Settler to settler: #IdleNoMore advice

There is an overwhelming and near-undeniable temptation when presented with a social justice movement to see in it an opportunity for you to mobilize the energy and commitment of its members to accomplish one of your own goals. I remember for example, seeing a lot of passionate people during Occupy Vancouver insisting that what we should do is take all of our anger at the current political/economic system and channel it toward stopping pornography, or finding out what ‘really’ happened on September 11th, 2001*.

Now it is very much an open debate whether or not Occupy was a social justice movement per se, or whether its aims were too diffuse to qualify, or whether by largely ignoring the racial components of the system it complained about, it abrogated its claim to social ‘justice’. That’s not the substance of my argument here. What I will note, just in passing, is that Occupy Vancouver was well-attended by social justice groups, including (obviously, if you know the activism scene in Vancouver) a number of Indigenous organizations.

Which brings us around to what I do want to talk about, which is the role that settlers play in the #IdleNoMore movement; or, more specifically, roles that I want to see them (us) stop playing. First, just to establish some terminology, ‘settler’ refers to non-Indigenous inhabitants of North America (or Turtle Island), and speaks specifically to the fact that while we may live here, we are not the original inhabitants of this land. More information can be found here if you find this term troubling.

There are two general patterns of behaviour that I want to comment on, because of how often I see them and how deeply they annoy me.

1) #IdleNoMore is not the answer to your partisan prayers

There is a Twitter account that I follow called “Emperor Stephen Harper” who, predictably from the name, is a staunch critic of our Prime Minister. His feed is a reliable source for impassioned attack of the Republican North agenda, and of Stephen Harper in particular. In the last couple of weeks, however, this account has had a startling tendency to simply append the #IdleNoMore Twitter hashtag to every criticism of Stephen Harper, as though vilification of the Prime Minister, justified though it may be, was the sine qua non of the movement.

I don’t wish to pick on this one Twitter account, because it’s a pervasive problem. No less than Liberal Indian Affairs critic Carolyn Bennett, a person for whom I have deep admiration and respect, has nonetheless torn into the partisan angle of the movement with enthusiastic abandon. It was with deep chagrin that I saw Liberal leadership candidate Joyce Murray fall victim to the same temptation on national TV, no less.

Nobody who reads this blog could possibly mistake me for a fan of Stephen Harper. I have not been shy about sharing my beliefs about him as a Prime Minister and as a human being. That being said, I am not so blinded by my dislike for the Republican North Party that I am incapable of seeing that this movement is not about a specific bill, or policy, or Prime Minister, or government, any more than (for example) the African American Civil Rights Movement was about a specific bill or issue or candidate.

#IdleNoMore is a reflection of a multi-generational system of genocide and violated trust. It is about a colonizing force that doesn’t have the temerity to declare a formal eliminationist policy against Indigenous people, but nonetheless takes steps to destroy them. It is about re-aligning our country to recognize that Canada was built on land it traded for, and then failed to make good on its part of the bargain. It’s about realizing there’s a fundamental problem with the way we see ourselves, and the way we don’t see Native peoples.

If you’re reading your own partisan agenda into #IdleNoMore, then you’re part of the problem it seeks to critique.

2) #IdleNoMore does not need your advice

The other night I came across a ‘perplexed’** Canadian guy who was objecting to someone telling him to ‘go back to Europe’. The point the Canadian guy was trying to make is that it’s not a good idea to treat potential allies in such a hostile fashion, because you catch more flies with honey or whatever piece of trite ‘advice’ he had for the movement. Of course anyone who pays any attention at all to the roiling conflict currently going on within the atheist/secular movement over gender and other minority diversity will find this kind of “helpful feedback” pathetically cliche, but not everyone pays attention to this community’s infighting, so I suppose it’s forgivable.

Most of what I would say is said, incredibly clearly and skillfully I might add, by Tobold Rollo (who also helpfully provides a lot of historical context that I think is crucially important – I strongly suggest reading the whole piece):

The one thing these movements agree on, however, is that our responsibility as members of the dominant society is to listen and learn, and that if we insist on offering prescriptions, to advance these within the privileged circles to which we belong. To be an ally means applying your acumen and expertise appropriately, to your own house, while others put their bodies on the line.

I will add that if you think that members of a minority group is somehow bereft of the brilliance of your insight to ‘be nice’, then you seriously underestimate the intelligence and basic awareness of that group. It might not be that they are in need of your oh-so-critical input, person who’s been paying attention to the issue for a few days now. It might just be that they’re fully aware that using strong language might seem ‘divisive’, but that you fucking deserved it. Or that they don’t need to spend their finite time and energy holding the hands of every settler who feels entitled to both. Or that a statement like that might be specifically aimed at forcing you to examine the status of your relationship with this land and its people. Or a thousand other reasons.

Indigenous people have been dealing with this issue for generations. Assume they know more about it than you do.

The overall message that I have for fellow well-intentioned settlers is the message that I have for all majority members that wish to participate in minority movements: do more listening than talking. It’s much harder than co-opting movements, especially since it often requires you to evaluate the way in which you are part of the problem being protested against, but if you believe in the goals of the movement, it’s the role that you (we) are called to play.

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*Jay-Z dropped ‘The Blueprint’ and changed the face of rap music forever… or did he?

**I put that in quotes because I don’t believe that people who ask these kinds of questions are actually confused. Nobody is that ignorant and that lacking in basic self-awareness.


  1. Riptide says

    I find the term “settler” as presented here a bit problematic; it seems to mirror the idea that the Native Americans were more peaceful with one another and more harmonious with nature than they probably were. I acknowledge wholeheartedly that the Native American genocide was one of the worst collection of events in human history, and one of its consequences was wiping out almost all Native American history, so what follows is a bit speculative.

    But I doubt that almost anyone today who considers themselves First Nations is directly descended from the original inhabitants of their communities. Nearly every inhabitable square foot of land on the planet has had someone’s blood spilled upon it, either in defence or in acquisition. Warfare and empire were just as well-known in the Americas before Columbus as they were in Europe, and Native American societies were just as culturally sophisticated and ecologically disruptive, as well.

    Which is not to argue that the most recent American colonisers have no obligation to the previous ones, or that the #IdleNoMore movement should stop (or even slow down). I just wish we could discard the implicit idea that Native Americans peacefully migrated and lived in perfect harmony with one another and their environment until the monolithic White Devils arrived and fucked things up forever.

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