Lessons learned from the Idle No More movement

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January 10, 2013

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VANCOUVER, BC, Jan. 10, 2013/ Troy Media/ – As someone who has worked closely with First Nations, Metis and Inuit for over 40 years, it is dispiriting to see the current media and public reaction to chief Theresa Spence’s fast and the Idle No More movement.

Once again we are headed down the predictable road of dreadful audit results, broad misspending allegations, and economic determinism of all things worth doing. Absolutely, I have worked with aboriginal groups who misspent money, favoured one clan over another, and pursued ridiculous economic development projects over fearful cliffs; but I’ve also worked with communities, political and economic development organizations that fared well and better. So lesson number one is: let’s all stop generalizing from some instances to all aboriginal people.

Lesson number two: let’s try and bring some historic perspective to the issues at hand. The patronizing, colonizing and paternalizing actions of the various levels of government, corporations and religious organizations since contact have created predictable outcomes. They are not unique to Canada. For five summers I worked in western Siberia with the Russian Sami, and they have faced the same crap, with the same results. Their response: ‘Look, we have lived through the 70 bad years of Communism; at least give us 70 years to recover what we lost.’

Lesson number three: let’s try and view the current state of affairs through what I think of as ‘Scottish intellectual eyes.’ The first Scots who emigrated to Canada were products of an interdisciplinary educational heritage. They utilized an interdisciplinary perspective in pioneering the fur trade that enabled them to paddle their own canoes, learn Cree, marry into aboriginal society, initiate trade routes, and keep the books of account. They also mastered dealing with their English and French bosses and grand seigneurs who barely made it out of Toronto and Montreal for vacations, let alone work.

A Scot would never critique an entire society from only an economic perspective. Nor should we today. Instead we should ask why so many remote and isolated aboriginal communities are surrounded by remote and isolated mines, well sites, power generation systems, pipelines, seaports, and refineries that at best offer token employment. We hear way too much of ‘economic benefits agreements,’ and way too little of equity participation, mentoring First Nations’ citizens as board members, and real beneficial ownership. Economic tokenism doesn’t work, especially when it involves resources being extracted by outsiders from Treaty lands or tribal homelands.

We should also ask why we are afraid of celebrating indigenous cultures that struggle to keep their languages alive, that maintain traditional environmental knowledge, that have never placed a species at risk let alone extinction, that champion the harvest of country food, and that question conspicuous consumption. Why does the critique of Idle No More rely so heavily on requiring First Nations to relinquish reserves in favour of urban life? Why is the implicit assumption always that First Nations have to buckle under, to ‘get real,’ to give up, to assimilate, to embrace modernity (however that is defined this week), finally to become like the colonizers who came uninvited in large measure because they had exhausted the resources of their own homelands?

Lesson number four: let’s go forward together as Canadians, and have the Idle No More constructive argument about our common future, framed on fact, and premised on a willingness to treat each other as citizens. Let us start with the knowledge that top down paternalism didn’t work. Let us admit that top down federal welfare policies do not create sustainable local economies. Let us admit that Treaty-based resource ownership is better than ‘economic benefits agreements’ with external owners of resources. Let us try and create publicly traded corporations that have aboriginal resource owners sitting as board members with other investors.

Lesson number five: let us finally admit that the free market system is not perfect, and that it must make room for the sustainable development paradigm. If the market is allowed to continue to operate as if growth is a given, as if climate change is not a reality, as if resources are infinite, we are collectively doomed. There is no second earth. We cannot escape to the Terra Incognita this time around. Our only hope is to embrace the environmental wisdom of those few who still live close to the land, as we all did for several million years before the advent of sedentary agriculture in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys a mere 14,000 years ago.

In this cause let us be Idle No More.

Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.

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