'There's history sitting there': Documentary draws on unseen footage to tell story of Idle No More

The Power Was With Us: Idle No More, a documentary that tells the story of the creation, growth and continuation of the movement, will screen in Winnipeg for the first time this weekend.

The Power Was With Us: Idle No More screens at Winnipeg's Dave Barber Cinematheque Saturday afternoon

A large group of people, many carrying flags and banners, fill a street as they march behind a car with flashing lights.
Idle No More protesters march up Wellington Street in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

From rallies and round dances to a hunger strike that caught the world's attention, the story of Idle No More has been painstakingly chronicled by two Winnipeg producers.

The resulting 2020 documentary, called The Power Was With Us: Idle No More, has previously been screened elsewhere, but to mark the 10th anniversary of the movement, it will have a public presentation in Winnipeg for the first time this Saturday at Dave Barber Cinematheque.

The Power Was With Us: Idle No More premieres in Winnipeg

18 days ago
Duration 2:29
Journalists Tim Fontaine and Rick Harp use archival APTN footage to tell the story of a movement which began in protest to Bill C-45 under Stephen Harper's government, grew to encompass Indigenous rights and sovereignty as a whole and continues to shape Canada today

The two-part documentary follows the Idle No More movement, using hours of APTN archival news footage.

APTN gathered a wealth of footage showing many of the movement's pivotal moments, said co-producer Tim Fontaine.

"In a newsroom, there's a glut of tape," said Fontaine, a former APTN and CBC journalist. "You shoot an hour and you use a minute."

Producing the long-form documentary allowed the luxury of being able "to go through hours and hours of footage ... and tell the bigger story you didn't get to tell when you're doing daily news," said Fontaine.

"It's history, right? There's history sitting there."

Two men pose for a photo in movie theatre seats.
Co-producers Rick Harp and Tim Fontaine are bringing their documentary The Power Was With Us: Idle No More to their hometown of Winnipeg. The duo combed through hours of archival footage to chronicle the movement. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Idle No More began in 2012 with Indigenous opposition to the federal Conservative government's Bill C-45 — omnibus legislation that proposed changes to the Indian Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Environmental Protections Act. 

Critics said the bill diminished the rights of Indigenous communities and made it easier for resource projects to go forward without strict environmental assessment.

The movement began to spread quickly through social media and the #IdleNoMore hashtag, and soon evolved to encompass broader issues around Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection.

Both Fontaine and co-producer Rick Harp covered much of the movement as journalists. Fontaine worked in Halifax for APTN at the time, while Harp — who now works with APTN — was working as a radio host at CBC Edmonton.

APTN was quick to cover the movement, but other media outlets weren't, said Harp.

"It didn't get on mainstream media's radar right away," he said. "I don't remember the CBC Edmonton plant being particularly fired up as to what was going on literally steps away from their downtown headquarters."

They watched as the movement moved from rallies and "teach-ins" raising awareness, to flash mobs performing round dances in malls across the country.

A large group of people form a circle around a traffic light pole on a downtown street.
Idle No More protesters hold a round dance on Portage Avenue, outside the University of Winnipeg, on Jan. 11, 2013. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

APTN approached Harp and Fontaine after the success of other news-focused documentaries like Netflix's Making A Murderer. The news organization asked them to craft a story, based on access to their archives.

Fontaine says there were more than a dozen subjects they could've chosen, but Idle No More encompassed all the issues he and Harp were interested in.

For more than a year, the pair combed through hours of archival footage, some of which hadn't yet been digitized — often working part-time and remotely.

They also drew on social media posts from the time and interviews with people who lived through the events to craft the documentary.

Among other things, the documentary follows the creation of the Idle No More Facebook page by the four women from Saskatchewan — Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sheelah McLean — whose opposition to Bill C-45 planted the seeds for Idle No More.

Fontaine remembers the movement beginning as social media started playing a larger role in news coverage, particularly the use of Twitter to report on stories.

"Could this [Idle No More] have happened without social media? I don't think it would have happened the same way," said Fontaine.

The film also highlights the story of Theresa Spence, then the chief of Attawapiskat, who went on a six-week-long, liquid-only hunger strike in the winter of 2012-13 to push for meetings between then prime minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders.

A woman wearing a red tuque and a black winter coat stands in the middle of a group of people, with several microphones pointed in her direction.
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, centre, holds a press conference on Jan. 11, 2013, in Ottawa to announce her hunger strike for improved living standards on reserves would continue, as she urged meetings between then prime minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders. (Michel Compte/AFP/Getty Images)

Harp hopes the documentary leaves audiences with a renewed appreciation for the movement.

"It was an incredible moment in history ... a moment that continues to echo and resonate," he said.

"It's all there. It's incredible," said Fontaine, speaking to the footage gathered. "Luckily the cameras were rolling the whole time."

The Power Was With Us: Idle No More screens at the Dave Barber Cinematheque in Winnipeg on Jan. 21 at 1 p.m. The theatre's website says the event is technically sold out, but you can still join a waiting list for tickets.


Matt Humphrey is a News Editor and Presenter with CBC Manitoba.