Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pivot point for Idle No More

May fizzle or make real change

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On Portage Avenue's western fringe, between a Chicken Chef Family Restaurant and a Perimeter Highway off-ramp, about three dozen demonstrators stood on the street for several hours in an attempt to draw attention to indigenous treaty rights.

"I want my children to know when you sign your name on paper, it means something," said Susan Koncan, one of about 35 people -- many of them Cree or Anishinabe, some of them not -- who took part in a Wednesday-afternoon Idle No More rally on the city's busiest artery.

Outside of reporters, police officers and one lonely Winnipeg Transit supervisor, the only onlookers at this particular Portage Avenue protest were employees of three nearby auto shops and a handful of St. Charles residents out for a walk and a gawk. The Winnipeg Police Service, which has grown adept at handling demonstrations of all sorts, kept motorists three full blocks away from the actual rally.

This move precluded the possibility of pedestrian-vehicle collisions and angry exchanges between drivers and demonstrators -- and also eliminated any meaningful interaction between the people carrying placards and their intended audience.

If the Idle No More movement's goal is to merely attract attention, consider that objective achieved. But if Idle No More's actual aim is to genuinely engage Canadian society in a debate about environmental stewardship of the land and respecting treaty obligations, then that message may be getting lost as the movement both expands and devolves into less-organized demonstrations.

In December, when Idle No More coalesced as a grassroots movement, it appeared to be both organized and focused.

The initial Winnipeg demonstrations, well-orchestrated operations held inside shopping malls and outside Richardson International Airport, appeared to draw attention to treaty obligations Ottawa has generally failed to honour over the centuries.

Now, the national Idle No More movement is also about Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's reluctance to acknowledge it, the potential reform of the Indian Act and the elimination of inequality between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

The movement's focus has diffused to the point where some of its original organizers complained earlier this week the movement has been co-opted by elected chiefs -- who responded by calling for indigenous unity.

As a movement, Idle No More is experiencing some sort of identity crisis.

"That's where we're at right now," said Ryan McMahon, a Winnipeg comedian who podcasts about Idle No More at and is a passionate supporter of the movement on several social-media platforms.

"Because it grew so quickly and is so huge, it's hard to keep tabs on it," he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "But most people will tell you it's about the treaty relationship."

When McMahon says "most people," he means people already engaged by Idle No More. It's safe to say many other Winnipeggers do not stop to think often about the complicated relationship between the Crown and Canada's First Nations.

It's also a certainty the angry guy in the red pickup truck on Wednesday wasn't thinking about treaty rights when he muttered at two cops sitting in a cruiser car at the corner of Isbister Street and Portage Avenue. All he knew is he wanted to turn right and head west towards Headingley and had to turn left instead.

McMahon, who had no involvement in the St. Charles demonstration, nonetheless said slowing traffic can make a point. "We're going to inconvenience you for an hour, whereas we've been inconvenienced for hundreds of years."

Given Canada's treatment of its original inhabitants, that's a fair point to make, even if you don't agree with it. But if Canadians aren't digesting that message now, additional demonstrations -- especially if they're poorly run -- may only induce a backlash, not mutual understanding between all citizens.

What's happening to Idle No More right now is reminiscent of the Occupy movement, which started out as an anti-Wall Street protest in New York City but soon mushroomed into something far more amorphous. Within weeks, Occupy became an almost meaningless umbrella for a wide range of left-of-centre protest sentiment. In the end, Occupy became little more than a brand name.

Occupy fizzled out because it had no goal beyond nudging mainstream culture to the left a little bit, much as the Tea Party movement nudged the United States a little to the right a few years earlier.

Idle No More may suffer the same fate if the movement fails to focus on a noble goal: Creating more awareness about Canada's obligations toward all of its citizens.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2013 A3


Updated on Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 11:24 AM CST: adds photo, adds links

2:25 PM: Removes first reference to Occupy movement to clarify context of McMahon's first quote.

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives

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