We Don’t Always Have to Be Angry: Lessons From Idle No More

Sometimes as litigators we get stuck on a certain kind of advocacy, one that is born in, and charged by, conflict. A type of advocacy that burns so fast, it injures everyone in its wake. We recognize with gratitude the advocates who compellingly and compassionately tell the narratives that change our minds. We believe that they are the truly gifted advocates, for they win their opponents over rather than beat them.

The Idle No More movement has galvanized indigenous peoples across Canada to express their opposition to the federal government’s policies, practices, and intentions towards First Nations. New leaders are emerging across the country, from high school kids doing round dances in suburban malls to its founders Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams, and Nina Wilsonfield. At the beginning of 2013, we want to tip a hat to three advocates – Pamela Palmater, Chelsea Vowel, and Chief Theresa Spence – for the patience, brilliance, and invitations of their messages within the Idle No More movement.

Pamela Palmater is a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation, a lawyer, a mother, an academic, and a politician, having put in a bid for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations in 2012. She is a spokeswoman for the Idle No More movement, its genesis being a series of teach-ins for indigenous peoples to empower them to understand the threat of fourteen pieces of proposed federal legislation, all of which further endanger the health and well-being of First Nations people. She is plain-speaking and powerful. If you haven’t heard much of Dr. Palmater, here’s a New Year’s resolution: listen to this.

Chelsea Vowel, a Metis woman from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac St. Anne, Alberta, authors an extremely thoughtful blog using the language of law to demonstrate how Canada’s relationship with First Nations needs to be fixed. She authored information-packed posts early in the Idle No More movements, i.e. The Natives Are Restless. Wondering Why? Apart from her careful work in deconstructing various laws, policies, and reports on federal-First Nations relations, Ms. Vowel reminds us that Aboriginal law is not the same as indigenous law, the former being the body of law developed by the colonial state to inform and explain its relationships with native peoples. We also think it bears repeating.

Lastly, Chief Theresa Spence, the head of Attawapiskat First Nation, has been on a hunger strike since December 11, 2012. Her aim is for Canada and First Nations to re-set their treaty relationships. She is garnering the support of various First Nations leaders, politicians, and the international community for her courage; she is also the recipient of horrific racism and harassment. She holds fast. We send her our prayers.

In our world, we rely on conflict, courtrooms, and costs, to end up years later with an outcome that some people call just. We laud Dr. Palmater, Ms. Vowel, and Chief Spence, for elevating the discourse on Crown-indigenous relations outside the realm of litigation, and for taking immense personal risks in doing so.


  1. I especially want to thank Karen Galldin and Leslie Robertson for their good thoughts about conflict by telling a brief story. I worked with George Manuel on his memoir The Fourth World for the better part of two years and interviewed him most weeks for close to a year. One day, after he told a story that particularly moved me I asked George, “Why aren’t you more angry?” His reply, “I can’t afford the bitterness.” He brought this same perspective to his dealings with other Indigenous organizations in Canada and around the world.

  2. Great blog post and great reflection. One reason why Idle No More will continue to have momentum, I think, is because it’s not primarily an angry reaction – it is actually a celebration of Aboriginal strength and determination. There is real joy, celebration and vision in these grassroots gatherings such as spontaneous rounddances, and that (plus the strength of the anger at structural injustice) makes for a potent combination that draws in many people.