A Less Idle Education

By Zara Syed and Jasmine Cabanaw

Idle No More, a movement sparked by social media and which originally took the news by storm, was one that united grassroots voices and formed allies worldwide. The goal was to pressure politicians to pay more attention to Aboriginal issues and the environment, and to have the people lead the movement, instead of it being focused around one leader. The causes ranged from land and water treaties, to children rights and welfare, to perceptions of Aboriginal communities and educational movements such as National Rights Education Day.

What is remarkable about the movement is that it has gathered support and participation from people all over the globe, even those who have never participated in a physical protest. Mainstream media has made recent claims that the momentum of the social media success has died down. However, Idle No More is a movement that is still going strong.

The nature of Idle No More is unlike that of other movements; it does not have a central event or leader and a desired goal or an end. The movement is continuous, and though it does not have the same media hype surrounding it, that does not mean that those participating in the movement have slowed down.

According to their website, where members across the globe participate in forums and discussions about proposed Bills, the movement is ongoing and strengthening. Last month, a vote was taken on their website of if the media is playing up the perceived divisions within Idle No More, and 52.6% agreed (with a vote of 4087 people).

David Newhouse, Associate Professor Business Administration Chair and Professor of Indigenous Studies at Trent University, commented on this criticism of the movement.

“The structure of Idle No More as a movement is itself different from other movements. Movements tend to have a crisis or event to keep it going. With the suspension of Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the meeting of the Prime Minister and the Chiefs, that sort of central event is no longer there. So, the question is how to keep it going after that? That is a big challenge of a movement that claims not to have any leaders, doesn’t want any leaders, and is localized.”

Idle No More came into fruition when The Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed a set of legislation directly related to First Nations sovereignty and territories without First Nations’ consent.

An example of this is Bill-C45 that removes many fish habitat protections and fails to recognize Aboriginal commercial fisheries. It would change the Navigable Waters Protection Act that reduces the number of lakes and rivers where navigation and federal environment assessment is required from 32,000 to just 97 lakes, and from 2.25 million to just 62 rivers.

When asked if the awareness of his students had changed with these pivotal movements in Native and Canadian issues, Professor Newhouse said, “I teach the first year course of Indigenous Studies and to be quite honest I haven’t seen a great deal of changes in students’ knowledge in the past two decades. So, in fact, things haven’t changed that much; we still get the same questions. We still have the sort of questions from students about residential schools, and we ask if they know of them before and very few of them know about it. Very few of them know or come in contact with Aboriginal people and issues.”

He goes on to say that though this is true, the students that come into Indigenous Studies embody sincere desire to try and help to learn. “However,” he says, “they start from a foundation of knowledge that has not changed in two decades.”

One of the reasons for this lack of knowledge is that there is a lack of education about Aboriginal history. The existence of the residential schools has rarely been addressed and until recently was not covered by the mainstream media.

Another issue is that the coverage of things like residential schools is not rooted in a historical basis. Recently, reports were released confirming the deaths of 3,000 Aboriginal children that occurred in residential schools. One of the causes of death listed is disease, but the discussion of why the rates of disease were so high has been left out.

When examined within a historical context, the facts incriminate churches and the Canadian government, which is perhaps why the media has been so hush about it.

The rates of disease were so high in residential schools because the school administrators were not following the standard protocols for handling disease and illness.

For example, the protocol for all school children who had tuberculosis was quarantine. However, there is photographic evidence of healthy Aboriginal children sitting directly beside classmates who had open tuberculosis sores. Even worse is the fact that the Canadian government knew that this was happening as early as the 1920s, and yet turned a blind eye to the continuation of the purposeful spreading of contagious diseases.

The real key to bettering the lives of Aboriginal people and to solving the current conflicts is education.

According to Newhouse, “If you look at the Idle No More website, now they focus their attention towards education. They are saying to their members now of creating local education for the non-indigenous population. I think that is the way to move forward, but it is a long-term plan and it is important to focus attention on our new Canadians, as well, who have limited exposure to Aboriginal issues and Canadian history.”