Idle No More- An Essay introducing Treaty, Internal Colonization and Native Nationalism

We are not our statistics, we are not our violence, our poverty, we are not invisible […] Your silence…is your consent to the demise of a people […] We need you, you need you…Be idle no more. 

Nina Wilson, Co-founder of the Idle No More protest movement

In November 2012 four women – Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon – organized a mass teach-in at Station 20 West in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to call attention to a piece of legislation called the omnibus Bill C-45. This legislation was eventually passed on December 14th, 2012 without any consultation of the Aboriginal peoples who would be affected, with the most controversial changes affecting the Indian Act, Navigation Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act.

Among many amendments, the bill calls for a reduction of federal environmental reviews on waterways (many of which pass through First Nations territories), changes the definition of Aboriginal fishery, reduces protection of fish habitats and implements changes to the Indian Act in relation to leasing reserve property. The original teach-in in Saskatoon quickly led to more teach-ins, rallies and protests across Saskatchewan and eventually spread to Winnipeg, Manitoba and Edmonton, Alberta, culminating in a national day of action on December 10th, 2012 which quickly became “one of the largest Indigenous mass movements in Canadian history” (Gordon et al., 2013).

Idle No More is now recognized as a grassroots Indigenous protest movement which is quickly gaining global support. Their mission is to call “on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water”, declaring that “the Treaties are nation to nation agreements between Canada and First Nations who are sovereign nations” (Idle No More, 2013). Treaty lies at the center of this debate, and Idle No More could be seen as a demonstration of the deep frustration felt by Aboriginal peoples who are tired of waiting for Treaty to be recognized and acknowledged by the Canadian state. Consequently, the following article will be discussing Treaty and how it has failed to be recognized by the Canadian state through a system of ongoing internal colonization, as well as its connection with discourses surrounding Indigenous nationhood.

On its official website, Idle No More “calls on all people to continue to oppose and reject all imposed legislation originating from the federal government”, declaring that “the unilateral imposition of these Bills is in direct violation of the Treaties and the Treaty relationship that the Original peoples of Turtle Island made with the British Crown” (Idle No More, 2013). Our first task will thus be to examine what is meant by Treaty and the “Treaty relationship”.

The official approach to understanding Treaty has generally been a superficial one, where only the written words have been taken into account. This has led to a common-sense attitude that First Nations surrendered their rights and titles, as is illustrated by Tom Flanagan’s approach to the Treaties. In his discussion of the numbered Treaties in Canada, he refers to them as “first and foremost land-surrender agreements” (Flanagan, 2000: 146) which typically contained “an explicit surrender of Indian title to land” (Flanagan, 2000: 145).

Both Sharon Venne and Michael Asch however point out the importance of not only taking into account the written treaties, but also their context and the oral understanding which is all too often ignored.

Asch, in his paper “On the Land Cessation Provision in Treaty 11” (2013), analyzes the great misrepresentation present in Treaty 11 and the disjunction between the written and the oral agreements. During the Treaty negotiations in 1921, the Crown was represented by Commissioner Henry Arthur Conroy, who had been instructed to “obtain cession and surrender” and not make any outside promises to the Dene (Asch, 2013: 472).

However it is quite clear from the records of the negotiations that he exceeded his authority. The Dene seemed particularly concerned about whether the Treaty contained provisions regarding the cessation of land and were suspicious when offered money or benefits in case this was intended as a payment for their land. In response to this, Asch writes that for every community for which there is evidence “they received the same assurance: it was intended to symbolize the establishment of a relationship of peace and friendship between them, not to transfer ownership and jurisdiction” (Asch, 2013: 468). As a result, Asch argues that “when contextual evidence is included in the interpretation of what occurred during negotiations; one is drawn to conclude that the Crown understood that Dene did not agree to cede or surrender their lands in Treaty 11, notwithstanding what was written down” (Asch, 2013: 458).

The government of Canada was very much aware of this misrepresentation of the Treaty negotiations, however interestingly failed to correct it or reject the promises made by Conroy. Consequently, Asch concludes that the government tacitly agreed to Conroy’s oral contract with the Dene, meaning that Treaty 11 “actually affirms a shared understanding of the Crown’s recognition of Dene ownership and jurisdiction over their lands as they have reported it” (Asch 2013: 473).

The Dene were thus not wrong to walk away from the negotiations confident that their lands were safe and under their continued care.

Map illustrating the Numbered Treaties

Map illustrating the Numbered Treaties

This understanding can also be found in other Treaty negotiations as described by Sharon Venne (2007). In her presentation about the oral understanding of Treaty Six and treaty-making in 1876 at Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt she discusses the meaning of Treaty to the Cree. Treaty according to the Cree understanding is based on peace and friendship (Venne, 2007: 4) with the aim of living side by side with the non-indigenous people and sharing their resources (Venne, 2007: 8), corroborating with Asch’s account. This can be illustrated by the fact that the oral history of the Elders reports that Commissioner Morris, who was sent to negotiate the treaty of 1876, promised the Cree that “we don’t want your animals because we are bringing our own […] Everything remains yours. We don’t want any of that. We don’t have enough money to buy your land” (Venne, 2007: 5).

Idle No More agrees with this understanding of Treaty, as their website declares that “the spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources” (Idle No More, 2013).

The Cree and Dene, like many other Indigenous Peoples in Canada, agreed to share their resources out of goodwill, but instead have faced a long history of Treaty violations at the hands of non-indigenous people, and the promises made to them have been repeatedly broken. In the end, due to the fact that the “Western mind privileges writing over orality” (Asch, 2013: 456), the verbal negotiations of Treaty have been ignored, and thus it is often wrongfully assumed that Indigenous lands were in fact ceded to the Crown.

It seems as if the Canadian government’s refusal to take into account the full context and verbal promises made during the Treaty negotiations is ultimately due to politics and their “anticipation of the outcome should such factors be included” (Asch, 2013: 457).

Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have faced five centuries of Treaty violations: they have had their lands stolen, their children have faced the trauma of residential schools where they were abused and forbidden to speak their own languages, and they have suffered disease and the undermining of their political and social systems through legislations such as the Indian Act. The continuing violation of Treaty rights and the imposition of unilateral legislation such as the omnibus Bill C-45 could be described as an ongoing form of internal colonization.

Internal colonization is defined by James Tully as “the appropriation of land, resources and jurisdiction of indigenous peoples, not only for the sake of resettlement and exploitation […] but for the territorial foundation of the dominant society itself” (Tully, 2000: 39). Clearly, the appropriation of natural resources lies at the heart of internal colonization. The Idle No More movement highlights this issue as one of their main focus points in their Manifesto: “We will be left with nothing but poisoned water, land and air. This is an attempt to take away sovereignty and the inherent right to land and resources from First Nations peoples” (Idle No More, 2013).

Tully continues by digging deeper into the strategies which the Canadian government has used in order to achieve its long-term goals of making the indigenous population disappear, which has been done in two ways: firstly, through the extinction of indigenous peoples either through dying out due to disease or warfare or by marrying into the dominant society, and secondly through the attempt to extinguish the rights of indigenous peoples to their territories and self-government (Tully, 2000: 40).

Extinguishment however carries with it a number of contradictions, namely the ongoing and possibly eternal debate about whether indigenous rights and title were actually surrendered at the time of treaty making (as we have seen, in the indigenous perspective they were not, but the official stance to this day from the government has been that they did surrender their territory despite the research and arguments which support the indigenous standpoint).

From this, two governmental strategies of incorporation have been employed in order to ‘solve’ this contradiction: “to incorporate indigenous people by means of assimilation or accommodation” (Tully, 2000: 45). You only need to look into the recent history of Canada to find numerous policies aimed at assimilating indigenous people to the dominant society (residential schools for example), as well as arguments put forwards by theorists such as Tom Flanagan (2000).

In regards to the strategy of accommodation, this can be illustrated in the way indigenous people are dealt with by the Supreme Court of Canada, for example by simply “recognizing their rights as rights within the Canadian constitution. In so doing, it reaffirms the system of internal colonization” (Tully, 2000: 45). Indigenous people are consequently recognized as having rights as members of Canadian society, and are thus subject to the sovereignty of the Canadian state instead of having rights as sovereign, self-governing nations.

An Idle No More protest in Victoria, British Columbia

An Idle No More protest in Victoria, British Columbia

One way of denying indigenous sovereignty has been through the denial of the nation-to-nation status of the treaties, as has been argued by political theorists such as Alan Cairns (2000) and Tom Flanagan (2000). Cairns argues that Native nationalism or the recognition of First Nations as sovereign nations is unrealistic, because contemporary treaties are completely different to the original treaties. According to him, contemporary treaties “are situated in a federal system in which Aboriginal peoples are also a part of the very communities with whom they are bargaining”, in contrast to the original treaties which were “between separate actors in a mini-international system” (Cairns, 2000: 193). He consequently refers to Canada as a “common country to which we all belong” (Cairns, 2000: 193), repeatedly referring to some kind of “shared civic identity” (Cairns, 2000: 195).

Moreover, Cairns advocates the creation of “citizens plus”, arguing that differences between Aboriginals and non-aboriginals should be acknowledged though not at the expense of common interests. I would question his assumption that the international nation-to-nation relations of the early contact period no longer exist, for this completely contradicts the Aboriginal understanding of Treaty. Cairns fails to acknowledge that First Nations existed prior to settlement from Europeans and that they have never surrendered their nationhood, resulting in a very Canadian-centric argument which fails to acknowledge the Indigenous perspective. Flanagan also disputes this nation-to-nation status:

The many agreements made over the centuries between Indians […] and Great Britain or Canada […] are not treaties in the international sense. They could not be, because […] Indians were not organized into states and did not possess sovereignty in the technical sense (Flanagan, 2000: 135)

Such attitudes are widespread and have only resulted in the maintenance of a system of internal colonization on which the Canadian state is based.

In referring to Treaties as “nation to nation” agreements (Idle No More, 2013), the First Nations are placed at a level alike to that of the British Crown. As has been noted, this has not been the official government attitude towards First Nations as Canada has a long history of policies aimed at assimilating indigenous peoples into the Canadian mainstream and denying their nationhood. Such an attitude has long been the source of frustration among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, and the Idle No More movement could arguably be representative of a growing sense of nationalism among First Nations in response to this ongoing internal colonization.

Taiaiake Alfred offers a sense of optimism when he writes: “With a growing realization of their inherent ability to survive as people and persist as nations, Native societies are developing the confidence to assert themselves both culturally and politically” (Alfred, 1995: 6). In theorizing Native nationalism, Alfred argues that the formulation of nationalism itself must be reconstructed, due to the fact that the dominant understanding is based on colonial assumptions and a European understanding of nation-building (Alfred, 1995: 9). Alfred refers to this early formulation of nationalism as “State Nationalism”, which he defines as: “a form oriented toward incorporating groups into a larger community and creating a common identity which supports the development of hegemonic state institutions” (Alfred, 1995: 14). In contrast to this, Alfred provides a different type of nationalism which he calls “Ethno-Nationalism (Autonomy)”:

a form which seeks to achieve self-determination not through the creation of a new state, but through the achievement of a cultural sovereignty and a political relationship based on group autonomy reflected in formal self-government arrangements in cooperation with existing state institutions (Alfred, 1995: 14)

This is the form of nationalism which he argues best reflects the Native nationalism in Canada, which is experiencing an increase due to frustrations which First Nations have in their dealings with the government.

Negotiations currently suffer greatly from the ethnocentric federal position, as for the government, “negotiations that do not ensure extinguishment [of Aboriginal rights and title] hardly seem worthwhile” (Asch and Zlotkin, 1997: 5). Michael Asch and Norman Zlotkin argue that the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government will never recover if the status quo is maintained due to an ongoing sense of injustice. Consequently, they offer an alternative which corresponds to Alfred’s notion of Ethno-Nationalism, in which the “recognition and respect for First Nations as self-determining and distinct nations […] must be the hallmark of this new relationship“(Asch and Zlotkin, 1997: 12).

Tully also supports such a solution to internal colonization, arguing that certainty can only be found by recognizing First Nations as self-governing and autonomous people who are equal in status to the Canadian state and willing to negotiate shared jurisdiction of land and resources in a relationship of mutual respect and consensus (Tully, 2000: 53). Leanne Simpson, in a recent interview about the Idle No More movement, summarized it well:

We’re not talking about getting a bigger piece of the pie […] we’re talking about a different pie. People within the Idle No More movement who are talking about indigenous nationhood are talking about a massive transformation, a massive decolonization. (Klein, 2013)

Ultimately, the Idle No More movement could be regarded as an Ethno-Nationalist movement (along the lines of Alfred’s definition), as its goals coincide with the Ethno-Nationalist aims of achieving self-determination and sovereignty based on a political relationship of cooperation rather than any form of domination by one party over the other.

Respecting treaty inherently goes hand in hand with acknowledging the sovereignty of First Nations, and it seems clear that many assumptions, such as that of the supremacy of Canadian law within Native communities, should be challenged. Only once sovereignty and aboriginal rights are acknowledged can a new relationship be built “according to the principle of equitable sharing of ownership and jurisdiction” (Asch and Zlotkin, 1997: 2).

To conclude, the Idle No More movement could be regarded as an Ethno-Nationalist movement (if we take Taiaiake’s definition) which has arisen out of the frustration felt by First Nations people as a result of the ongoing internal colonization which is being carried out by the Canadian state, embodied by the unilateral imposition of legislation such as the omnibus Bill C-45. Such unilateral legislation is in direct violation of Treaty, which from the indigenous perspective is an ongoing relationship founded on peace and friendship, not the extinguishment of indigenous rights and title as is often assumed by superficial readings of the Treaties.

This article has touched upon numerous topics, such as colonialism, nationalism, sovereignty and citizenship, all of which could have benefited from deeper discussion, however this illustrates the complexity of the discussion at hand. Hopefully this work has illustrated however that there are numerous assumptions held within the dominant and current political logic which need to be challenged in order to find some common ground.

It is apparent that the colonial policies of assimilation and extinguishment have fortunately failed. Indigenous peoples in Canada are no longer in a position where they are simply surviving – they have persisted. As the population and confidence of First Nations steadily grows their voices calling for sovereignty and respect of Treaty will grow ever louder. The Canadian state can only pretend to be deaf for so long – eventually they will need to face the promises which have been broken and they will need to strive for certainty by restoring a sense of justice.

As has been argued by Asch, Zlotkin, Tully and many others, this certainty can only be found by the recognition and affirmation of Aboriginal rights and title and the creation of a new relationship based on equality and shared understanding.


Alfred, Gerarld. Heeding the Voices of our Ancestors. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Asch, Michael and Norman Zlotkin. “Affirming Aboriginal Title: A New Basis for Comprehensive Claims Negotiations.” Asch, Michael. Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997. 208-230.

Asch, Michael. “On the Land Cession Provisions in Treaty 11.” Ethnohistory (2013): 451-467.

Cairns, Alan. Citizens Plus. Vancouver and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.

Flanagan, Tom. First Nations? Second Thoughts. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press , 2000.

Idle No More. Manifesto. 24 January 2013. 2 May 2013. <;.

—. One of Idle No More Co-Founders, Nina Wilson Speaks: We Need You…You Need You. 24 March 2013. 2 May 2013. <;.

Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Nina Wilson and Sheelah McLean. Idle No More: Indigenous Brothers and Sisters Taking the Initiative for a Better Tomorrow. 17 December 2012. 2 May 2013. <;.

Klein, Naomi. “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson.” YES! Magazine 5 March 2013. 2 May 2013. <;.

Treaties Made in Good Faith. By Sharon Venne. University of Alberta. n.d.

Tully, James. “The Struggles of Indigenous Peoples for and of Freedom.” Ivison, Duncan, Paul Patton and Will Sanders. Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 36-60.

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2 responses to “Idle No More- An Essay introducing Treaty, Internal Colonization and Native Nationalism

  1. Pingback: Idle No More – Indigenous Canadians Fight Against Ongoing Internal Colonization | Beyond Development·

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