Idle No More

With roots in the Indigenous community, Idle No More began in November 2012 as a protest against the introduction of Bill C-45 by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Formally known as the Jobs and Growth Act, this omnibus legislation affected over 60 acts, including the Indian Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and Environmental Assessment Act. Idle No More activists argued that the Act’s changes diminished the rights and authority of Indigenous communities while making it easier for governments and businesses to push through projects without strict environmental assessment. The movement quickly gained supporters from across Canada (and abroad), and grew to encompass environmental concerns and Indigenous rights more generally.

Approximately 1000 Idle No More protesters in Windsor Ontario on January 16, 2013.
Image:The Canadian Press/Geoff Robins.
Journey of the Nishiyuu
The Nishiyuu walkers , a group of young people from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Quebec arrived at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, ending a 1,600-kilometre trek meant to bring attention to aboriginal issues. Ottawa, March 25 2013.

Foundation of Idle No More

Idle No More was formed in November 2012 by four women from Saskatchewan: Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean and Nina Wilson. An exchange of e-mails between the four women regarding Bill C-45 led to the establishment of a Facebook page, which they named “Idle No More.” The name quickly caught on, and soon represented a widespread movement to both safeguard the environment and respect Indigenous sovereignty.

Idle No More: Issues and Activism

At the heart of Idle No More was opposition to Bill C-45, which was introduced by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in October 2012. At over 400 pages, the Jobs and Growth Act affected over 60 acts, including the Indian Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act (changed to the Navigation Protection Act), and the Environmental Assessment Act. Idle No More activists argued that the changes made it easier for the government and big business to push through projects (e.g., pipelines) without strict environmental assessment, while simultaneously diminishing the rights and authority of First Nations.

The four founders of Idle No More began by posting their concerns about Bill C-45 on Facebook. Soon, however, the movement took to the streets, and to the malls. In addition to teach-ins and rallies, a number of “flash mobs” participated in round dances in malls across the country, particularly during the Christmas shopping season. For example, on 17 December 2012, a flash mob performed a round dance at the Cornwall Centre in Regina; the following day, a similar dance took place in the West Edmonton Mall. In January 2013, six youths and a guide left the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Quebec, to begin The Journey of Nishiyuu, a 1600 km trek to Ottawa in support of Idle No More; by the time they arrived on 25 March 2013, the group had swelled to around 400, and they were met by thousands of supporters at Parliament Hill. Idle No More protesters also organized national days of action, and some activists constructed blockades (although at least one of the co-founders expressed concern that any aggressive action would detract from the peaceful nature and message of the movement).

Idle No More and Chief Theresa Spence

The Idle No More movement was also associated with Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation, who went on a liquid fast from 11 December 2012 to 24 January 2013 to protest the perceived failure of the federal government to honour treaty rights and obligations. Despite common interests, however, Spence was not a spokesperson for Idle No More, a fact which Sylvia McAdam, one of the movement’s founders, pointed out in an interview in January 2013.

Impact of Idle No More

The Idle No More movement attracted supporters from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada and internationally, with rallies and round dances held not only in Canada but also in the United States and overseas. According to the Idle No More website, around 50 events took place on 28 January 2013, the Idle No More World Day of Action, including 25 in Canada and 20 in the United States, as well as rallies in London (UK), Paris (France), and Greenland. Media coverage focused the attention of the public on Bill C-45 and on Indigenous rights and issues more generally, and many commentators suggest that this publicity put significant pressure on the government, leading to a meeting on 11 January 2013 between the prime minister, Stephen Harper, and a delegation of the Assembly of First Nations including the national chief, Shawn Atleo.

Ongoing Activism

Although media coverage of the movement declined after the January 2013 meeting between the prime minister and delegates from the Assembly of First Nations, Idle No More has continued to advocate for change. In March 2013, Idle No More formed an alliance with Defenders of the Land, a network of activists that has been involved in Indigenous land rights issues since 2008. As part of this alliance, Idle No More agreed to support nonviolent direct action (e.g., blockades). The two organizations issued a joint declaration that called on the federal, provincial and territorial governments to do the following: 1) repeal provisions of the Job and Growths Act, 2012 (Bill C-45) that infringed on Indigenous and treaty rights and environmental protections; 2) improve and “deepen” democracy by implementing proportional representation (see Electoral Reform) and ensuring consultation on legislation regarding collective rights and environmental protections; 3) fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right of Indigenous peoples to reject development on their territory; 4) end the government policy of “extinguishing” Aboriginal title, instead affirming Aboriginal title and rights, per section 35 of the Constitution and as recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples; 5) honour historic treaties; and 6) hold a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Since 2013, Idle No More has organized and supported rallies and other events in support of Indigenous rights and environmental protection. In February 2018, for example, the movement called for a day of action to support the family of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old from Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan who was shot and killed by a farmer in August 2016. After the farmer, Gerald Stanley, was acquitted of all charges on 9 February 2018, Idle No More joined the many voices calling for changes to the justice system. These calls intensified after the acquittal of Peter Khill, who in February 2016 shot and killed Jon Styres, a Six Nations man from Oshweken who had attempted to steal Khill’s truck. When Khill was found not guilty of second-degree murder in June 2018, Indigenous communities across Canada joined the Six Nations in calling for change. Idle No More supported the “Justice for Jon Styres” call to action, stating, “The parallels between the Jon Styres and Colten Boushie cases cannot be ignored, as both cases highlight how Canadian [juries] across the country continue to send the message to Indigenous communities, that [Canadians’] private property holds more value than the lives of Indigenous Peoples.”

Idle No More continues to support environmental protests and Indigenous rights. In early 2019, for example, the movement called on Indigenous peoples and “Canadians of conscience” to support the Gitdumt’en and the Unist’ot’en in their opposition to TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline project.

Significance of Idle No More

Idle No More began as a protest against Bill C-45, an omnibus bill introduced by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2012. Since then, the movement has grown to encompass broader questions about Indigenous rights and sovereignty as well as environmental protection. The movement helped to galvanize the Indigenous community and stimulated discussion of these issues within the broader community.


Further Reading

  • The Kino-nda-niimi Collective, The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement (2014)

  • Ken Coates, #IdleNoMore and the Remaking of Canada (2015)

  • Kathleen Rodgers, Protest, Activism, and Social Movements (2018)

External Links