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From a grassroots hashtag to a real opportunity for change

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When First Nations chiefs angry with the federal omnibus budget Bill C-45 scuffled briefly with RCMP on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, it certainly made for compelling images. It also raised some compelling questions. Are we seeing a renewed militancy in the aboriginal community? Is this a "tipping point" of sorts? What can we expect next? To me, the most interesting question is what was the catalyst for this showdown?

It was actually a simple message, likely unintelligible unless you are an avid Twitter user:

"Tweeting up on Sunday, December 2, the #IdleNoMore event in Alberta. Lets get it trending! Here is the FB event..."

Not necessarily "I have a dream" type material, but significant in its own right. Tanya Kappo Tanya Kappo (@Nehiyawskwew) posted that on Nov. 30 to drum up support for an event she organized called "Idle No More." Her fellow organizers began using the "#idlenomore" hashtag (hashtags are Twitter's way of grouping messages together by topic) and so did their followers.

Kappo told me she expected her event to be "15 people in a room listening to what I thought about the legislation." Instead, 150 people descended on Louis Bull First Nation in Alberta to hear Kappo and her co-organizers speak against Bill C-45.

Kappo and many First Nations people object to provisions in the bill that reduce the amount of federally protected waterways and increase the minister of aboriginal affairs' power to sell off reserve land. It is also seen as part of a broader agenda to impose legislation on aboriginal people without their consent. Some people have even begun to blame indigenous leaders for allowing this agenda to proceed.

At the Idle No More event last Sunday, Kappo says many people were upset their chiefs were not talking about the bill. "There was angst building against our leadership. People asked 'What's (the Assembly of First Nations) doing?' and 'What are the chiefs doing?'" People at the meeting kept tweeting and the hashtag took off.

It grew beyond the Alberta event. Soon all sorts of messages about indigenous issues included the hashtag. There were more messages critical of First Nations leaders. Even non-aboriginal people started using the hashtag to express their support. The hashtag went viral.

Then on Tuesday this social media talk hit the floor of an Assembly of First Nations meeting in Ottawa. Soon National Chief Shawn Atleo and others called for a march to Parliament. Fast-forward a few hours and suddenly chiefs and Mounties were shoving each other outside the House of Commons chamber.

In the aftermath, one of those leaders, Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, appeared on CBC television and tipped his hat to the Twitterati.

"As chiefs, we always watch what our young people are doing.... They're putting their words out on social media saying, 'What are the chiefs going to do?', 'We need to stand up now.' We are going to act and this is just the beginning of it."

What is the lasting impact of the "#idlenomore" hashtag? Will it be as momentous as the "#jan26" hashtag that started the protests in Egypt that led to Hosni Mubarak's removal from power? Or is it just another online fad that will come and go?

The hashtag "#Idlenomore" did not stop bill C-45. It ended up passing unamended. The true impact, however, is that it showed grassroots aboriginal people they can influence their leaders through social media. Kappo says Tuesday's events "closed the gap" between the chiefs and their constituents, adding, "If there's going to be real and profound change, it's not only about the relationship with the feds, but also the relationship with ourselves." Now she and others are planning other events to raise awareness under the Idle No More banner and the chiefs in Ottawa are discussing their next move.

This has implications far beyond the aboriginal community. From proposed changes to the Indian Act to proposed pipelines, there are many issues looming that have the potential to galvanize indigenous people into protest. If First Nations people are mobilized by any one of them, I suspect that some of the other tensions faced by our community will begin to boil over. Poverty, rundown homes, bad schools, children in care, missing and murdered women... the list goes on. In short, we could soon see a lot of conflict and acrimony.

Yet, it can be avoided. What Kappo and the others behind "#idlenomore" are asking for is simple: for the government to listen to First Nations people. Not imposed legislation. Not political rhetoric. Not games. Simply, to listen to the vision First Nations people have for our future, and work with us to make it happen. The architects of this nascent movement have already succeeded in getting aboriginal leaders to listen to that message. Perhaps others in Canada will soon pay attention.


Wab Kinew is the Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. His hip hop has won an Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Award. His journalism has won an Adrienne Clarkson RTNDA Award, a Gabriel Award and been nominated for a Gemini Award.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2012 C3

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