Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon are remarkable women.
They, with intrepid co-founders Nina Wilson and Sheelah Mclean, created Idle No More in 2012 to protest Bill C-45, the Harper government’s omnibus budget bill. Amongst other things, the bill aimed to amend the Navigable Waters Protection Act, reducing environmental protection for waterways across Canada. The movement’s largely indigenous followers marched, rallied and peacefully blockaded for months all over Canada, dominating national and international headlines.
Ultimately, Bill C-45 was passed, but Idle No More is still widely seen as a game-changer within Canada regarding indigenous issues due to the youth of the movement and its’ use of social media.
Since 2012, the four founders of Idle No More have spoken at the United Nations, been named among the top 100 leading global thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine and internationally hailed for their advocacy for the environment and for indigenous peoples.
Three years later, the Sheaf caught up with McAdam and Gordon to talk about their lives, the mission and lasting impacts of Idle No More and whether the movement has plans for the near future.
McAdam grew up on Whitefish Lake reserve in Treaty Six territory. Neither she, her parents, nor her grandparents attended residential schools — a fate they avoided by going into hiding — and McAdam grew up with a loving family, immersed in her culture and speaking Cree.
Although her family managed to avoid residential schools, they were victims of Department of Indian Affairs’ notorious “sugar beet policy”. These policies were put in place to use indigenous peoples as forced labour in the sugar beet fields of northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. McAdam remembers starting work there when she was five.
“We were forced to work there and I never had a full year of elementary [school],” McAdam said. “The year that I graduated from high school, I insisted on staying to graduate with my class. So it’s kind of interesting that I ever made it to law school.”
In contrast to McAdam, Gordon attended Lebret Indian Residential School.
“Life growing up in the cities was what one may expect: racism, marginalization and facing many obstacles,” Gordon wrote in an email to the Sheaf. “I was blessed with having supportive and loving parents and protective sisters. A sense of belonging and loyalty to my people is something I would credit to coming out with a good sense of wellbeing.”
One of Gordon’s grandparents fought in the Second World War and spent time during it as a prisoner of war. His inspiration and hearing stories from her mother about the treaties and her ancestors, impacted Gordon growing up, instilling in her a passion for social justice.
“You can say it is in my blood to protect our people and do what is right,” Gordon wrote, describing how her great-grandfather became leader of the Allied Bands in the early 1900s to protest the Soldier Settlement Act — an act that distributed land to indigenous veterans through a method many deemed unfair.
McAdam had a similar message about what led her to founding Idle No More. When she was born, her grandmother told her parents that she would accomplish great things on behalf of her people. This pronouncement, in turn, encouraged McAdam to educate herself and immerse herself in the legal aspects of treaty rights.
Law school was the logical step for McAdam after she had almost finished raising her seven children.
“I dragged them all through law school with me,” McAdam said wryly, adding that law school changed her by informing her about the historical bases for indigenous oppression.
Law school “was an incredibly, incredibly life-changing time in my life because I was raised in a treaty understanding that indigenous people own this land,” McAdam said. “And when I went into law school, I learned about the Doctrine of Discovery and the underlying title and really struggled with it because there’s no basis in law for it, but Canada still uses it to assert title to indigenous lands. So I still struggle with that. I still really struggle with it.”
McAdam said that it was by going to law school that she gained the vocabulary and analysis skills to begin challenging the problems that some Canadian laws, including Bill C-45, are creating amongst indigenous people.
“Canada cannot continue to function on the myth and the lie that the Doctrine of Discovery gives them title to indigenous lands in violation of treaty, in violation of indigenous sovereignty” McAdam stated. “And that’s what’s happening right now.”
When Idle No More began, both McAdam and Gordon said that they were disappointed with the media coverage, saying it was biased against them and refused to take the movement seriously. McAdam in particular had strong words.
“I knew Saskatoon to be racist, my experience has always been that the racism is really bad here, but it was more in our faces when Idle No More really became public,” she explained. “If you look at the media, for instance, during that time we were called ‘idiots banging on drums,’” referencing a Sun News editorial that had indeed called protesters “jokers banging on drums” and called for them to be arrested.
Gordon concurred with McAdam’s assessment.
“After seeing a couple articles that were taken out of context or strategically placed, I found it very difficult to speak to any media after a while.”
However, both Gordon and McAdam went on to say that despite their disillusionment with the media, the positives of Idle No More’s impact outweighed any negatives.
“The positive is that Idle No More has changed the political and social landscape today,” said McAdam. “Even at the university — and at my job here — we’re decolonizing and indigenizing.”
Although McAdam recognizes Idle No More has made a difference, she refuses the notion that it brought truly new ideas to the forefront.
“Idle No More has been called different things over the generations over the years since Europeans came to our lands. So it’s not a new resistance… it’s been called many things. And I think over the years activists, environmentalists, indigenous land defenders, human defenders, have planted seeds all over the place, and for some reason Idle No More sparked all of those. For some reason, it was at the right time. And I don’t take responsibility for that at all. All four of us ladies would quickly tell you that we were just a voice. There was thousands of other voices out there, but for some reason that time it worked.”
When asked about how Idle No More affected them personally, Gordon wrote primarily about how it increased the sense of community amongst indigenous activists.
“Idle No More now is something that many of our people can use as a support and feel they belong to. They are no longer alone in making things right.”
McAdam answered the question from more an individual perspective.
“I’ll never be the same again,” she said. “I feel like I’m wearing a different pair of glasses because I don’t see the world the same any more. I now recognize the typologies of genocide. I recognize how this government blocks people from seeing the violation of the environment, treaties, indigenous sovereignty, even democracy. And we’re seeing that more and more. Non-indigenous people are starting to see that more and more.”
McAdam said that the biggest challenge facing her now is overcoming the “willful ignorance” of people when it comes to legal, political and environmental issues.
She pointed out that indigenous students on reserves receive only a fraction of the funding that other students receive and questioned why the Harper government attempted to remedy that through the highly controversial 2014 Education Act rather than simply increasing funding. She questioned why indigenous bands and reserves had to frequently go to court to prove ownership over land or natural resources, while the same onus was rarely put on the government. Most of all, she pointed out that without input or challenges from other Canadians, there was little hope of change for indigenous peoples.
“It’s a huge task to question and to be aware of what’s going on,” McAdam acknowledged. “It’s a huge thing, and many people perhaps feel overwhelmed.”
But when asked if she herself ever felt overwhelmed by advocacy, her answer was unequivocal:
“Some days. But, what am I going to say to my children, or my grandchildren when they ask me, ‘What did you do to stop it.’ Am I going to say, ‘Oh, well I was feeling overwhelmed?’ Would that be sufficient an answer? I don’t think so.”
While neither McAdam nor Gordon had anything to say about Idle No More rallies planned for the near future, they emphasized that what occurred in the winter of 2012 was not a stand-alone event, but another step in a centuries-long process of indigenous resistance to colonization.
When asked about the most important thing they wished non-indigenous people knew about First Nations people or culture, Gordon said the most important thing she wished non-indigenous people to know about First Nations people or culture is that indigenous peoples, and movements such as Idle No More, are not going away anytime soon.
“Our long history of confronting forces that seek to destroy the land and our people doesn’t come from a place of bitterness or hate, it comes from a love for all people and land,” she wrote. “We have had many things done to us as a people but yet we continue to fight for one another, the land and water. We have had a lot of things done to us [as a] people but yet we remain, there is something inherent and that won’t die.”
McAdam’s answer was blunt.
“Our lands have been stolen. And that theft is still going on. They need to know that. That there’s a myth and a lie being perpetuated by the colonizing state that we ceded and surrendered our lands and that’s not true. That the Doctrine of Discovery gives the colonizing state underlying title when that’s a myth and a lie,” she said. “And once you begin to uncover that, you’ll understand that the poverty of my people is not their fault. And I think people need to understand the treaties. It’s too late for talk. It’s time for action.”