The spiritual side of Idle No More

The critical moment of decision (when the eighth fire is lit) is when humankind decides that materialism is equal to environmental catastrophe for everyone. The eighth fire will be lit when a path of respect, wisdom and spirituality is chosen – spiritual illumination will unfold. Many in Idle No More believe this, as do I.

Idle No More began as a social media call to action by four women in Saskatchewan. It has grown into an international social movement featuring grassroots protests, hunger strikes and blockades. Flashpoints have been provisions in Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, including changes made to the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. For aboriginal people, land is sacred and the Creator has placed them here to care for it.

How does their spirituality affect these actions for treaty rights, land claims and environmental protection? Some have said Idle No More is a protest 400 years in the making. Are we witnessing a pivotal moment of aboriginal and Canadian history? A distinguished Faith Exchange panel has convened to help answer these questions and more.

Wanda Nanibush is a Toronto-based Idle No More organizer and an Anishnabe-kwe writer, artist and filmmaker from Beausoleil First Nation.

Mark MacDonald is National Indigenous Bishop for the Anglican Church of Canada.

 Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy represents 133 first nations in the Assembly of First Nations.

Guest moderator Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of the TV program Context with Lorna Dueck, seen Sundays on Global TV at 9:30 a.m. ET and Vision TV at 12:30 p.m. ET.


Lorna Dueck: Aboriginal spiritualities, expressed in as many ways as their are clans in Canada, affirm that we are always in conversation with the Creator, and that the Creator has a plan for aboriginal peoples to care for the land and live in a holistic manner within it. How do we see this spiritual orientation reflected in Idle No More?

Wanda Nanibush: I think the language of the Creator is useful for discussions cross-culturally but for me, the word is translated as “the Great Mystery,” which is considerably different. The basis of our sacred relationship with the land, waters and all of creation is the same, though.  This underlies Idle No More actions because of the focus on the loss of environmental protection under Bill C-45. We look to honoring the nation-to-nation relationship in order to protect all of creation, especially the water. Because humans are the weakest link in all of creation because we depend on all of it to survive – we must protect and nurture it. Humans have relationships with the natural world precisely because we are one with it and dependant upon it. The interconnnectedness of all living things means it is necessary for relationships to be maintained for the continuance of life for the future generations. We choose actions that place a deep emphasis on remembering and maintaining our relationships with all of creation.

Stan Beardy: For centuries, first nations have been guided by two pillars: our special relationship with the Creator and our special relationship with the land. The Seven Grandfather Teachings are based on these pillars. Idle No More is responding with spiritual orientation in that many first nations see Bills C-38 and C-45 in direct violation of these two pillars. These bills desecrate the sacred responsibility of that special relationship with the Creator and the land because they deal with destruction of essential elements for healthy living – clean air, water etc.

Mark MacDonald: These are all good thoughts. I would add one or two: The relationship with the land is God-given and necessary for a good life. To grow in the good life, in morality and spirituality, is to grow in the beneficial relationship with God and creation. This is demonstrated by the way we call male elders Akiwensi – meaning that they care for the Earth.

This means that the relationship with creation, with the land, is a moral absolute. It cannot be eclipsed by other considerations. The way in which economics has become morally absolute is dangerous to all human beings and all creatures. It seems to me that Idle No More is helping to remind us of this vital fact of existence.

Lorna Dueck: Wanda, many of us would see ourselves first as consumers, before being stewards of creation in relationship with the Great Mystery. Are you saying Idle No More is a wake-up call to remind us we are in relationship to protect land and water? Chief Beardy, what are the Seven Grandfather Teachings and how widely known are they among your people? And Bishop MacDonald, what then is the significance of economic development for the sustainability of aboriginal communities?

Wanda NanibushWe need to move away from thinking of ourselves as consumers, or at least question what we consume and why. I remember when water became a commodity. I was deeply disturbed at the idea of bottling and selling water. Instead of asking ourselves why the water coming out of the tap was not good enough anymore, we shifted slowly to seeing water as something to buy and sell. If we had instead held our ground and demanded to know what was happening with our waterways and systems such that buying water from somewhere else became necessary, I think people would have become more invested in cleaning up the water and questioning economic development projects that damaged our access to fresh and clean water.

I think of Bolivia and the privitization of their water and how water became too expensive for many people. Can you imagine that happening here? People must consider whether that is the right way to go. The other side of the consumption debate is the use of water for corporations and for pollution like tailing ponds. It is a poor use of a non-renewable resource that is 90 percent of life itself. Anishnawbe ceremonies around water make central the fact that is an essential aspect of life. I think when people experience a water ceremony, they are fundamentally changed and can no longer see it as a commodity.

Stan Beardy: It is definitely a wake-up call to all mankind. This is not only a first nations issue. We all inhabit the same planet, share the same elements that we need to survive.

The Seven Grandfather Teachings are a set of teachings on human conduct toward others. There is a story behind how these teachings came to be. They have been passed on from generation to generation through storytelling and legends. They are:

  • Wisdom – given by the Creator to be used for the good of the people
  • Love – to know it is to know peace. It must be unconditional
  • Respect – to honor all creation is to have respect
  • Bravery – to face a foe with integrity
  • Honesty – to be honest in word and deed
  • Humility – to know yourself as a sacred part of creation and that you are equal to others, but you are not better
  • Truth – to know all these things and to not deceive yourself or others

Mark MacDonald: Lorna, economic development is important – God has chosen to care for us through the land – but if it is the only consideration, life is distorted and the creature is put before the Creator. Sustainability must be a broad topic that includes both economic sustainability and long-term environmental sustainability. This would include moral, cultural and spiritual sustainability.

Stan Beardy: First nations are not against resource development. Through treaty-making, we agreed to share the land with the settlers, understanding that they need land to create wealth. Because of our two pillars, the holistic approach to sustainability has to be balanced. There has to be adequate environmental protection through environmental assessment and there must be free, prior and informed consent. Through treaty-making, again, there was an understanding that when consent is given, we are to benefit as well through jobs, business opportunities and share of the profits received by government.

Wanda Nanibush: If you look at all the lakes and rivers are that have become unprotected under Bill C-45, they are connected to economic development projects – the biggest examples being the tar sands and the Northern Gateway project. In the Anishnawbe way of thinking, one always has to look seven generations into the future. You have to care about the lives of your children’s children’s children and so on.

Under this philosophy, the current government leadership is shortsighted. To destroy a major resource for short-term financial gain is just not smart leadership. and to pass those decisions without proper debate and discussion is also anti-democratic and contrary to our governance practices, which value the imput and debate of all citizens. A leader is chosen based on his or her ability to listen as much as speak and for his or her ability to think of others before themselves and their ability to share with all so no one is left out.

Our ways speak of stewardship and sustainable development – long-term thinking that benefits all.

Lorna DueckDreams and visions are useful revelations in first nations spiritualities. A dynamic occurs when multiple people have the same dream that could be a reason for change. Are you hearing of any evidence of dreams and visions being part of the activism evidenced in Idle No More?

Mark MacDonald: Actually, I have heard quite a few claims regarding Idle No More and the larger spiritual awakening of the people that this is a part of the dreams of the elders, going back a long time.

Stan Beardy: The prophecy of the seven generations and the lighting of the eighth fire is a dream that’s part of the activism evidenced in Idle No More globally. This prophecy represents key spiritual teaching and says that different colours and faiths of mankind can come together on a basis of respect. The critical moment of decision (when the eighth fire is lit) is when humankind decides that materialism is equal to environmental catastrophe for everyone. The eighth fire will be lit when a path of respect, wisdom and spirituality is chosen – spiritual illumination will unfold. Many in Idle No More believe this, as do I.

Lorna Dueck: The point you make – that materialism equals environmental catastrophe for everyone – has not yet dawned on many Canadians. Are there practices in your spiritualities that would help us come together on our shared interest in avoiding environmental risk?

Mark MacDonaldThe understanding of sharing and lack of hard concepts of ownership is critical. The idea that these gifts of God are owned by God, shared by all should be universal. All life is responsible to the rest of life. This is the plan of the Creator.

Stan BeardyThe Seven Grandfather Teachings advocate a principled and balanced approach to wealth creation and responsibilities to the current and future generations. Viewing creation as being sacred and being honourable by respecting that creation is one of the practices in our spirituality – this goes for all faiths.

Our teaching is that you only take from the land what you need, and if you are lucky enough to have more than you need, you share it with others. Equitable distribution of wealth will begin to address poverty. There is too much imbalance. When our people are poor, we do not have a voice to hold the governments or corporations accountable and to be responsible corporate citizens.

Wanda Nanibush: We had treaty-making practices long before contact, often involving wampum, which tells both what is agreed to and how that relationship between the parties will be conducted. Again, we conduct our affairs as if the person is not just a mind but a spirit and heart too. Treaties were often about conducting relationships based on truth, honesty, respect and integrity for the purpose of peace and friendship. This meant sharing across nations but without interfering in each others’ affairs.

The concept of non-interference is important because we believe in the self-determination of everyone. The individual is not a selfish entity protecting itself – it is an vulnerable entity connected to all living things for survival and finds peace when in balance internally, in the house, in the community and finally within the nation. Both sides of a treaty should benefit from that treaty and both should be left to govern their own affairs. Why would someone sign a treaty that makes them wards of the state, children of another nation, that denies them access to their territories, children, ways of life, governance, ceremonies and freedom? This has been our experience of Canadian (and British) interference in our affairs. This is not the treaty we signed.

Lorna Dueck: Panelists, can you give any examples of how you saw the seven grandfather teachings shaping Idle No More and the recent struggle for a meeting with the Crown and Prime Minister Stephen Harper?

Wanda Nanibush: January is the spirit moon and when the grandmothers’ council takes place, as far as I understand it. I think this is why this movement is led largely by women. Women have a special relationship with the moon and the water. We learn mothering from Mother Earth – the first mother. How the Earth takes care of us is how we are to care for our children. We learn ceremonies, songs and so on that teach us and enact our kinship with all of creation. Women still lead from their hearts and spirits. Our notion of the person is one where the heart, mind, body and spirit are not separate but are to be integrated and balanced. The Idle No More movement, led by women, proposes actions that unite and balance all the parts of our selves through song, dance, ceremony and unity – this engages the heart and spirit. People walk away hugging, laughing, crying, moved and transformed. This is a Nish way for real change.

Stan Beardy: To first nations, treaty-making is sacred. Our side is honorable because it invokes our spirituality and the two pillars I previously referred to. The Crown and our Prime Minister failed to give honor to the treaty relationship based on the principles of human conduct in the Seven Grandfather Teachings. Our struggle will continue until there is indication of good faith by the Crown, by the state and by the churches by appropriately dealing with the Doctrine of Discovery.

Mark MacDonald: I think it is important to say that for many people, the dispossession of land, language, and culture that indigenous peoples have endured is a regrettable historical wrong. For the peoples themselves, it is an ongoing and accelerating process. It may not be with the level of outward viciousness of the past, but its product is the same.

For the churches’ part, they were part of the treaty-making process – even gave it some of the ceremonial and spiritual legitimacy. Today, in addition to repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, they must rediscover their own role in way of life that will bring blessings to all.

Lorna Dueck: Mark, given the reality of the Doctrine of Discovery and our colonial past, can you explain why churches are still part of aboriginal culture and what they have to contribute to building a better relationship with the Crown?

Mark MacDonald: The elders who responded to the Christian message saw its deep resonance, in its original form, as read directly from Scripture, and its original view of the world – as opposed to the Western scientism and materialism that infected even the missionaries. Today, the wisdom and theological brilliance of these elders still inspires many. A truly aboriginal Christian faith has much to say, perhaps in an interpretive way, to point a way to reconciliation.

Lorna Dueck: It’s time to conclude. I close by wishing there was a mass marketing campaign on the Seven Grandfather Teachings; they were a wonderful discovery in this conversation. What are your closing thoughts on the way forward, panelists?

Mark MacDonald: Faith and hope!

Stan Beardy: Idle No More will continue and may even start to escalate, because the government that is being protested does not have a conscience and cannot provide an acceptable response. Although there was an apology to first nations in 2008, today’s actions are contradictory to that. If the response is not changed, we are headed for a collision course. This is why we feel it is important to educate the general public about our frustrations. There is no justice in first nations living in Third World conditions while the dominant society prospers.

Wanda Nanibush: The way forward is for the grassroots to have a voice, for us to walk together in unity of purpose – which is the great reimagining of this country – to protect the Earth and water. This togetherness must be based on the nation-to-nation relationship, the honoring of the spirit and intent of treaties, the education of all Canadians on the real histories of this country, the legal acknowledgement of the founding aboriginal nations, and the return to ceremony and sacred places. We do not have to agree, but we must work together in a way that has honesty, integrity and respect as its core for peace and friendship in the future. All peoples need to reconnect to the life force of their spirit and body and how it is connected to all of life.

Lorna Dueck: Thank you all for your excellent dialogue. Your views fascinated me and I sure they will engage many readers.


March 2013 Febna Caven

On December 11, 2012, on International Human Rights Day, northern Ontario Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike, calling on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Governor General David Johnston to “initiate immediate discussions and the development of action plans to address treaty issues with First Nations across Canada.” Her peaceful resistance, emphasizing the importance of dialogue, catapulted the Idle No More movement to a new level of urgency. What began as a resistance against an impending bill in Saskatchewan spilled across the border to the United States, ultimately spreading as far as Ukraine and New Zealand
as a movement empowering Indigenous communities to stand up for their lands, rights, cultures, and sovereignty.

The Idle No More movement began as a thread of emails between four women from Saskatchewan: Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Nina Wilson, and Sheelah McLean, who decided to make a “sincere effort to make some change.” The context for their resolution was the Canadian Bill C-45, the government’s omnibus budget implementation
bill that includes changes to land management on the reservations. It attacks the land base reserved for Indigenous people, removes protection for hundreds of waterways, and weakens Canada’s environmental laws. The women started a Facebook page to brainstorm ideas and a plan for action. Gordon, who is from Pasqua 4 Treaty Territory, decided to name the page “Idle No More” as a reminder “to get off the couch and start working.”

The movement’s grassroots tactics were evident from the first major event, a mass teach-in at Station 20 West, an innovative community enterprise center in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on November 10, 2012. Following the teach-in, which was loosely coordinated via the group’s Facebook page and Twitter hashtag #idlenomore, a series of rallies and protests spread across Saskatchewan to Manitoba and Alberta. Speaking to a reporter at one such rally, Wilson, a Nakota and Plains Cree from Treaty 4 White Bear territory said, “We are trying to help people get their voices back so that we can make more change and we are able to have more of a First Nations voice…not just a First Nations, but an Indigenous voice, and not just an Indigenous voice but a grassroots voice, because it affects us all.” And it does affect us all, as it does the  environment.

Though it was the Omnibus C-45 bill that led to the movement, Idle No More is not just about legislation. It is also a call for renewal of the Indigenous identities and lifeways. The leaders and spokespersons of the movement have no hesitation linking the political to the personal, as the personal is very much a part of the movement. From her teepee on the frozen Ottawa River, a stone’s throw away from the Parliament Hill, Spence spent 44 days on hunger strike and recently said, “I am in this resistance because the pain became too heavy.

I just could not take it anymore.” She explained how the alienation and pain she feels stems from her years in the residential schools. “It was a closed chapter, until one day you realize this generation is facing the same pain we felt at resident school. We want a life of freedom and not a life of pain and fear for the generation.”

The fact that the movement’s leaders speak so openly about the pain they have experienced is one of the things that sets Idle No More apart. It reminds supporters, especially the Indigenous communities in Canada and across the globe, of their shared stories and memories and urges them to stick to their loyalties. The leaders speak in ways that their people can understand. Idle No More is a personal, global, and spiritual movement.

As McLean, who is the only non-Indigenous member in the initial group of four women, says, “It is a very loving movement…and it’s almost entirely female-led. Even though there are hundreds of men who support the movement, the vast majority of the movement’s participants and organizers are women.” The nature of the fluid, nonviolent, and unifying movement is one that both reflects and engages women’s agency. McLean’s passion for the cause is a statement that the resistance to Bill C-45 is a resistance relevant to every Canadian.

As the movement continues to grow, only loosely coordinated through the use of Twitter, Facebook, and a blog, there is an increasing chance that it could lose control of its core values: nonviolence, inclusion, and peace. Gordon, who has long served her community through nonprofit organizations and by volunteering on committees and boards, has taken up the responsibility for monitoring the virtual space of the movement. She manages the movement’s website, and takes great care in ensuring that the events that get promoted and added to the Idle No More banner are all peaceful in nature. “If I’m posting, I’ve been able to make sure [the contributions] are all peaceful. That’s what we’ve been saying from the beginning,” she says.

McAdam, who is from the Treaty 6 territory and a direct descendent of the treaty makers, is a scholar of Cree culture as well as law and human justice, and author of the book Cultural Teachings: First Nations Protocol and Methodologies. Nonviolence is a movement of great spiritual strength and necessitates precepts and reminders as to how the movement’s followers should renew and conduct themselves. McAdam invokes Cree history and laws to unite the Indigenous people. She says, “I’ve heard many of my relatives say, ‘yes, I will be there,’ but they don’t attend. Perhaps the reasons are legitimate; however, in our nehiyaw weyeswewna (Cree laws), when we say we are going to do something, the spirit world listens, your keepers listen, and our ancestors listen. When we say we are going to go ‘support,’ we mean, e we ni towh setohks
ka ke yak. This means we are doing more than supporting; our keepers, [and] spirits are going too. The ones that are listening will begin to pave the journey there for you so you may arrive safe and unharmed. When we don’t follow through with our plans, then our keepers will have set the path for that journey for nothing. When a person does this far too many times, then you are e pah kachimayak, which means dishonest, unsupportive.”

Each of the four women leading Idle No More fills a valuable niche. But even as the movement has strong leadership provided by the blend of their roles and experience, the masses at the grassroots still retain their place at the core of the movement. As the movement leaders speak of disenfranchised communities left without potable drinking water, as the extended history of colonialism and violation of treaty rights are recalled, the focus still remains on dialogue so that solutions are sought together
and not imposed; so that the space and chance for co-creation is securely protected; and participation and Free, Prior and Informed Consent are respected. Speaking up, dancing, and rallying together, co-creating, let’s too join. Let us be Idle No More.

— Febna Caven is an independent researcher and writer on communities in contested environments.

CSQ Issue: 37-1 The Electronic Drum: Community Radio’s Role in Indigenous Language Revitalization

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