01.28.2013 08:58 PM

In Tuesday’s Sun: is Idle No More no more?

Is Idle No More no more?

It certainly looks that way. Despite Monday’s “day of action,” the grassroots First Nations campaign appears to be concluding with a whimper, not a bang. Polls suggest that, for many Canadians, Idle No More is far less important than it once was.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence ended her hunger strike, narrowly avoiding being removed from her post from her own band’s council. Meanwhile, the intense media focus — along with the public’s interest — has waned. Not as much is being said or written about Idle No More anymore.

Just a few weeks ago, discussion and debate about Idle No More was everywhere. The grassroots First Nations campaign had captured everyone’s attention.

In public relations terms, its achievements were extraordinary. With an unlimited budget, and some clever PR, it isn’t so difficult to attract attention. Anyone can do that (ask the Kardashians or Paris Hilton).

What is remarkable instead is the campaign reached millions of people organically — with no money, no strategic plan and no Madison Ave. ad agency to dream up catchy tag lines. Idle No More did that.

In 2011, the Occupy movement was like that, too. It had no budget, no leadership and no one to offer up sound bites to an impatient news media. Despite that, Occupy caused a sensation around the globe, drawing the support of millions upon millions. And then it disappeared as quickly as it came.

It’s not an entirely recent phenomenon. Throughout history, there have been other examples of people or ideas that have captivated the world without the use of force or treasure.

Christianity, for example, had undeniably inauspicious beginnings. An itinerant rabbi and a few poverty-stricken supporters walking the countryside, preaching a peaceful philosophy that would sweep the planet. No budget, no public relations team, no nothing. Just an idea.

Where did Chief Spence and Idle No More get off track? How did a movement that showed such promise lose so much momentum? Three reasons.

One, if you have a compelling message — and Idle No More inarguably did — stick to it. Have one “ask,” not 100. Idle No More lost the public because, after a while, no one could figure what it was about anymore.

Two, have a single spokesman saying one thing — not a disputatious chorus, all clamouring for time before the TV cameras and thereby creating communications chaos. At the start, Chief Spence was the face of the movement. Eventually, every other First Nations leader seemed to be trying to get in on the action, creating confusion about who led Idle No More, and what it hoped to achieve.

Thirdly and finally, don’t alienate the folks holding the microphones and notepads. The moment Chief Spence and her allies started to physically bar — or eject — reporters asking unwelcome questions, they were doomed. At the start, their main allies were the media. When Chief Spence lost them, she lost the larger war.

Idle No More could have secured positive change — and may still. A few short weeks after it began, however, it has been hurt by too many messages, too many spokesmen and a grave miscalculation about the media.

For First Nations willing to pay heed, Idle No More offers lessons about how to do things.

And how not to do them, too.


  1. smelter rat says:

    800 people at a round dance at the Manitoba legislature tonight. They ain’t going away anytime soon.

    • Warren says:

      That’s not my point.

      • smelter rat says:

        I know, but the spark has been set, and in my opinion, this movement will move on, not away. Did i mention that Buffy was there? All the way from Hawaii.

        • dave says:

          A few days ago caught o RT tv a piece, about 7-8 minutes long, on INM in Hawaii. They looked to be a small group, but very intense.
          Maybe St Marie was involved there somehow.

          Interesting, tho, the inernational dimension, suggesting this is more than just Canada treaty and land claims.

          • dave says:

            You all know I meant ‘international, ” don’t you?

            (Man, I hate to mispell stuff on a Central Canada Comment board.)

  2. Steve T says:

    Excellent article – a number of good points. In my view, Chief Spence was never the right spokesperson for the movement. She just happened to be first. Despite the Machiavellian timing of the auditor’s report on Attawapiskat, the core findings still were a damning statement about Chief Spence’s own backyard. Her ridiculous antics with the media only made it worse. Having her as the face of INM simply re-enforced the stereotypes that many Canadians have about aboriginals.

    It would have been better to have someone well-spoken, from a well-run reserve (of which there are many), to stand up publically and say something like “There are fundamental problems with the current federal-First Nations relationship. Even under good governance, Aboriginals cannot get ahead. Land claims are stagnating in our court system, and nothing is being done about it.” etc.. etc…

    What we got instead was an unsympathetic figurehead (Spence) and, as you mentioned, too many people singing too many different tunes.

    • smelter rat says:

      I understand the points you make, and to a degree I agree with them. However, many non aboriginals have been looking at the INM protests through a non aboriginal lens. Most 1st Nations spokespersons aren’t playing the game in the way that most of us expect them to, and i don’t think that’s a bad thing. We non aboriginals can piss and moan all day about that, but the emerging leaders of this movement could care less. They believe (and rightly so) that they have the Constitution and the treaties on their side. The naysayers are just so much noise to them.

  3. kit says:

    How bout this for a point………


    Maybe someone will come front and centre.

  4. Mike Jonson says:

    dare I say,

    Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and was tempted by the Devil, and went on to be crucified.

    Spence was on a fish/moose broth broth regime that probably added ten years to her life by moving her out of the obese category. In the end, her ideas, methods were unsound.

    Basically, it’s always about the real deal vs poseurs.

    About 50% of the cigarettes smoked in Canada are black market – maybe before you tax the working poor more heavily to fund more graft, start tapping into that capital pool. From a public relations angle, Idle No More has about as much reality as the infamous Torches of Freedom campaign.

  5. frmr disgruntled Con now Happy Lib says:

    I witnessed an “Idle no more” protest on the main street of my hometown yesterday….at least one hundred protesters, marching solemnly, banging drums, and chanting First Nations songs……It was an impressive sight……and while I was pleased to see it, (I support their grievances fully, having seen third world conditions on many reserves first-hand) I also thought at the time… “Their moment has passed”….

    It was also interesting to note that today a member of a First Nations band near Whistler was in the shop….I asked if he was a participant in the “Idle no more” movement…He mentioned his band was not, as they were currently in serious discussions with business leaders about bringing employment opportunities to their band…..

  6. Tiger says:

    In the sense that FN issues were moved up the list of issues for the government of the day, Idle No More succeeded.

    In the sense of doing serious damage to the government of the day, Idle No More failed.

    So, I guess it succeeded on the worthy part of its agenda and failed on the not-so-worthy part.

    Oh, and kicking out the press, even if it’s a hostile press, is a bad idea.

    • Pauline says:

      Agree that the FN made the hard hearted Feds pretty uncomfortable for a while anyway, and that was the point, bringing their issues to the forefront. Unfortunately, the media kept pushing them off the front page.

  7. Ed Frink says:

    Theresa Spence is truly an inspiration. Se was viciously attacked by the media who was in Harper’s back pocket from the get go. No one could survive such character assassination, but Chief Spence did.

    More money needs to be sent to First Nations, a lot more. And this can be done as soon as the reactionary and insensitive Conservatives are voted out. And when that happens, the First Nations and Attawapiskat will finally get the money that they need for housing.

  8. Peter says:

    I like your analogy to the Occupy movement. When it began, it didn’t surprise me at all that many on the left were sympathetic initially, but I couldn’t believe the number who kept repeating the mantra that it was the start of something transformative and reflected a groundswell of popular resistence in the face of inane, know-nothing statements by it’s spokespeople, ridiculous shotgun speeches by everyone with a beef, embarassing chanting and repeating, and ultimately a lightening rod for the dysfunctional. The glorious revolution became a public nuisance in a matter of weeks. If I were a secret agent within the aboriginal movement trying to discredit and divide it, I couldn’t have done better than to put Chief Spence front and centre. When Martin pronounced her an inspiration for all Canadians, I knew I would never pay the slightest attention to anything the man ever said again.

    Whether its Harper Derangement Syndrome or the timeless propensity of the left to only see the negative in society, a lot of progressives have become so adverse to self-criticism and so willing to sign on uncritically to protests by the barely coherent over whatever is on the menu today that they risk many more years in the political wilderness, not so much because the public disagrees with them on this or that, but because it can’t take them seriously as a force with any critical judgement.

  9. ray says:

    Occupy? Idle no more? Feathers on the scale. Stay tuned.

      • ray says:

        I know I am sometimes cryptic. I meant I sense something in the air. That more movements are coming that we can’t even predict yet. Sort of like the day before the Berlin wall came down. Who knew. 🙂

        • smelter rat says:

          I have a similar sense. INM may fade away for a time, but these movements don’t go away forever, people have strong feelings about many of the issues INM has raised. They will resurface, perhaps in another form. What has shocked me is the intense racism that INM has generated, if one goes by the more popular comment boards anyway.

          • ray says:

            The pure hatred, racism and bigotry has astonished me as well. In his wonderful book “Mistakes were made but not by me” by Eliot Aronson, a lot of this behaviour is cognitive dissonance. It’s difficult for a lot of people to handle the simple fact that we stole their land. Pure and simple.

  10. Mike Adamson says:

    I think that the INM organisers realise it is a marathon and not a sprint. There’s no doubt that Chief Spence’s fast boosted the relevance of INM in the eyes of the media and others and now,with the Chief’s statement made, it’s back to the difficult slog of attracting attention and support. Nobody said it would be easy.

  11. dave says:

    I thought INM had, as an intial impetus, squalid conditions on many reservations and break down in urban communities; but it had the omnibus bills and their over all effects on all of us to build on.
    In my city, the INM demos were small, but energetic. However, they all were Aboriginal citizens. The rest of us just watched. Local comment brought out all the “they just want handouts, the shiftless, immoral,…and such” people.
    If INM is fading, a contributor has been the success of politicians and media talking heads to portray INM issues as Aboriginal only; they have effectively made this a race divide thing. We allowed reporters and politicians to convince us it was just another “Well, what exactly do ‘they’ want now?” event.
    And, as I mentioned, the rest of us just watched, maybe with empathy and agreement, but mainly just watched. Too easy to let Aboriginals carry the can for all of us!

    We have a great chance on the effects those omnibus bills will have on all of us, and we are letting it slip.

  12. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    My impression is that First Nations know instinctively that the time is now to make their mark for their respective peoples. I expect much more to come.

  13. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    To address your three points:

    1. I take your point but how do you reduce it to one “ask”? I can see INM drilling it down to perhaps three but that would take a lot of work given the multitude of issues that need to be addressed.

    2. Now, this is a tricky one — I don’t think there is much love between the various self-appointed spokespersons for INM and the AFN and its leadership. If you want to concentrate the federal mind, you need one spokesperson as you’ve said and in the world of real politik, that has to be National Chief Atleo. But how do you make that happen? This Prime Minister says he’s waiting for at least a common spokesperson on behalf of First Nations. That seems sincere but how do we find a process to accommodate his wish?

    3. Respectfully, well yes and no. Piss off the media and the ink starts to dry up. No doubt about it. But there comes a time when a national issue reaches a point where the media’s collective inclinations become irrelevant. At that point, it becomes comparable to, as a for instance, any Harper, Mulroney or Pierre Trudeau press conference or photo opp. Somehow, their sworn blood enemies always manage to eventually show up.

  14. My first understanding of INM was that they were grassroots protesting against their governing Chiefs, and how the money and resources were doled out to the Chiefs and Band members families and friends.

  15. Darren says:

    I’m not a fan of the comparisons between Occupy and INM. To me, Occupy was a collection of entitlement-obsessed college kids who didn’t understand that when they demonized the 1% that included people like doctors and some academics. (In Canada, if you make more than $200G/year, you’re in the 1%). They opposed globalization while recording rallies on iPhones and wearing Levis while holding signs made from stuff they bought at WalMart.
    INM, in my viewpoint, had some real valid issues that were drowned out by the circus and the power struggle.
    I might add a fourth suggestion – frame your issues in a way that the people you’re trying to get on your side can understand. “We just want what we were promised”, “We want a future for our children and want them to have the opportunity to feel proud of who they are as people, regardless of culture.” Poll after poll showed that the majority of Canadians agreed that something needs to be done, the differences were how to achieve change. The fact that most people feel something had to be done was a vastly underused resource. Instead of blocking traffic, maybe slow traffic so that you can hand out coffee and a brochure explaining their side. Maybe that’s simplistic but, to me, the first step would be to inform Canadians that the issue is more complex and deep than they think
    The point at which they realize they didn’t understand it as well as they thought they did is the point at which they understand it a whole lot better than they did before.

  16. Bobulous says:

    I hate to break it to you all but Idle No More doesn’t rank high on anyone’s list, mine included. Theresa Spence’s childish stunt was a complete embarrassment to the movement and made it nothing but a joke in most Canadians eyes. Its too bad that any legitimate issues were overshadowed by the mismanaged funds, illegal blockades, threatening language and the shameful phoney hunger strike. Next time come to the table in a thoughtful and mature way and maybe Canadians will take notice and support what is being said.

  17. Beth Higginson says:

    I agree with Susan Delacourt: “It’s about time that some folks got the memo that government isn’t high school. Belittling citizens, absolute disgrace.”http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/01/30/conservative_mp_and_senator_belittle_chief_theresa_spence_idle_no_more_movement.html

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