Duncan McCue: The cultural importance of Idle No More

Idle No More is not 'just another' native protest, Duncan McCue argues. Within the movement it has become an exercise in retelling the aboriginal story of Canada, with social media providing the megaphone.

Ryan McMahon is hunkered over his laptop in his home office in Winnipeg, a self-proclaimed "chubby Ojibway comic" with a soft spot for bacon — and a hunger for some sort of indigenous resurgence.

He tests his microphone levels, ready to record the latest show for his podcast "Red Man Laughing."

Of course, the day's subject is Idle No More. He's got jokes all lined up, including a top 10 list entitled "Things you might have heard a mall Santa say during the round-dance revolution over Christmas."

His trademark humour, though, quickly shifts to more serious discussion when he brings on two guests: a pair of university students involved in Idle No More, the aboriginal protest movement that has swept across Canada and is now popping up in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The young activists are both inspired by Idle No More — and highly critical of old-school First Nations chiefs who are preparing to meet with Stephen Harper and the federal government on Friday.

But what does McMahon himself think of Idle No More?

"In terms of my comedy work and stuff, it's not helpful," he says with a chuckle. "It's challenging to be funny at such an important time in our history."


For Canadians caught in Idle No More traffic snarls over the past month, as indigenous groups march across bridges or block railways, this movement may seem like "just another" native protest.

But for those struggling to understand this movement on a more cultural level, it may be helpful to remember that traditionally, amongst many aboriginal people, the cold days and long nights of winter were a time for storytelling.

Four-year-old Lily Mervyn holds a sign at an Idle No More demonstration near Surrey, B.C., earlier this month. A teachable moment? (Darryl Dyck / Canadian Press)
And, putting aside the politics and the posturing, storytelling is at the heart of Idle No More, at least as many of those on the inside of this movement see it.

In this case, the storytellers have been mostly young indigenous people — increasingly educated and urban-based — using social media and other digital tools to spread messages of cultural survival and self-determination.

"We see people given a voice who maybe didn't have a voice before," says McMahon, adding, "if you have a smartphone or you have the internet, you have a voice.

"We see great debate, sharing of ideas, sharing of artworks, audio-visual, and all kinds of different materials being shared by the people on the ground."

The ideas come from bloggers such as Chelsea Vowel, a Metis lawyer who analyses aboriginal policy on a website called, and who has become consumed with Idle No More.

"Idle No More is basically trying to reset the relationship between Canada and all indigenous peoples, so that once again it's based on ideas of peaceful coexistence, mutual respect and non-interference," she says.

"This is about going back to how Canada actually began, understand the history there, and then moving forward in a way that has us as equals in this relationship."

A conversation

That resetting of the relationship is something that may not make sense to many Canadians, something Vowel herself recognizes. Still, she's encouraged by the dialogue that is being spawned by Idle No More.

"The fact that we're in dialogue with regular Canadians about these issues is groundbreaking," she says. "We haven't been able to reach them before and this movement, this is not a new thing.

"Our people have been fighting, for decades. It keeps coming around. But this time, we're able to reach people more and have that conversation."

Indeed, that conversation has gone viral. Indigenous and non-indigenous support has flooded social media not only in Canada, but the U.S.

Round-dance flash mobs have erupted in Chicago, New York and Minneapolis, to name just a few American cities. Videos messages of solidarity have been uploaded to YouTube from around the world — New Zealand, Bolivia, Mexico, France.

The global support is curious, given that the movement began in many respects as a protest against Canadian legislation. But the message of indigenous self-determination has clearly struck a chord beyond North America.

Shaped by women

What's more, while Canada has a history of native protests erupting into violence — think of the Oka crisis in Quebec, the Burnt Church fishing conflict in New Brunswick, or the subdivision standoff in Caledonia, Ont. — Idle No More has remained fundamentally peaceful.

First Nations protestors march and block the International Bridge between the Canada and U.S. border near Cornwall, Ont., on Saturday, Jan. 5. (Fred Chartrand / Canadian Press)

Yes, on Twitter and Facebook and other internet forums, there's been the inevitable online bullying and name-calling and charges of "racism." There was also an allegation last weekend from CN Rail that some of its staff saw Idle No More protestors tampering with warning signals at a train crossing near Belleville, Ont. But nothing more has come of that.

Leanne Simpson, an Anishinaabe academic and writer, argues that a spirit of celebration has generally characterized Idle No More gatherings.

"One of the things the round dances have demonstrated to me is that there's a joyfulness to this movement," she says.

"It's strategic and it's serious and it's multifaceted but, at the foundation, it's not coming from a place of anger. It's not coming from a place of want. It's coming from a place of joy and connections to our homeland and our cultures."

Idle No More began as a series of teach-ins by four women in the Prairies, and has been spurred on by a female chief on a hunger strike. So it has been very much shaped by women.

It's an incredible thing when you see our women leading," says McMahon. "They bring a power and a balance we as men can't bring. And it's about time."

Critics have suggested that the Idle No More movement has a vague and shifting agenda. But Vowel, for one, disagrees.

She points to the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report as a roadmap, and notes that it spoke of a 20-year plan to restructure the Canada-First Nations relationship.

Amongst its myriad of recommendations, the royal commission supported aboriginal nationhood and expansion of aboriginal land and resource base.

As Simpson sees it, "when Canada was created, it was based on these relationships and treaties with indigenous nations and it's important for us to focus on what indigenous diplomats meant when they negotiated those agreements in order to reset this relationship."

But any true resetting of the relationship is unlikely to occur at Friday's meeting, particularly with a Conservative government that has seemed interested only in incremental change on the aboriginal file.

Small changes, whether in education or economic development, are unlikely to satisfy the flash-mobbing, round-dancing Idle No More crowd. So it will fall to the storytellers to determine whether there's a new chapter to be begun.


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.