishing ourselves as sovereign nations, and empowering Settler people to fulfill their responsibilities as partners in sacred relationships of Treaty.
It is my belief that through all we have suffered as peoples, the ancestors kept the spirits in our hearts on embers until the time came to rise again. That time is now, and Idle No More ignites the fires in the souls of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.
Kirstin Scansen is a Nehithaw woman, from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Treaty 6 territory, Saskatchewan. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, with a minor in Political Science, and is currently an MA candidate in Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria.