The first time I heard the phrase “Idle No More” on CBC radio, I thought it was yet another Vancouver campaign about car emissions.

I’m a white Canadian woman from the prairies, now living in the south coast of British Columbia. I have zero Aboriginal blood, zero personal connections to the struggle and realities of Aboriginal rights. The most time I’ve spent on the rez is driving through quickly. Growing up in Regina, I had a few “native” friends (as we called First Nations in those days), but as I grew up and moved further and further west, Aboriginals disappeared from my circles of work and schooling. Now, I find myself in the position of unintentional isolation from our First Nations community.

I heard about Idle No More two months ago, and as the days have gone by, and more and more of our First Nations are participating in this protest movement, I’ve been compelled to frankly recognize both my privilege and my ignorance. I needed to learn about this movement, not only as a Canadian, but particularly as a follower of Jesus. I believe Jesus meant all that stuff he said in the Bible, and so the whole “caring for my neighbour” thing needs to show up in my real life. I wanted to know how to best love and support First Nations in this current climate.

so what is idle no more?

Idle No More is a grassroots uprising among Canadian Aboriginals. It was started by four women in Saskatchewan, Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams and Nina Wilsonfeld, more than two months ago with no funding and no “official” covering or sponsorship (I am pretty sure that qualifies for an “eshet chayil! woman of valour!”). The movement has grown to  fairly large protests and wide-spread mobilization of the Aboriginal community.

While the movement uses a lot of really big verbs and nouns and images about respect, rights, and revolution, Idle No More started because of Bill C-45. (We can talk about the democratic practice of an omnibus bill later, perhaps, because gracious, what a miscarriage of democracy…) So Bill C-45 is an omnibus bill, attached to our budget currently going through Parliament, with hundreds of provisions included, which (and these are the key ones related to Idle No More) seriously undermine our environmental sustainability as a nation and the sovereign rights of the First Nations still existing within our borders. It has already passed first readings. At its core, most of these changes are connected to the almighty economy and development related to pipelines. Already more than 16,000 lakes and rivers within Canada have had their protected status removed in order to facilitate oil exploration and resource mining on First Nations land. These omnibus bill provisions are likely just the next step towards this relentless economic development at the price of our environmental sustainability and the covenantal relationship we’ve had with First Nations stretching back centuries to the Crown’s agreements of the late 18th century. (A reminder: we’re not talking modern business contracts in this relationship: we’re talking ancient covenantal relationship, which carries a solemnity and respect and consistency come what may.)

Aaron Paquette said: This is much greater than angry protesting natives, this is about becoming aware of the world in which you live.

First they gutted the sciences, long term studies that would help us understand our ecosystem better so we could develop more responsibly, and no one said a word.

Then they cut funding for our shared history and those who work to preserve it, while at the same time dumping tens of millions of dollars into celebrating a British colony war that happened before we were even a country, and still no one said anything.

Then the world was made aware of the shameful conditions for small children growing up on underfunded, polluted Reservations. A small murmur and then nothing.

And now, because of the apathy they see, this government has taken galling steps to sell out our wilderness, our resources and sovereignty. And not even to the highest bidder. It’s a yard sale with no regard for responsibility or care for anyone who might be negatively affected (in other words, all of us).

Bill C-45 came to Ottawa on the heels of the crisis in Attiwapiskat. When the remote northern community of Attiwapiskat declared a state of emergency, their horrible conditions exposed the real conditions of many reserves throughout Canada as more akin to third-world standards. Attiwapiskat was an “in-your-face” example to those of us without connections to the reserves about the how life really is for our First Nations.

Inadequate housing. Little to no schooling. Addictions. Abuse. Loss or abandonment of children to the government systems. No jobs. Poverty. Little access to healthy food. High rates of suicide. Poor water. No heat in the winter. The list went on and on.

So Attiwapiskat declared emergency, and yet, due to the complexity of the Indian Act, treaties, government red tape, and the general consensus that there is “plenty of money being thrown at” the First Nations so there must be rampant corruption and mismanagement, very little was actually accomplished.  Like many Canadians, I was horrified by the sight of small Canadian children and families living in shacks in the north with no jobs, no money, no toilets, no heat, no hope. How is this even happening here, one of the richest nations in the world? Both of these instances are serving as a sort of “tipping point” in a long line of injustices and abuses within the community.

Idle No More was launched in an attempt to wake the sleeping giant, to shake First Nations and all of Canada out of apathy. As a result, the protest has become bigger than this one omnibus bill. It’s now turned into rhetoric and conversations about sovereignty, colonization, justice, treaty-honouring, respect, and sustainability. It’s not just about rivers and lakes, it’s what this decision represents for our treaty partners, and the bigger issues surrounding how the bill is being run through.

The mission statement of Idle No more calls “on all people to join in a revolution which honours and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water. Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth”.

From Indigenous Nationhood: When asked what do we want, that question can be answered in two parts:

(1) In the short term, Canada must withdraw the suite of legislation impacting First Nations, amend those omnibus bills which threaten our lands and waters, and restore the funding that was cut to our First Nation advocacy organizations and communities;

(2) In the long term, Canada must set up a Nation to Nation process whereby First Nations and Canada can address many of the long outstanding issues related to the implementation of treaties and sharing the lands and resources.

There are several key players and extreme positions within the movement and the government: Prime Minister Harper, Chief Teresa Spence as an icon of the Idle No More young revolutionaries, drum circles, elders, statesmen, chiefs, passionate youth, and also the brilliant Shawn Atleo as head of the Assembly of First Nations.

From âpihtawikosisân: The Canadian government continues to mouth platitudes about its supposed dedication to this relationship, while it slashes funding, ignores our emergencies, pulls out of comprehensive land claim discussions, ‘consults’ with us and then ignores everything we told them, all while pursuing a hard-line agenda which accepts only termination as a result. We have been backed into a corner and we are literally fighting for our lives. We are literally dying, in so many preventable and unacceptable ways. I’m not being poetic or hyperbolic here and I don’t just mean culturally.


Idle No More :: Sarah Bessey

so what is the Christian response?

I don’t actually like the idea of “The” Christian Response. There is a lot of diversity within Christianity, many ways to respond. Some of us are called to this work in a front-lines sort of way but all of us are called to care, all of us are called to love.

So if we believe that Jesus meant what he said, then the question that truly needs to guide our varied responses is this one: what would Love want to do here? So here’s what I think that means within the context of Idle No More:

Stay and listen and learn

We must listen. Before anything else, we must listen. We must listen to the truth of the histories, the experiences, the personal stories, the larger historical context. Sometimes the best way to love someone is to listen to them, so start there. Show up at a rally, make a friend, email a blogger, listen and read something other than filtered media, with an open heart to learn and honour. Then make sure that your words, your posture, your attitude, and actions communicate the dignity of truth that you love, you support, you are seeking justice and friendship as a student and fellow traveller.  Also, remember to find the joy, find the fun, find the love that exists in each other and celebrate it. Remember, we’re talking about people here, not a cause. PEOPLE. Complex, diverse, wise, interesting people with unique stories and experiences beyond the obvious and one-note stereotypes. We can’t separate God’s justice from God’s presence.

Recognize our role and repent

Much of the problems that plague First Nations communities have their roots in their treatment and abuse at the hands of colonization. Residential schools, forced assimilation, racism, systemic murder, crippling economic inequalities, lack of adequate schooling, we have a disgusting history as a nation when it comes to our First Nations. We need to repent of the evil, yes, but we also need to repent of our continued disconnection of turning our neighbours into “The Other” through stereotypes and divisions. We must recognize our own failings and habits, our own poverty, our bad habits of treating our friends and neighbours as “a cause” instead of as a partner.  Refugee advocate, J.R. Goudeau pointedly reminds us:

Christians are often implicit in asymmetrical relationships that privilege First World over Third World, white over black, men over women, urban over rural, Western over Eastern, cosmopolitan over “primitive.”

So many of the imperial relationships that broke down in the twentieth century have been examined in-depth in academic and political settings, and yet we barely touch this subject in many churches.

We travel. We bring back sideshows and videos. We talk about “the poor,” “orphans,” “the least of these.”

We are guilty of not examining the acts of translation that turn an ordinary Bolivian into an object of sympathy for our mega-churches. We are guilty of using the degrees of removal that separate an upper-class white Midwestern Christian from a Haitian mother as guilt trips or morality moments. We are guilty of objectifying African villages by making their stories about our reactions, our acts of generosity, without really stopping to see what is happening their on the ground.

We are guilty of using “the poor” as objects or foils sent to teach us about ourselves rather than people in their own right.

Instead of pretending injustice doesn’t exist or opining that “they should just get over it already” or paying lip service to “things are so much better now,” there is something spiritual and powerful to repentance, confession, and seeking forgiveness as individuals, religious communities, and a nation. We can no longer point to the occasional corruption or grandiose actions or ongoing mismanagement of a few as an excuse for our perpetual inaction or devaluation of an entire community’s very immediate and pressing needs.

There is also something spiritual in accepting that apology and forgiving, according to Kenny Blacksmith. We cannot underestimate the power of forgiveness and restitution, and the power of making things right, of turning from our old ways and moving forward into justice with renewed purpose and focus. Work and live on the side of reconciliation and justice.

Encourage and live the values of negotiation, conversation, friendship, and reconciliation

We come alongside one another as brothers and sisters, as treaty partners and covenant partners, committed to the relationship’s sustainability, with deep respect and honour. Christians should be the first ones to reject violence, to disavow the language of shame and paternalism, acts of oppression and dismissal. That has no place in the heart of one who practices the ways of Jesus’ upside down kingdom. Even in the places of disagreement for best way forward, there is a way to disagree beautifully in love and respect. Moving forward in hope is more important than brinkmanship, saving face, getting the final word. These are complex, tangled issues which will likely have complex and varied solutions and responses. Conversation, negotiation, good faith is key.

Commit to community development

As Christian social activist D.L. Mayfield wrote, “we should all be engaged in the brokenness of our communities. And we should all be working through how we use our gifts and creativity to shine light in dark situations, in ways that dignify and uplift and empower others.”

We are the people of justice seeking and peace making. I’m not talking about “helping the poor” in the lame and destructive colonial ways connected to assimilation and conversions, palatable stereotypes and hand-outs. No, I’m talking about participating in the redemptive movement of God, his heart to reconcile and redeem within First Nations together. I believe God cares about housing and economics, about overcoming addictions and families, about children and clean water, about schooling and sustainability. This may look like working within the community as a partner, it may look like supporting active work, it may look like participating in a big life-changing way, foster care advocacy, it may look like writing to our government, employment, opportunity, friendship, or perhaps protesting or participating, it may look like advocating for these changes and opportunities at the highest levels of government. We need policy makers and pragmatists, we also need prophets and poets. We can come alongside our brothers and sisters, lending our voices and power to theirs, and stand together for a unified people advocating for justice and peace and wholeness. We support, we believe, we are with them for the long haul.


Pray for peace and justice, the restoration of hope and leadership. We must pray for the root of injustice to be removed, for wisdom in our leadership, for forgiveness and justice. We must pray with our spirits, with our words, with our hands and with our feet.

and read more…

Official Idle No More

Idle No More on Facebook


9 Questions About Idle No More at CBC News

The natives are restless. Wondering why? by âpihtawikosisân

The revolution will not be televised (but it will be tweeted) by Aaron Paquette

Idle No More: A Christian Issue by ChristianWeek

What is the Idle No More movement…really? by Indigenous Nationhood

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any by Shaneisms

Stephen Harper, First Nations, and an opportunity lost by Chris Hill for CBC

Idle No More: Canada’s Indigenous “Occupy” by Bilbo Poynter for the Christian Science Monitor

Wiconi International

Gathering Nations with Kenny and Louise Blacksmith

 (If you have other resources or articles, feel free to share them in the comments.)


In which nou pa ont oublié, we have not forgotten you, Haiti.
In which we numb the light
thank you for sharing...
  • Pin this page8
  • 343
  • This is amazing! I’ve been reading your blog for a couple months now. Didn’t realize you came from Regina. I’ve lived here since 2003, so it’s cool to have that connection. I love Regina, and live blocks removed from North Central, a place where colonization and economic inequalities have and are hurting our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Idle No More is so important. First Nations people are standing up and young people are getting engaged in the process. It’s beautiful really! I don’t think many white folks understand why it’s important for us to stand with them. I’ll use your blog as a place to send them for more info and a great rundown of what’s going on and why it’s important for us to care. Thanks so much for this post, and bringing some much needed attention to circles that haven’t really talked about it too much up to this point. Peace!

  • I wasn’t aware of this situation, Sarah. Thank you for opening my eyes to what’s happening in Canada. And lest I think it’s only a Canadian problem, I’m mindful of similar injustices occurring in the US and how easily this could- and does- happen here. I have to do my part.

    • very similar in the U.S. It would be something if somehow this spurred on protests here.

  • April Lee Taylor Vance

    I love how you have articulated my heart. Thank you.

  • Many thanks for your thoughtful consideration of Idle No More. Much of the visible action is happening just down the street from me in Ottawa, and it is certainly hard to discern an appropriate reaction (especially for people like myself, who tend to avoid conflict).

    Thank you for identifying the danger of “The” Christian response to any particular issue, and for focusing on the fact that our response should always–first–be love. Especially in situations or contexts that we may have little knowledge of or background in.

    As an aside, I’m also relieved to know I wasn’t the only one thinking this was about car emissions.

  • Bravo friend! This represents so much hard work and deep thought on your behalf. It’s a shining representation of what it means to be a sincere follower of Jesus in our day.

  • Typo: I don’t actually like the idea of “The” Chrsitian Response.

    [Love that you’re covering this!]

  • Thank you for this Sar! I have also been digging into this movement a bit more in the last few weeks. I appreciate your synopsis of the issues and feel very inspired to figure out what my role can be.

  • this breaks my heart. thank you for posting about this.

  • Jil McDonald

    Wow, out of all the information I’ve been reading about Idle no More, yours is the most concise, compassionate and informative I’ve read! Thank you so much for your understanding. As a Native woman , it blesses my heart to hear your kind words. Megwetch – Thank you!

  • Thanks for this great piece! You bring up some really important things to consider as Christians about what our attitudes/responses should be – and what they should not be (based on).

    The Aboriginal Justice Team of Christian Peacemaker Teams is using Facebook to mount a response.

  • this article from the states ( really impacted me . . . even the idea of us making apologies that mean nothing unless concrete action is being done. this issue is starting to become bigger and bigger for me as many of my neighbors are native americans, and i am blessed to learn from their perspectives.

    as to some of the engagement issues, i felt like harriet a long hit it out of the park (speaking about current riots/protests/working within the government framework stuff happening in Ireland) her points on this sort of poverty (and ensuing violence) are really just a mirror of the larger society’s brokenness. there IS no disconnect, much as we would like there to be.

    this was good, thoughtful, well-researched stuff. thank you so much. let’s keep engaging. oh, and that was quite a thrill to be called a social activist 🙂

  • BarbaraB

    Thank you, Sarah! Excellent information, well stated.

  • this is really great, I also wrote a blog post on why the church should support #idlenomore. It is not as long or as well researched as your, but please let me know what you think!

  • LoveFeast Table

    I had the privilege of hearing Richard Twiss, from Wiconi International, speak years ago on First Nations and how our Western culture is missing a half of itself because we are not embracing them as our brothers. It was one of the most eye opening, heart opening ideas that I had heard in a long time. Love that you highlighted this!

  • Flyn Ritchie

    Good comment. Thanks for all the thought and research you’ve put into it – and for the balance. The church has cooperated with the colonial powers for centuries, to the detriment of indigenous people. Missionaries and others have done much good along the way, but good intentions coupled with poorly thought out policies inevitably lead to hell. It’s way past time that we listen to, befriend and respect aboriginal people – and not allow our various Christian responses to operate in the service of government or business interests. And fortunately we know that God wants to show us a new way.

  • Sarah Shepherd

    Excellent article: tweeted on our Citizens for Public Justice space. Thank you!

  • I have only recently heard of this movement. I learned more about the Natives struggle in college and have been interested in it ever since. Thank you for this perspective. I am a Christian as well and I did not know how I should approach supporting this! When I think about it, I believe Jesus would have supported them and loved them if He were physically here now. He came to help those in trouble. We are here, and we must do the same! Thanks so much!

  • Emily Wierenga

    love, love, love your heart. sharing this.

  • Jillie

    Hi Sarah…Obviously you have put a lot of time, research, and thought into your blog about the First Nations issue. I did not realize this has so much to do with our environmental issues here in Canada; That these issues were what sparked this whole thing in the beginning.
    I am a Christ-follower. I am trying to look at this with Love as my main focus. Yet, all I’m really seeing is that the focus has, once again, become ‘all about the money’. Millions and millions are going out to the Native chiefs, but does not appear to be reaching the common people on the reserves. The ‘higher-ups’ are lining their pockets, while the ordinary Native family goes without what they need. It seems to me that the gov’t has apologized for the awful ways they tried to Christianize and institutionalize the education of their young, years ago, and have made restitution, money-wise, as this is what the Natives seemed to want. The ones receiving the money, supposedly for distribution to their people, refuse to ‘open their books’ for scrutiny, and this tells me that, mayhaps, they have something big they’re hiding. It’s glaringly obvious that ‘distribution of funds’ isn’t happening. The money is there…it’s just in the wrong hands. And when I see the terrible things going on—like ‘the occupation’ in Caledonia, Ontario a few years back, I lose respect for Native people. I mean, they invaded homes of ‘the white man’, took hostages, destroyed property, behaved badly. How are we to respect this? They wonder why they have a ‘reputation’ for anarchy, but this is the way they typically deal with their demands. And to see our Law Enforcement officers cower in the face of confrontation, is just plain sad. Arrests should have been made. The barricades should have been brought down. If it was white people doing what they did, it never would have gone on as long as it did. There definitely would have been arrests and charges laid. I know they were here first. I know injustice has prevailed for years, but it just seems that no matter what our gov’t tries to do to ‘compensate’, it’s never enough. Sometimes, I wish I was Native. No taxes? I’d be laughing all the way to the bank!

    • i think there are a lot of misconceptions you have about Aboriginal people and what our government has done. Yes, they apologized for injustices of the past, yet the are committing injustices in the present through bill c-45 and ignoring the please of Aboriginal people.

      They don’t have easy life because they have no taxes. That’s a pretty small pittance in the large scheme of things. Reserves aren’t handed loads of money to solve their poverty and housing issues. The majority of Chiefs care for their people and Reserves incredibly. Seems like your making a lot of assumptions about them as a whole. It’s easy to look at a crooked chief and assume the worst, but there are way more stories about crooked white politicians and business owners, yet we don’t make assumptions about how white people use their money. And Caledonia was a bad situation, but again, Idle No More is nothing like Caledonia. It seems way too simplistic in my mind to label a few people reacting out of anger and being irresponsible as representatives of the entire Aboriginal population. A few rogue individuals break into the home of the white man, while the settlers have lived on First Nations land for hundreds of years.

      Anyway, I understand where your coming from, just want to clarify a different perspective and challenge some assumptions. Idle No More is about a people standing up that have been beaten down for so long. Apologies aside, the least our government could do is listen as opposed to ignore it and gut portions of the Indian Act.

    • white sister in support

      oh my!! such stereotyping. I will pray that you will open your heart and your mind!!

  • Clayton Wiebe

    What a good review of the whole topic! Especially the comments regarding the church abs society response to “poverty and charity” whether here or in another place in the world. I would just say that Idle No More though started with good purpose has been taken, as so often happens, out of the hands of those who started with meaning and has taken on a whole different potential. My family member works in one of the malls where a protest was held and many people there feared for themselves not because there were aboriginals but because it was now potentially a mob which only needed prodding by someone with ill intentions to get it out of control.
    I do not want to get particularly political but it strikes me quite strange that many evangelical Christians will vote for the Conservative party not based on political program but rather based on their thinking that somehow the party has cornered the market on Christian representation and thought. It seems to me there is a contradiction when we look at the results. Even as this Bill shows as it does not in my opinion seek to serve the common good.
    On the issue of partners or as the Ads say “we are all Treaty people”, I am in agreement with this in principle but I think it is a real challenge because there is so much disagreement between the different Bands that it is hard to come in from the side except to grow relationships with individuals. Consider the intense debate over self government and the very real call from a number of Chiefs who did not want dissolution of the Reserves. You need to go back a few years to read about this but it is a real issue which we “the non Aboriginal community” cannot solve. Again we need to cultivate individual relationship which encourage personal growth on both sides. Which we can do!

    Thanks for the thinking!

  • derp

    I’m surprised that no treaty between First Nations people and Colonial Govt exists. The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand has been pivotal to the relations with our indigenous people (Maori), and while there are heated disagreements, having a Treaty and a Tribunal is key to ensuring that the relations are maintained and given importance.

  • Pingback: Linking Up (Pt. 1) « Shaunanagins()

  • Pingback: Weekend Compilations (10) « G. C. Jeffers()

  • Rev. Clara

    A great opportunity to further this conversation across the border: Taize and the community on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are hosting a meeting May 24-27 for young people aged 18-35 for honest listening and sharing about Aboriginal struggles, hopes and dreams, and to build solidarity. Details and to register: