Every few years, Canadian complacency is punctured by potent wake-up calls about unresolved indigenous rights issues, from the tense standoff over expansion of a Quebec golf course on traditional burial grounds at Oka to the long-simmering land dispute at Caledonia, Ontario. Ken Coates, a prolific author and public-policy research chair at the University of Saskatchewan, offers a personal reflection on the latest reminder of Canada’s troubled colonial legacy, Idle No More.
A long-time consultant on First Nations issues, Coates documents the movement’s trajectory from its humble 2012 beginnings as a campaign (initiated by a group of women) to protest the benign-sounding Navigable Waters Protection Act to a national and global phenomenon. Coates reminds readers that Idle No More represents a unique, peaceful, historical moment: a self-affirmation and celebratory cultural experience composed of equal parts tradition, resistance, politics, and centuries-long grievances. The indigenous voices to which he devotes ample space – drawn from Facebook posts, tweets, and transcriptions of YouTube videos – are stirring reminders of the hope and transformational dreams that still thrive despite centuries of colonial repression.
Writing history on the run can, however, be a tricky and sometimes sloppy experience, and while Coates’s heart is certainly onside – proceeds of the book will go to a First Nations scholarship fund – the book sometimes feels like a magazine article that’s been padded out, resulting in unnecessary repetition and careless conclusions. It is unclear how Coates can declare that “[n]ot all students at residential schools suffered mistreatment and abuse” when that very system was rooted in kidnapping and forced assimilation into European culture. His effort to situate Idle No More as unprecedented also downplays or ignores other historic aboriginal uprisings, from the legendary Innu struggle to stop a NATO base at Goose Bay to the national campaign to protect old-growth forests at Haida Gwaii, among many others.
While Coates makes the case that Idle No More had a profound effect on indigenous communities and shook up the Assembly of First Nations leadership, his book fails to live up to the second part of its title. The author is hopeful that the positive and accessible approach favoured by Idle No More participants will beneficially affect the Canadian landscape, but he is unable to show a direct connection between the movement and progressive policy changes that could address the hundreds of boil water alerts on remote reserves, the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women, inadequate educational funding, and the government’s ongoing view of native rights activists as national security threats.