The Power Was With Us: Idle No More

by Gabby McMann
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People holding up flags and signs, participating in the Idle No More Movement
Participants in the 2012 Idle No More movement protesting against Bill C-45 and marching through the snowy Canadian streets. (Photo courtesy of APTN)

APTN’s new two-part documentary series The Power Was With Us: Idle No More had its second screening at an event hosted by the School of Journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University. The screening took place shortly after the 10 year anniversary of a movement that caught the world’s attention, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians stood together in solidarity.  

The pandemic delayed the release of the documentary. But to get it off the ground, co-producers Rick Harp, who hosted and produced for APTN for many years, and Tim Fontaine, who has worked for APTN National News, dug through hours of archived footage to create a story that captured the true essence of this unforgettable event in Canadian history.

Harp, who is also one of the founders and  current president of the INDIGENA Creative Group, highlighted why Indigenous representation was so important to the growth of this movement:

 “The momentum came because Indigenous Peoples saw other Indigenous Peoples that looked like them, taking to the streets, taking to the internet. Leading the charge, which had a snowball effect,” said Harp. 

Fontaine was unable to come to the event, but made an appearance over Zoom, so he and co-producer Harp could answer questions from the audience.

The film introduces us to Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean and Nina Wilson, a team of lawyers and researchers who decided to devote their resources and energy into examining the 400-page document Bill C-45, formally known as the Jobs and Growth Act, which was proposed by the Harper government in 2012. 

After closely examining the legalities of this legislation, the team found that it would affect the Indian Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and Environmental Assessment Act. When they discovered the impacts this would have on Indigenous land and resource-rights, along with the individual rights of people from Indigenous communities across the nation, they decided to make a Facebook group in the hopes of spreading awareness within their communities. 

In the documentary, Wilson says, “It was the four of us sitting around trying to figure out how to get mobilized. There was so much to do, how do you start? And we were all stumped by that because it was this huge mountain we were trying to climb. So Jess said, ‘Let’s just get off our butts and be idle no more.’” 

The name stuck. Idle No More became the name of the Facebook page created by McAdam, Wilson, Gordon and McLean — and social media quickly became a means of mobilization for the movement. 

In an interview for the CBC, Fontaine, who is now the Director at Big Ojibway Productions INC and Editor-in-Grand-Chief at Walking Eagle News, said that producing this documentary gave them the opportunity to  “tell the bigger story you didn’t get to tell when you’re doing daily news.”

The documentary follows Idle No More as it begins to gain traction, gaining allies from Indigenous communities and populations across the nation. Interviewed after the screening at TMU, Harp said the movement began to take on a lot of different shapes, and people were joining the movement for different causes — but even so they stood in solidarity with each other: 

“The beauty in Idle No More, it was decentralized. Different populations could do as they saw fit in a different context. The respect for diversity in such a broad movement could be consistent with an Indigenous outlook.” 

The documentary includes footage of the round dances, which were done at some of the protests throughout Idle No More. There is one scene where you hear a traditional drum beating, and the camera shows all three of the floors in a mall. All are filled with people holding hands and joining together in the round dance, some in song. This powerful moment exemplifies the spirit of the Idle No More movement. 

“Round dances have been utilized before but they were scaled up, to such an extent and they were so frequent that it felt like it was almost synonymous with the movement,” said Harp, adding that  people described it as “the winter we danced.”

The story that co-producers Fontaine and Harp capture in the documentary highlights the Indigenous presence in Canada. Throughout the two-part film the producers showcase the diversity of cultures and strength of the people that were the heart of Idle No More.

“Movements like this don’t just come around every day or every year, the ingredients for the movement are still there. I just want people to be inspired by this collective expression of agency. I want people to really appreciate the scale of it, the fact that it really cemented Indigenous Peoples’ status in what we might call the larger Canadian discourse. Indigenous people had put themselves on the political map, but there were many moments leading up to the movement that made this possible,” said Harp.  

 When asked what he would like the audience to reflect on after seeing the documentary, Harp said, “One of the take-aways I want people to have after watching this documentary is a great concern for the extent to which political activity is monitored and surveilled. People should be suspect of dodgy thinking and practices that exist within our institutions. We have a right, if not a duty, to demand better of our political institutions.”

You can watch The Power Was With Us: Idle No More two part documentary series on APTN’s Lumi.

Listen to A Decade of Idle No More episode of the Unreserved podcast with Rosanna Deerchild.

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