Idle No More, and All The Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

If anything out of Idle No More is crystal-clear, it is this: when it comes to First Nations and how they work, a daunting number of Canadians have no freakin’ clue what they’re talking about.

No clue, not one, not even the slightest flicker of a lighthouse of a clue to warn them off the rocks. Instead, they cram into comment sections to dutifully repeat myths they’ve picked up; myths about First Nations and about chiefs, myths that have no basis in reality but make for good outrage. (“Don’t read the comments.”)

There is no excuse for willful ignorance, no excuse for retreating to racist dog-whistles or lazy shorthand about “taxpayers” or welfare or issues even further off the board of Idle No More’s core discussions. There’s no excuse for confusing a government’s own legal obligations with “handouts.” And there is certainly no excuse for taking a movement that tackles complex questions of governance and self-determination, and boiling it down only to a nasty game of “gotcha” on Attawapiskat.

At the same time, I have to ask: how can the majority of the public hope to be informed, when a lot of media coverage of First Nations issues — on governance, on law, on financing — has always been so incredibly bad?

This isn’t to point a finger at reporters, either. Let me be clear: until I started having to do a little bit of reporting on First Nations, the sum total of my knowledge of the Indian Act, of the current legal and governance framework of First Nations in Canada, and of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada  (now AANDC) is best described as “fuck all.”

I doubt I was the only one — and hell, I was always even interested in that stuff.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that amongst those doing the lion’s share of general assignment reporting, this holds true more often than not. After all, here is a comprehensive list of where I learned about the Indian Act, the current legal and governance framework of First Nations in Canada, and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in my youth: nowhere. Here is a non-comprehensive list of where I never learned about those things: high school, journalism programs, mainstream media.

My general sense: most Canadians enter adulthood, and begin crystallizing opinions on the country, without having the foggiest clue about how First Nations are run, how they’re funded, why they’re funded, how they are controlled and how the federal government — and one of its most dense and frustrating bureaucracies — plays such an overarching role in the everyday operations of a First Nation.

Look, I’m still far from expert on how it all works. I’m learning where I can, I’ve been learning for years, and the more I learn the more it makes my head hurt. Still, I now have a far better grasp than I did when I actually started having to report on these issues. And it’s enough to know this: the system isn’t just broken, it was never once whole. It’s been a garbage nightmare of colonial bureaucracy from the get-go.

This is all to say this: something has to change, going forward.

With the system, yes, but I mean in our education and ongoing dialogues, too. Looking back on my youth, it’s infuriating to realize how little we were ever taught; for this, there is no excuse. Every Canadian has a responsibility to educate themselves, yes. But it’s no surprise this often doesn’t happen when we are so rarely given the framework to begin to understand, which allows ignorance to trickle out through the media and further widen the gap.

On the bright side: on this end, I think Idle No More is proving to be an incredible success.

It’s gotten people of all stripes talking about treaties, about governance, about the history of it all. It’s gotten non-Native people learning about relationships they mostly never thought about before, and incremental progress is being made. We’re getting smarterer, and a little more educated, and hopefully that will only encourage the knee-jerk responses to slowly fade away.

Time to talk about this stuff like grown-ups, yeah?


On a related note, I can’t express enough my admiration for Chelsea Vowel, who has devoted staggering amounts of time to writing and educating people about a lot of the very complex issues around First Nations, the federal government, law, financing, Aboriginal people’s experiences. She was doing phenomenal work before Idle No More began, and has been a remarkable voice in the movement. Her Aboriginal Issues Primer topics are must-reads.

It takes a lot of energy to educate people, especially to try and educate in a sphere where you’re writing about your own life and identity and community, while ignorance reigns supreme. A huge tip of the hat to Vowel and all of the many other women and men who have invested so much time on that end.