Canadian pundits, there’s more to the Idle No More protests than political theatre

idlenomore protest at mall of america

People of the Canadian punditocracy, let’s have a chat. Please come in, take off your coats, and have some coffee. What I have to say is going to hurt, but it’s in everyone’s best interest. I promise.

You’re doing it wrong.

There was astonishingly little coverage of the Idle No More protests when they began on Dec. 10. It seems that now the movement — and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s ongoing hunger strike — is all anyone in Canadian media wants to discuss. If we were doing it right, this would be an amazing victory for the Canadian media and for substantive journalism in general.

Right now that is not happening. Covering a grassroots protest movement like Idle No More is not the same as covering a campaign. Even in that case, horserace coverage encourages superficial and inconsequential reporting, but it is completely out of place in covering something that is not even a race.

Hemming and hawing about whether the movement’s tactics will work does a disservice to the movement and to your readers. Yes, it is important to discuss the merits of a hunger strike, or to wonder if blockading railway lines is a harbinger of more radical actions to come. Sure. But people, can we not agree that the underlying issues are the most important part of this movement (and others)? That the reasons and people behind this movement deserve the bulk of the coverage, so that people both in and out of the movement can understand what is going on?

Champion of truth and perennial fighter for the little guy Christie Blatchford brought her always insightful analysis to bear on Spence’s ongoing hunger strike, outdoing every other writer in just 14 short words:

It is tempting to see the action as one of intimidation, if not terrorism.

Decades of inequality have followed centuries of more overt oppression for Canada’s indigenous people. That, coupled with the government’s refusal to come to the table in any meaningful way and a white population all too ready to pretend none of that matters and we should be able to “move on already,” should provide ample fodder for columns and think pieces galore. There is even a rarely mentioned manifesto on Idle No More’s website that develops some of the movement’s goals, in case you’re one of the pundits bemoaning its lack of direction: land ownership, resource profit-sharing, and sustainability. There is no shortage of topics here, everyone! So quit grabbing at the scraps like everything else has been thoroughly picked over.

The National Post’s John Ivison actually delves into some of these issues, namely the unpopular omnibus bill the government recently pushed through. It’s nice to see someone discussing one of the reasons for people’s discontent, but unfortunately, Ivison is only concerned with defending the federal government.

Speaking of the federal government, Ivison’s colleague Michael den Tandt has an illuminating article matched only by the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson in terms of patronizing simplification of the issues. Den Tandt suggests Harper should have met with Spence immediately not because she is protesting significant issues, but in order to nip “her movement in the bud.” After calculating that our Prime Minister’s image is one of a removed, aloof technocrat, den Tandt decides that “for Harper, a strategic display of ‘bend’ would be a plus, not a minus,” again putting political gamesmanship ahead of both Spence’s life and the concerns of Canada’s Aboriginal people.

Simpson, meanwhile, writes a scare-quote-heavy article that implies Aboriginal people are making impossible demands of the government. His argument relies on the fact that First Nations are not large enough to act as self-governing nations, but refuses to discuss any of the decidedly approachable issues at hand, like preservation of land. The constantly repeated phrase “dream palace” also distracts from the fact that many Aboriginal people endure substandard if not squalid living conditions. (Then there’s Sun News Network’s Ezra Levant, who seems to think the Idle No More protests are happening in India given his steadfast refusal to use anything but “Indian” to describe Canadian Aboriginal people.)

Stephen Harper agreeing to meet with Aboriginal leaders doesn’t let any of us off the hook regarding covering Idle No More in a more substantive way, either. It took Theresa Spence hunger striking for 24 days to get a meeting that was ALREADY PLANNED moved ahead by just a week. In doing that, Harper still flouted Spence’s request for a meeting within 72 hours of his agreeing to meet.

Is this the best Harper can do to show he seriously cares about relations with Aboriginal people, or about a movement that has put Canada in global news? This movement has become a global one, and Aboriginal-government relations are one of the most persistent problems in Canadian society. This is Harper’s best effort?

But no, you’re right. It’s far more important to pick apart the tactics of a newborn movement than to examine the reasons for people’s discontent or the government’s woefully inadequate response. My bad, pundits. As you were.

image: peggyflanagan/Instagram

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