by Juanita Klassen
Big Ideas: Idle No More, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Millenium Library, Carole Shields Auditorium
September 23, 2014
Before each reading during this festival, I’ve sampled the atmosphere that precedes it. The aura before A Pint of Bitter Murder was easy and low-key, the one preceding Big Ideas: Valour Road was quiet and respectful, and before Big Ideas: Idle No More the atmosphere was energetic, with lively conversation and laughter. I sat down and waited with anticipation.
Bruce Symaka began this event by introducing Leanne Simpson and her books: The Gift is in the Making, Islands of Decolonial Love, and the one that we’re hearing about today, The Winter We Danced, a collection of essays, poetry, songs and stories taken from the collective experience of the first burst of the Idle No More movement, during the winter of 2012-2013.
Simpson greeted us in a beautiful language – the rhythm of it reminded me of Cree but I forgot to ask – then introduced herself in English and revealed that she was a recovering academic, which sparked laughter. After expressing thanks to those who helped with this book, she then began telling the story of this complex and organic movement.
I found Simpson’s description of Idle No More fascinating i.e. that it is only the most recent flowering of a continuing protest that began when the Aniishnabe met their unpredictable new neighbours; you know, the ones who named themselves the landlords and began abusing them and exploiting the land. She said that her ancestors did what they could to protect the land and their children: they protested with words, they taught traditions and language to their children, and, they stayed alive, despite organized efforts to wipe them off the face of their earth. This protest has been ongoing for the entire length of that relationship; as in other abusive relationships, they are ignored by the government until there’s a flashpoint, like Oka, Ipperwash, The 1969 White Paper, and Idle No More, to name a few. The media focuses on these uncomfortable events and can’t report accuratelybecause they generally fail to understand the enormity and nature of the ongoing historical narrative these singular events are part of.
As Simpson described, this particular flashpoint was an immediate reaction to Bill C-45, a scary piece of legislation that threatened to remove environmental protection of First Nations lands and communities with no consultation with, or consent of, the people who lived there. A small group of women started the appeal via social media and immediately began educating their communities about what was going on, using the hashtag #IdleNoMore. Before long, passionate leaders emerged representing a list of longstanding issues, such as fair legislation over land issues, justice for missing and murdered aboriginal women, pipeline protests out west, and the fight over fracking out east, to name a few. I became inspired, then excited, as Simpson continued to describe these actions of true citizens, humans who are taking care of the land and their communities. We don’t even have to agree with each other all the time; in fact, it’s better when we figure out how to proceed with differences intact.
I thought Simpson’s story of the round dance was particularly beautiful within this context. The dance itself symbolizes letting go of grief and making a space to remember those who have gone before you, and when the circle is formed the ancestors dance with you. In the story of Idle No More, people threw together many flash mob round dances, particularly in malls as Christmas approached, to honour those who have gone before and to remind folks of what is really important. The energy she described was engaging and irresistible, sketching a movement that is a living organism, people within it focusing in an upward manner, and, even though we don’t see it in the media, most of it is still alive underground, people still working at the community level, working to protect the land and their rights.
Now I’m running out of time here, but there was so much more that Simpson talked about: like the push that Chief Theresa Spence gave the entire movement; about the fact that this movement is far from over even though it’s off the media radar at the moment; about the Walking With Our Sisters traveling art exhibit and how it’s becoming its own internal inquiry and healing process; about the exciting transformation of the Winnipeg community; about the important work of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network that receives all the profits from this book, and so on. I was so moved, inspired, and curious that I bought the book, The Winter We Danced, and highly recommend it. This is a beautiful and wildly diverse collection of work, all written from the hearts and minds of passionate citizens.