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  • Published in Analysis

In Canada a multi-faceted mass movement has been innovative, militant and inclusive, writes Sean Ledwith

Idle No More art

“We have never admitted to ourselves that we were, and still are, a colonial power,”
Paul Martin, former Canadian Prime Minister

Canada's image as a sleepy and stable member of the global capitalist club has been rocked over recent months by a remarkable wave of rebellions from below. These have shaken the complacency of its neoliberal rulers and turned it into the home of one of the most dynamic anti-capitalists protests currently active in the Western world: the Idle No More movement.

The roots of resistance

The movement's name is inspired by a new mood of militancy among many of Canada's indigenous population-known as the First Nations-who have become exasperated both by the passivity of their traditional leadership and the failure of the state to address long-running grievances about discrimination and ecological damage. Idle No More (INM) was initially created last November by four female Canadian activists who had been organising teach-ins to raise awareness of the destructive impact of the country's Conservative government. This is led by George Bush admirer, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The movement’s manifesto highlights an attempt to construct an agenda that dovetails resistance to racism and environmental encroachment:

‘Currently, this government is trying to pass many laws so that reserve lands can also be bought and sold by big companies to get profit from resources. They are promising to share this time…Why would these promises be different from past promises? We will be left with nothing but poisoned water, land and air. This is an attempt to take away sovereignty and the inherent right to land and resources from First Nations peoples.’

The spectacular growth of the movement over the space of a few months is another reminder of how innovative and imaginative strategies can enable anti-capitalist protests to take off at an exponential rate. INM can be partly understood as the Canadian equivalent of the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests. The four activists initially used the internet to express their opposition to C-45, a piece of neoliberal legislation devised by the Harper government to facilitate greater access for oil and mining companies to territories that are rich in resources. These regions were previously safeguarded on the basis of their exceptional environmental and cultural significance.

Michael Leonardi comments on the significance of C-45:

‘This law opens up vast parts of Canadian land and many areas protected by native sovereignty rights to unadulterated exploitation, devastation and desecration as has already been experienced with Tar Sands and Uranium mining for decades. The passage of this law eliminates environmental protections for over two and half million previously protected rivers, lakes and streams and is viewed as [not only] a frontal assault on the environment of all Canadians but also the beginning of an attack on Indigenous people’s sovereignty and treaties.’

The resistance goes viral

The four activists expressed their opposition to C-45 online and rapidly accumulated massive support from indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. Their internet campaign soon went viral and its momentum then escalated into physical protests involving blockades, sit-ins, flash-mobs and hunger strikes. The latter tactic has hit the national headlines through the action of Chief Theresa Spence a member of the Attawapiskat tribe who has been restricting herself to a liquid-only diet as part of her weeks-long protest outside the Canadian parliament in Ottawa. She has been camped outside the legislature in a traditional tepee, refusing to move until Harper agreed to talk to her.

Spence began her protest on December 4th in sub-zero temperatures after she and other First Nations representatives were refused entry to Parliament. Ten days later C-45 passed into law with the barest level of debate in the chamber and with no attempt by the government to consult the indigenous leaders. INM refused to be cowed into submission and organised an even bigger protest on December 21st. The movement had evolved into a continental protest by this point and there were demonstrations of support right across North America. Acts of solidarity have since spread around the globe, including supporters invading the British Museum to highlight the expropriation of First Nation culture.

The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan initially derided the escalating protest movement, saying, "that's social media, so we'll just have to see where that goes."

The arrogance at the heart of the Conservative government was also displayed by Stephen Harper's refusal to even acknowledge the demonstrations. Unbelievably he tweeted from his office about the calibre of his bacon sandwich while Chief Spence was on hunger strike barely a few hundred yards away!

Conservative climbdown

Undeterred, INM sustained their protests over the Christmas period with a variety of creative acts of resistance including road and rail blocks, flash-mobs, drum circles and rallies. Eventually at the beginning of this year, Harper was forced to concede to a meeting with Spence and other First Nation leaders to discuss their grievances after she threatened to starve herself to death.

The official leader of the indigenous peoples, Shawn Atleo-head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)-attended a meeting with Spence, Harper and others from both sides on January 11th to discuss the issues. However, the only outcome of the meeting was a vague commitment from the Conservative leader to convene negotiations at an unspecified point in the future.

Forcing Harper to attend a meeting represents a victory for the movement and a climbdown on his part. However, this outcome leaves INM at a crossroads as Atleo and the AFN have been criticised by many on the left as personifying the collaborationist mentality typical of many First Nation leaders of previous generations. How far the former allows itself to be constrained by the conservatism of the latter may determine whether this wave of anti-capitalist resistance grows in 2013 and beyond. INM will need to consider what lessons can be learned from the rapid rise-but also rapid decline-of the Occupy movement in the US. Murray Dobbin contrasts the politics of INM with that of AFN:

‘By the late 1980s government funding had established a mutually beneficial relationship between governments and Aboriginal leaders. Into this status-quo of continued poverty came native women's organizations which were genuinely radical (they had no big salaries to lose) and often critical of the totally male-dominated Aboriginal groups. Idle No More is the most exciting development in Aboriginal politics in two generations. It has rightfully scared the hell out of the entire First Nations leadership -- from Shawn Atleo down to the hundreds of chiefs, too many of whom do in fact live high on the hog while their band members suffer.’

Racism in Canada

The second-class status endured by the 1.17 million First Nations peoples (about 2% of the total) has been an integral part of the Canadian capitalist state since its inception in the colonial era. The indigenous peoples still experience higher rates of incarceration and suicide than the majority; and lower rates of life expectancy, educational achievement and employment.

They have also been victims of a notorious residential school system, devised to break up their communal traditions and which has left scores of individuals vulnerable to sexual abuse. Like other minorities in Western states, these groups have been told by successive Canadian governments they need to ‘assimilate’: the standard euphemism for ‘surrender your traditions and submit to the rule of capital’. As Lisa Charleyboy has written:

‘The imprint of colonialism has left land claims, treaty negotiations, reserve infrastructure, indigenous poverty, and indigenous education equality in total disarray.’

The immune economy?

Canada’s rise over recent decades as one of the vanguard neo-liberal states has deepened the intensity of this oppression. Its capitalist class has developed a narrative that the country is insulated from the global recession and that they are immune from the debt, unemployment and social dislocation that plague other Western economies. Britain will shortly have the dubious benefit of this “expertise” when Mark Carney takes over as new Governor of the Bank of England, having worked as Canada’s equivalent. George Osborne appointed him on the basis that Canada is perceived to have ‘weathered the economic storm better than any other major western economy, bank bailouts have been avoided, sustained growth has returned.’

While it is true the country was not hit as conspicuously as others by the initial impact of the 2008 crash, Carney himself has warned that Canada’s economic situation is now not dissimilar to that of other capitalist economies shortly before the downturn hit. A bubble of mortgage debt has built up in similar circumstances to the ones that have pole-axed European states such as Spain and Ireland. As one of Carney’s deputies at the Bank of Canada has said:

‘household debt as a percentage of disposable income has risen by almost 60 percentage points to 165% today. The bulk of this rise in debt – 66%, or $636 bn – has been in the form of mortgage debt, putting Canadians in an uncomfortable neighbourhood between Spain and the United States in the ranking of household mortgage debt.’

Carney has also warned that an ‘investment strike’ by the private sector is currently holding back growth just as in other capitalist economies such as the UK. In an interview last year, he stated ‘Investment in Canada has tracked significantly below investment in prior recessions and prior recoveries… despite the fact that financial conditions have been much easier throughout this recession and in this recovery’. Needless to say, the Harper government is more interested in forcing the private sector to swallow cuts than applying similar pressure to the private sector to invest in jobs.

Neoliberalism vs. nature

Like their counterparts in the global capitalist club, the Canadian elite have used this allegedly out-of-control spending as a pretext to shrink public sector provision and to open up new opportunities for private sector penetration. The C-45 legislation denounced by INM is part of this process of neoliberal incursions into the fabric of Canadian society. George Monbiot comments that in its attitude to the country's legendary scenery, the ‘government is now behaving with all the sophistication of a chimpanzee's tea party.'

C-45 opens up vast new areas of hitherto protected land for exploitation for Tar and Uranium mining and also deregulates river traffic for an incredible two and a half million rivers, lakes and streams. The latter were previously preserved for the indigenous peoples. A more rapacious assault on nature by neoliberalism is difficult to imagine.

Ramming through C-45 comes on top of a previous piece of Harper’s cultural vandalism. Shortly after coming to power in 2008, he cancelled the Kelowna accords which had set aside $1.8 billion for investment in First Nations’ education, plus comparable amounts for tackling problems of youth suicide, infant mortality and obesity which disproportionately affect this minority.

Student resistance

Another aspect of Canadian society that has recently come under attack from the state is free higher education for students. Similar to the UK coalition, the state government in Quebec last year attempted to implement an eye-watering 75% increase in tuition fees on the familiar grounds that in the “age of austerity” such a provision is no longer affordable. Also, like the UK, this triggered a massive student rebellion, leading to what one commentator described as ' the longest and largest student strike in the history of North America, and the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. '

Unlike their British counterparts, the Quebecois students -with massive support from public sector workers- successfully fought off the attack and ultimately brought down Jean Charest, the Liberal state premier who had tried to ram through the fees hike.

This spectacular movement victory points the way to how INM and the rest of Canada’s vibrant anti-capitalist wave promise to shake up the sleepy giant of the global capitalist club in 2013

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History 

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