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5 Years after Idle No More, founders still speaking out

It’s been five years since Idle No More was elevated into the Canadian conscious, and the founders continue to speak up for Indigenous sovereignty, the land and water.

CBC talks with Nina Wilson, Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam about movement that changed Canada

The power and presence of Sylvia McAdam helped propel Idle No More. Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 28, 2012. (Nadya Kwandibens/Red Works)

It's been five years since Idle No More was elevated into the Canadian conscious.

Through the work of social media and in particular the hashtag #IdleNoMore, Indigenous peoples we're able to connect with each other and mobilize in cities and towns across the country.

The images of Indigenous people drumming, holding hands, and round-dancing in malls etched their way into the minds of Canadians who had forgotten about the aboriginal peoples.

Years later, the founders continue to speak up for Indigenous sovereignty, the land and water.

CBC Indigenous asked the four founders about the movement.

Nina Wilson, Kahkewistahaw First Nation, Treaty 4

Who came up with the hashtag?

Jessica Gordon. We were all sitting around, thinking how can we mobilize? What do we need to do? We were talking about how to get in motion. She just said, "We need to get off our asses and quit being idle. We can't be idle no more." And we sat there and thought about that. There we go, that's how the name came up.

What was it like watching the flash mobs (round dances) online?

My son and sister had a computer, and he said you have to look at these videos. I started looking at the flash mobs, and I was like wow! I started to cry. I couldn't believe it. I knew something was going on, but I just didn't have time to see the depth of what was happening. When I saw it, I was just stunned. 

What do you think are the long term impacts of the movement?

I think that our people have been silenced for a very, very long time. As soon as you go to school, you're learning something. It's almost like we want to fight for something. We stick up for the underdog. And as soon as we can, we're practising social justice. It's built into our DNA to defend and protect.

How proud are you of what happened?

I'm super proud. I love our people. I love what everybody did. Even the things that were no good to each other. At least it's out there. And at some point we're going to get to it. We're not so isolated any more.

Sylvia McAdam, Big River First Nation, Treaty 6

What do you think are the long term impacts of the movement?

I don't think Canada will ever quite be the same again, because now [the government is] careful, they're thinking about Treaty, Indigenous sovereignty, nation to nation, meeting the TRC recommendations, UNDRIP [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] — this is unheard of if you explored that landscape 10 years ago. But the issue of land is unresolved.

They have to follow the colonial agenda — if they began to talk about land and abolishing the doctrine of discovery which gives them that fictional title to Indigenous land — then they have no jurisdiction. They don't wanna go there. These colonial governments they don't want to go there, because they're profiting and benefiting [from] the extraction of resources without having to answer to the biggest elephants in the room — the Indigenous titleholders of the land.

Canada is posturing all the wonderful wording, but reconciliation, UNDRIP, all these things don't mean anything when our Treaty terms and promises are not enforced.

Today is the second anniversary of the Idle No More movement. (Nadya Kwandibens/Red Works/ARP Books)

Do you think the movement lives on?

When our young people are asked by industry, and young people are answering, "clean water, clean land, uncontaminated air." I think that's when it lives on. For the future, I envision our Indigenous nations rebuilding and revitalizing the laws that were here and are still here and the languages and the cultures and the repatriation of our lands. The critical component here is land.

To the young people, I say, never believe the colonial narrative that we ceded and surrendered our lands. We never did.

Jessica Gordon, Pasqua First Nation. Treaty 4.

How much of an impact do you think social media had on the movement?

Social media — that's where it started, very much had to do with the start of the movement, maintaining movement. That's how it got so big. Without it I don't know how big it would've really got.

What do you think are some of the failures?

Failures — the biggest thing would be our need to decolonize from the way we think things ought to be done. The different levels of strategies and tactics used. Respect has to be all across the board. Inclusiveness of everyone's various forms of tactics to do what they need to do for the movement.

Clockwise from top left, Nina Wilson, Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean and Sylvia McAdam are among the 100 leading global thinkers of 2013 chosen by Foreign Policy magazine. (Foreign Policy )

Do you think that the movement still lives on?

Yes. A lot of people use it to motivate themselves and to feel, share in solidarity. They know they're not the only ones out there. Idle No More is still there, still strong — people are finding different ways to use the movement and empower themselves and others.

Sheelah Mclean, Saskatoon, anti-racism educator

What was it like to witness it take off like it did?

I think we were all completely blown away by how beautiful it was to see a movement spread across Canada, and then globally so quickly…. The reason that it was so powerful is because everybody was a leader, everybody was working in the movement. Everybody was a part of it. That's what makes the movement so beautiful, and so special today.

Drawn to the sound of the drum, people gather at the New Year's Eve round dance at Portage and Main in Winnipeg. (Eman Agpalza / ARP Books)

What would you do differently?

I think that the only thing that I could speak to, is there could have been more work on the part of white settlers and non-Indigenous people to get involved with the movement. I think sometimes people we're discomforted by an Indigenous-led movement that focused on Indigenous rights.

How proud are you of what happened?

I'm amazingly honoured and proud to be a part of a movement like this, led by Indigenous women and two spirit people, supported by so many Indigenous men.

Idle No More supporters rally in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)