A little more than 24 hours ago, I published this open letter to 2 of the 4 organizers of teach-ins about Bill C-45, who together, also founded a hashtag on Twitter that has proven successful in bringing people together, spreading information about events to a global audience, and promoting the sharing of solidarity between people who may have never met before.
I then posted a link to the letter on two groups on Facebook. I said that now two of the “Idle No More Four” have used their time in the limelight to express a dissenting opinion about tactics, instead of focusing on why this movement is happening in the first place. I added “Humour me for a couple thousand words.”
The short version of the letter is that Idle No More is just one of thousands of names for a movement of indigenous resistance that began more than 500 years ago; that while Bill C-45 and Chief Theresa Spence are excellent examples of systemic racism playing out within the colonial government of Canada, they aren’t the only issues on the table for most of the grassroots movement; and that the media is manipulating all four of these women, and especially the unsympathetic general public, treating them as leaders and founders, and fishing for quotes and clips that can be exploited to undermine the movement — the conclusion I reached is that anyone engaging with media, but especially white liberal news media and especially any of these four women, needs to be careful to keep their personal opinions out of the dialogue that will appear on the evening news. A fairly impersonal criticism, even asking for a further separation between Ego and Cause, but for extremely important reasons relating to the safety of people who are engaging in the tactics that are subject to so much nit-picking and so little support.
I anticipated that some people would be mad at me for saying it, because some people are mad at me for saying anything at all. And because I’m a white person involved in an indigenous resistance movement out of solidarity with the cause for my own personal reasons (which are by no means simplistic), I anticipated that some people would think I am being arrogant or trying to assume control, even if I clearly limit my criticism to responsible engagement with white liberal news media.
I anticipated that some people would assume that because I’m a white person, I don’t have the foggiest conception of what I’m talking about, and would dismiss me thusly. I anticipated that this would be done with fairly harsh sarcasm, and even personal insults. Nothing new there: it happens to me any time I speak up about race/ethnicity, because no matter what a white person says about the subject, it will always be considered a violation of social taboos by some proportion of people of colour and the white people who choose to ally with that particular population.
I anticipated that some people might agree with me, and some might even take the message to heart. Specifically, I anticipated this from some of the indigenous people I consider my chosen family, my friends, my allies, and my teachers. Indigenous people who inspire me, who accept me, and who value my contributions, not just to Idle No More, but to reproductive justice and other forms of social justice activism. I anticipated that some people who agree with me, who are indigenous and cannot themselves assume the risk of publishing such an open letter because of what it will cost them among their own communities to do so, might click the like button or share it.
All in all, I figured it would be like every other open letter I’ve written, one of which is even written to renowned atheist Richard Dawkins. I figured it might receive about a few dozen hits and start a couple of conversations on Facebook, and then fade away into the internet, where most of my writing has gone. I figured maybe I’d lose a few followers on Twitter, possibly even a friend or two on Facebook. Not that the prospect of this has stopped me from posting anything I’ve written before — including a very detailed account of my sometimes-intimate long-term friendship with an RCMP officer whose proclivities as a pervert gained a national platform twice this past Summer, when images of a second man were described as him, and a spurious link between him and serial murderer Robert Pickton was promoted nation-wide. When I feel I have something that important to say, I say it knowing the risks I am assuming by doing so. And I say it knowing I’m speaking the truth, and that the only “friends” I’ll lose by doing so weren’t really friends to begin with.
Well, it’s been a little more than 24 hours, and I am surprised to report that “that letter” has received well over 2,000 hits from nearly as many visitors. Hardly a drop in the bucket when compared to the scale of the Idle No More movement itself, which at this point has reached a global audience. But that is easily the most profound response I have ever received to anything I’ve published. For the sake of perspective, I nearly shat my pants when I spotted the RCMP clicking 500 times on that first blog post I wrote about one of their own. I didn’t expect this kind of response. I am grateful I had the foresight to write it in as respectful language as I could possibly summon, while still making sure my point remained cogent.
Also in the mean time, CBC News has released an online article (in which Sylvia McAdam is quoted multiple times where she disputes the utility of certain tactics she doesn’t support) and two videos of interviews with her — one of the two women to whom “that letter” is addressed. In one of the videos, she is filmed stating that blockades send “a message of aggression”, which it seems, we do not want. At least according to her. She also states that “indigenous sovereignty” remains, at this point, undefined. Again, at least according to her. In the other, she speaks very astutely to threats to the entire country’s drinking water, brought about by Bill C-45. McAdams’ response to the contents of the article and those videos is a decision to boycott further interviews with the CBC. But she also wants everyone else to refuse to engage any further with news media all together. In McAdam’s own words (emphasis added), the media are completely untrustworthy and no attempt should be made to manipulate them to exploit the opportunity for Idle No More instead of being manipulated and exploited by the media:
TO ALL ORGANIZERS & SUPPORTERS OF INM:
Please be aware of media from here on. They will now focus on INM to work against the movement. I suggest we all stay away from making comments to them. I personally will NOT be making any more comments to them especially CBC. I’m going to sleep and focus INM vision…. NOTHING is going to stop me from that, not even that letter that is going around and being posted. I have no time for negativity nor ego.
SO tomorrow lets all work harder towards that beautiful hope and dream of Indigenous sovereignty and protection of land and water. Thank you everyone for your kindness and support.
Before I even address the emboldened text, I just want to say that promoting open dialogue by actively refusing to engage all media and encouraging others to do the same is not going to work. Idle No More needs to find a way to exploit media for its own goals, in order to appeal to a wider audience, who are already alienated by systemic racism by default. White supremacy is embedded into the structures of the public education system in Canada. This is largely the fault of a colonial government that neither wishes to hold itself accountable for more than a century of genocide against indigenous peoples within the borders of its so-called nation, nor wishes for its own subjects to know and understand this atrocity. But it’s also the fault of a complicit and unsympathetic general public, who do very little or nothing at all to resist and challenge these structures of racism in their own government — and sometimes even demand that those structures be maintained.
The unsympathetic general public simply won’t be won over without people who are willing to speak to media about why exactly they should jump in and join hands in the round dance, or why the railway blockades happened in the first place — e.g., the “small” diesel spill on Coast Salish territory on January 3, 2013. What a painful and equally ironic, tragic event, the very day after the Aamjiwnaang railway blockade was voluntarily dismantled. Without the cooperation of media, the public will continue to think that Bill C-45, Chief Spence’s hunger strike, and the global Idle No More movement is “just an Indian thing”, wringing their hands while they wait for everyone to pack up and go home again. And if we don’t have the interest of the media because we refuse to engage with them, we are going to lose the support of the police, who so far have been actively resisting racist injunctions against blockades, as well as actively helping the Idle No More movement conduct itself safely while it fills the busiest streets all across the country. If we lose police support, we will rapidly see the loss of support from people who have so far been involved, but can no longer afford to be — because they cannot afford to be separated from their children by a set of handcuffs and a downtown holding cell. It will be the trampling to the ground of the Occupy Wall Street movement all over again.
Sylvia McAdam, if you’re reading this right now, I am asking you to take this part of your message back and encourage Idle No More communities to appoint their own public speakers to engage with media on everyone else’s behalf. Almost every community will have members who have experience speaking with media and who are prepared to redirect the conversation back to a productive and meaningful dialogue when reporters attempt to steer it towards something like personal opinion.
And now to address the emboldened text. It is painfully ironic that this is included in a message reaching tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, intended as some sort of indication of how little effect my open letter had, and how selfish and narcissistic I so obviously must have been to have posted it in the first place.
Just disregard that of the few times I posted in the “official” Facebook group, one of those times was explicitly with the intent to address Jessica Gordon’s tactic of using valuable time in the spotlight in national media to dispute tactics (see also: the subject of my open letter to her and Sylvia McAdam).
Just disregard how Jessica Gordon still has neither answered to nor revoked all of the statements she has fed the media, in which she is explicitly nit-picking about tactics. This decision has only driven deeper speculation from white liberal news media looking for a vulnerability to pick at, which no doubt produced the results of McAdam’s interviews, which she is so clearly unsatisfied with. This kind of behaviour, by the way? This is not an example of indigenous sovereignty (i.e., self-governance that demonstrates that one deserves to govern oneself and can be trusted to do so responsibly).
Just disregard how, as a result of this post (note: originally written by Jessica Gordon but now showing a different author) condemning blockades, the Peace Arch border blockade event page on Facebook simply vanished. Many asserted that it was “out of respect for Chief Theresa Spence’s wishes” (which were really the wishes of a troll account claiming to be Chief Spence) that blockades should just not be happening. This misinformation was not corrected by the “Idle No More Four”, and yet, was not contained in any of Chief Spence’s press releases. And why is this especially relevant to Vancouver? The cached page shows a flickering succession of images in the left margin, all of which were from an Idle No More Vancouver rally. I can tell, because I was there for it, and so were many of my chosen family, whose images are part of the display.
That event page for the Peace Arch border blockade was boasting well over 4,500 RSVPs at the time, and was being used as a vehicle to organize rides for people who don’t drive, among other efforts to organize and share resources. Then rumours about Chief Spence trying to assume control or leadership by denouncing the formation of blockades started spreading, and Vancouver locals started dropping their support for the action. Many of those locals who were so effectively duped did not later re-join a renewed effort that wound up being a symbolic meeting at the Peace Arch on January 5th. Over a thousand people from both sides of the border gathered, drummed, sang, and danced together at that border crossing, without forming a blockade. How many would have shown up, had the original event page remained? There’s no telling now, and it was too late to turn that around by the time the first event page disappeared.
Now, as a result of taking the risk upon myself to publish my open letter, I find myself removed from the “official” Idle No More discussion group on Facebook. No explanation was given, but I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. When I find out the evening following that letter being published, shortly after I find out about Sylvia McAdam declaring a personal boycott of any further interviews with the CBC in protest of how they manipulated her and exploited her apparent naivety to undermine the cause for which she is promoted as a leader, I don’t have to be an astrophysicist to figure out what cosmic event happened there. I’ve added an addendum to the bottom of “that letter” (and to the comments field) that states that in the time between hitting the publish button and the time stamp on that comment, McAdam refuses to engage media again.
I think it’s fairly obvious whose ego and negativity is causing a problem here, and it’s not the person offering criticism based on direct experience through their involvement with other grassroots social justice movements (i.e., it’s not me — I may not be perfect, but it can hardly be said I’ve done all of this writing for the exclusive purpose of being antagonistic and narcissistic).
Let me be clear about something: I’m well aware that I am a white person, and that I have white privilege. What Gordon and McAdam may not realize is that I use my white privilege strategically. In the case of “that letter”, I used it to offer a well-reasoned criticism that would carry a high price to the entire indigenous community if it were to emerge from within while the white liberal media is trying to portray a movement in jeopardy of dividing itself from within. I can afford to be crucified for it (as at least one radical grassroots indigenous activist immediately said would happen). Indigenous activists can’t.
I’m well aware that localized pockets of grassroots indigenous resistance should be led by indigenous leaders, and I readily defer to their knowledge, leadership, direction, criticism, encouragement, and judgement of my solidarity and involvement. That doesn’t mean that I am not allowed to have a mind of my own or that I am forbidden from critically engaging some of the decisions of the leadership (e.g., using the words Caucasian and white interchangeably — a practice I am delighted to see has not persisted past the end of December). It does not mean that offering my criticism makes me less of an ally or makes me a racist for saying it, on account of my ethnic heritage relative to the ethnic heritage of the two women I addressed.
I’m also well aware that I could have sent that message privately. But the message contained within “that letter” is an important lesson that many communities could stand to benefit from. For what reason should I be terrified of publishing “that letter” publicly, when so many people potentially stand to gain from it? Even if I’m only anticipating that maybe a couple dozen people out of a maximum of a few dozen will take it to heart, that’s still much more than I would accomplish by sending my concerns in private messages. I’m both surprised and excited that literally thousands more read it, and that it has surely sparked just as many conversations about how to deal with the media from here on out. I’m looking forward to better representation in white liberal media, of the issues this movement is about.
My solidarity is not contingent upon my strict obedience. I must walk the path I know in my heart is just, and I know that if I am walking that path, I do not need to prove that someone else’s is wrong.
Update: Today, an absolutely mind-boggling series of blockades went up as part of a national day of action, from as early as sunrise, all across the country. Great work, grassroots! Keep it going! The “Idle No More Four” have now sent out a mass email, to potentially tens of thousands of their “followers”, in which they declared they don’t stand by radical indigenous grassroots. This was done sometime today (Jan 16th).