Idle No More?

The Idle No More protests have dropped off the public and media agenda with almost as much speed as they burst onto it. Below is the trend for Canadian Google searches for Idle No More from December to February.

One of the fascinating things that I noticed about the Idle No More movement was its obsession with process, rather than outcome. It seemed to be that activists behind Idle No More spent at least as much time distinguishing themselves from their colleagues in the Assembly of First Nations in terms of mobilizing tactics as they did in terms of goals. Here’s Dr. Pamela Palmater, an Associate Professor of political science at Ryerson University and a former candidate for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.

The Idle No More movement, initially started by women, is a peoples’ movement that empowers Indigenous peoples to stand up for their Nations, lands, treaties and sovereignty. This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can and can’t do. There are no colonial-based lines imposed on who joins the movement and thus issues around on & off-reserve, status and non-status, treaty and non-treaty, man or woman, elder or youth, chief or citizen does not come into play. This movement is inclusive of all our peoples.

Further, Palmater claims that this organizing principle is rooted in actual, pre-contact cultural practices of First Nations.

To my mind, the true governing power of our Indigenous Nations has always been exercised through the voice of our peoples. The leaders were traditionally more like spokespeople which represented to views and decisions of the people. In this way, the Idle No More movement, led by grassroots peoples connects very closely to our Indigenous traditional values.


Yet, what makes this peoples’ movement so unique, is also what makes it so difficult for many Canadians and the media to understand. Generally speaking, people understand that each government, group or organization has a leader, a clearly defined hierarchy and rules about who can say and do what. This movement on the other hand, is very organic in nature and first and foremost respects the sovereignty of individual Indigenous peoples and their Nations to participate how and when they choose, if at all. This will mean that some First Nations leaders will choose not to participate, but some of their members will. It could mean one First Nation community organizes teach-ins whereas First Nations peoples living in urban areas will get together and organize flash mob round dances.

I’m neither an anthropologist nor am I of First Nations heritage, so I won’t comment on the social structure of pre-contact First nations. But, one thing that I do know from my research into the nature of environmental movements and the affiliated tensions with other elements of the older left (i.e. trade unions) is that this commitment to “new” forms of non-hierarchical and non-bureaucratic organization is neither new, nor unique. In fact, it’s become quite old hat. This rhetoric and organizing principle has motivated every “new” social movement in western democracies including, but not limited to, the Occupy movement, the anti-globalization movement, the environmental movement and the women’s movement.

Occupy Wall Street describes itself as: “a people’s movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people. It is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand. It is not for sale….We wish to clarify that Occupy Wall Street is not and never has been affiliated with any established political party, candidate or organization. Our only affiliation is with the people.”

Here’s a quote from the discussion paper that launched the New Politics Initiative, an attempt to remake the NDP in a new, “movement”-style form of organization.

Our system of governance fosters a stratum of professional politicians and technocrats on one hand, and an inactive citizenry on the other; it promotes hierarchical and bureaucratic forms of government administration; above all, it tolerates and even promotes the concentration of private wealth and power which undermines the ability of Canadians to control their own lives on a day-to-day basis.

The NPI’s opening manifesto called for not just new policies, but new politics: “Indeed, we see the crucial contribution of the NPI as sparking the creation of more democratic and active structures and processes, and developing entirely new ways of “doing” politics — rather than in trying to provide a top-down recipe book of preferred policy positions.”

In the first programm of the German Greens, a political party that was explicitly an “anti-party party” with deep roots in protest movements against nuclear weapons and industrialization, tried, in its first program to set up structures that would guarantee decentralized decision-making and the prevention of the establishment of a party hierarchy. “Grassroots democratic politics means a strengthened impmlementation of decentralized, direct democracy. We start from the assumption that a primary importance must be assigned to grassroots decisions. Easily accessible, decentralized grassroots units (at the town and county level) are given wide-ranging autonomy and rights to self-administration.”

And just yesterday, I came across this essay from 1972, called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” that bemoaned the obsession with unstructured discussion and activism groups within the women’s movements, pointing out that non-hierarchical groups often simply replace formal, with informal, structures of power “The idea of ‘structurelessness’, however, has moved from a healthy counter to those tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women’s liberation ideology.”

Contrary to what Palmater says, the obsession within Idle No More of doing politics in a new way is neither unique nor new. Rather, it is one episode in a long line of successive protest movements that are operating in a context where the activists are highly educated and competent. Such activists are, understandably, hesitant to just subsume themselves into a bureaucracy and do what bureaucracies require of them – carry out tasks in a routinized and standardized fashion. Moreover, there is a widespread sense that existing bureaucracies of the left (political parties and trade unions, in particular although similar complaints have been levied against the AFN) have somehow failed to deliver the goods. Public choice theorists successfully drove the point home that bureaucracies can tend to serve their own interests (see any episode of Yes, Minister). This is obviously something of which to be wary. And where people on the right drew the conclusion that increased market delivery of public services was the answer, people on the left seem to have drawn the conclusion in favour of more strict egalitarian forms of organization.

But there are fundamental limitations here. Bureaucracies are far more capable of sustaining long-term coordinated action than any kind of strict egalitarian organization. The deeply bureaucratic Catholic Church has withstood two thousand years of turmoil, division and social change while more flatly-organized evangelical and store-front churches regularly rise and fall. Similarly, Mancur Olson, in his study, the Logic of Collective Action, pointed out that workers are generally supportive of measures that force them to pay dues to a union (Michigan’s new right-to-work legislation which abolished this precise policy is widely opposed), but tend to avoid doing the work necessary of keeping the local going. Go to any meeting of a union local and you will only ever find a fraction of the employees bothering to show up to take responsibility for running the organization. The reason for the discrepancy is that people are, on some level, aware that they themselves cannot be trusted to provide the commitment, resources and long-term organizational capacity to bolster an organization that they know acts in their interests.

Bureaucracies can be frustrating, annoying, self-interested and deeply conservative. They are also a hallmark of modernity. If Idle No More wishes to remain vibrant and capable of pursuing its goals into the future, rather than disentegrating into irrelevance, it might consider formalizing some of its structures to marshall resources for a sustained conflict.

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