Back in March, a persistent rumour about the phrase “Idle No More” had been confirmed to my satisfaction — specifically, that it had been trademarked. It was at that time that I concluded a piece of writing about what trademarking even means by imposing personal boycott, on myself, of the use of that phrase on this blog. I am clearly breaking that boycott for the purposes of writing about the topic again today.
Naturally, there has been a response to this piece of writing, and to the concerns of anyone who may appear to have read it, which is a perception most likely based solely on their taking the same stance on this very issue. In my perception, it is more or less a repeat of what happened when I wrote my open letter to address the two leading voices of the phrase “Idle No More”, taking great personal risk in doing so, of becoming alienated and marginalized from a community I hold very close to my heart. Instead of opening up a conversation about it, despite all promises of transparency and capacity to take in legitimate criticisms, this letter was answered with immediate passive aggression and the issues it contains have never been revisited. Ultimately, this has resulted in a significant and meaningful loss of mass media attention that could have otherwise been exploited to bring indigenous rights violations into the dominant discourse. And in fact, those two leading voices explicitly advised against direct engagement with news media when they immediately responded to my open letter, by closing themselves off from the possibility of further discussion and addressing their followers in ways that encouraged similar behaviour. In terms of the response to how I, and many others (both within indigenous communities and outside of them) who have independently reached similar conclusions, have responded to the decision to trademark the phrase “Idle No More”, we are once again witnessing a fairly immediate display of passive aggression, with no apparent intentions of ever having an open discussion about the issues involved in the matter at hand, despite all promises of commitment to transparency.
Once again, and in case I didn’t state it strongly or clearly enough the first time, when someone trademarks a word or phrase, exactly what they are doing and why is applying for a) the right to claim that word or phrase as their intellectual property, b) the right to sue over its unauthorized use, and c) the right to demand commissions or collect royalties from its authorized use. It is actually pretty important to acknowledge this fact in any conversation about trademarking, but it seems that the “official” leadership is persistently disinterested in doing so.
Recent “Official Statements”
The narrative being offered by the leading voices of the phrase “Idle No More” is that the trademark doesn’t exist, but that a non-profit organization was established to essentially manage and pool cash generated within the indigenous community by both the sale of “Idle No More” merchandise and by donations to the “official” website, in order to keep it within indigenous communities. An official statement, concerning how the “terrible things” that are being aired in social media about the four “official” voices of “Idle No More” are hurting feelings and promoting allegedly baseless dissent, is located here. However, it is especially important to make note immediately that applying to trademark something and applying for incorporation are not the same thing and do not serve the same purpose — incorporation being a means to reduce or mitigate personal liability in the event of a failing business producing significant losses that would otherwise personally bankrupt the business owner, whereas trademarking is a means to protect intellectual property from unauthorized distribution or use. Here’s my choice block quote from this somewhat confusing statement (which is actually the voice of a fifth person):
THERE’S A TWITTER-STORM ABOUNDING ABOUT THE NON-PROFIT INCORPORATING OF IDLE NO MORE AND THE TRADEMARKING OF THE NAME. DON’T LISTEN TO THAT NONSENSE AND DON’T SNAP TO NEGATIVE JUDGEMENTS. THESE ACTIONS WERE PURSUED IN OCTOBER 2012 AND JANUARY 2013 TO PROTECT THE NAME FROM MISAPPROPRIATION BECAUSE THERE WAS AN IMMEDIATE EFFORT ON THE PART OF COMPANIES TO APPROPRIATE THE IMAGE FOR PROFIT. THE INCORPORATION IS ABOUT FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY SO THAT DONATIONS CAN BE USED TO SUPPORT THE MOVEMENT AND SO THAT INM CAN SUPPORT OTHER ACTIVITIES.
A second official statement, concerning the intentions behind the creation of a non-profit organization called “Idle No More”, whilst simultaneously denying that the phrase was trademarked, is located here. While I can’t speak for what anyone else has said, until this point, I’ve actually only partially addressed the decision to apply to trademark the phrase “Idle No More”, with no prior awareness that a corporation (for-profit or not—it’s a corporation now) called “Idle No More” has been established. Here’s my favourite snippet of that second statement:
Recently there has been misinformation circulating in social media that Idle No More founders have trademarked the name of the movement. The name is not trademarked, however an application was made in January to protect the name because Idle No More organizers were concerned about the possibility of corporations using the name for profit.
You can see for yourself that application to trademark the phrase “Idle No More” was filed for and approved in January 2013, at this page from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office website (which was located by a commenter who used a basic search of the Canadian trademarks database to find it).
Fixation On Labels
Here’s the thing about all this brouhaha over the phrase “Idle No More”: ownership of the phrase “Idle No More” is only relevant to people for whom a defining label is more important than everything else they stand for. Let’s pretend the trademark had neither been applied for by Jessica Gordon nor approved by the Intellectual Property Office, and some Evil Corporation™ started exploiting the phrase for profit at some point as early on as the beginning of January. What difference would this make to people who are actively resisting colonial oppression, or to those who are only starting to learn how to do so? Who gives a shit if you can’t have the phrase printed on a T-shirt without running the risk of being sued by some Evil Corporation™? Why or how would that somehow stop you from doing activism in the name of resisting colonial oppression? And who the fuck would even answer a summons to that trial anyway? People steal corporate artwork and catch phrases all the goddamned time, and exploit it in T-shirts, artistic critique, writing, tattoos, and political statements of all kinds, every day. Corporations aren’t suing anyone they can’t make money off of, and that means ignoring a lot of disenfranchised poor people whose creative expressions frequently border on libel.
The phrase is just a label, the way the term “First Nations” is just a label. The phrase isn’t the work of activism, any more than the term “First Nations” is who any indigenous person really is. The decision to trademark and incorporate conveys a vexing fixation on labels, when the work that needs to be done is to move away from labels entirely. This unreconcilable fixation is especially insulting, given the relationship of indigenous peoples to the very structures of colonial oppression that are being given into through any and all attempts to label their resistance in the first place—the way that the Wolastoqiyik people were labelled “Maliseet” by colonists before they had even spoken their own name out loud; or the way that all indigenous peoples were collectively labelled “Indians”, then “Native”, then “Aboriginal”, and more recently “First Nations”, despite each nation having its own name since time immemorial, just like the Wolastoqiyik. The controversy stemming from the decision to trademark and incorporate is literally steeped in the very same colonial oppression that has persisted for centuries already, and that the explicit goal of grassroots activism is and always has been to resist, defy, subvert, deconstruct, and decolonize. I can’t even wrap my head around what could possibly have motivated the pursuit of that trademark and incorporation… Except one thing: ego.
Idle No More, Inc.
Now let’s look at it from the reality that is gradually becoming more and more clear with every online statement ending with the stamp of Sylvia McAdam’s name. The trademark for the phrase “Idle No More” has long ago been applied for and approved, and Idle No More Corp is allegedly pooling cash from donations and the sale of merchandise and swag boldly emblazoned with the phrase “Idle No More”. Allegedly, there were or are future plans to turn Idle No More Corp into a non-profit business of national scale. An “official” documentary about the four “official leaders” of “Idle No More” has already been filmed and made available for viewing — presumably, after paying the cost of admission to see it — and that little project was initiated and brought to completion within the first six months after that trademark application, as far as I know. One or more of the “official leaders” of “Idle No More” also took a trip to the United Nations to speak on behalf of “the movement”, despite barely being able to compose her own thoughts on how people are conversing about trademarking and incorporation of their “unifying label”. Am I to assume that there is any meaningful purpose in raising all that money just to blow it on filming a documentary and taking a trip to Europe? Is there other money being raised that isn’t being discussed?
For example, is Idle No More Corp planning to pay the $16,000 fine the Chief of Aamjiwnaang Nation was slapped with for standing up in the name of Idle No More? Or is he not covered for that kind of support (which is currently being crowd-sourced instead), because he organized and executed an unauthorized rail road blockade while the “official leadership” denounced this very tactic in national news?
Is Idle No More Corp planning to funnel cash into Coast Salish community projects that include the building of independently sustainable villages, the formation and promotion of indigenous-led microcurrency for the express purpose of deliberately subverting a cycle of dependence upon the Canadian economy, or the crowd-sourcing of resources and materials needed to repair an elder’s home?
Is Idle No More Corp even remotely interested in supporting, promoting, or contributing to the Hupacasath legal challenge against the Canada-China FIPPA? I learned a boatload of reasons why literally everyone in the country should be invested in this legal challenge, from just one sitting out of four days’ hearings in Vancouver after a rally on the first day here—not the first of which is that the CC-FIPPA allows China to randomly sue Canada for hundreds of millions of dollars any time anyone attempts, through non-violent direct action or protest, to interfere with China extracting Canada’s resources (and not to mention that this has already happened before to the tune of $250 million: I refer you now to the Lone Pine case).
And why the hell am I the one making all these suggestions for Idle No More Corp’s money? I thought the purpose of trademarking and incorporating was “transparency” and “open discussion”.
Finally, I just want to briefly address the growing issue of McAdam’s complaints of venomous platitudes, which she is now fairly persistently complaining about instead of giving meaningful direction. While I can’t personally speak for whether or not people other than myself are actually hurling personal attacks and insults at her and her three cohorts at Idle No More Corp, I can say with confidence that I am frequently accused of doing so, simply for having provided a reasoned and fairly thorough critique of their “leadership” on this blog. You know. The sort of thing that does not in any way characterize a personal attack or insult—primarily because unlike an ad hominem, it is reasoned; and secondly because it is focused not on the perceived character of any individual person, but on what they are doing and what detrimental effects those decisions and actions are having on the communities most in need of their support.
She and her cohorts (and even many of their dedicated followers) may find what I have to say insulting, but that does not in and of itself qualify what I’ve said as an insult.
Try as I might to keep what I am about to disclose here separated as far as possible from my involvement in anti-colonial resistance and decolonization, at about the time that McAdam and her cohorts at Idle No More Corp were planning to trademark and incorporate, a man I had been living with for just six weeks spat all over my face, called me an ignorant cunt, and attempted to kill me by strangling me. Police took several pictures of his hand print around my neck, still clearly visible a half hour later, and I have been dealing with authorities and various criminal court liaisons ever since, while a trial date set for the day after my goddamned birthday slowly creeps up. It is from this place in particular that I formally request from Ms. McAdam that she start showing a little backbone and stop all the incessant whining about whatever she perceives to be insulting or patronizing. If it isn’t a legitimate criticism, but just a baseless speculation about her character as a person, then it’s a waste of her time to spend even a fleeting moment thinking about it. If it is a legitimate criticism, however, then it’s not a fucking insult and she is therefore failing to even acknowledge it while complaining about how her feelings are being hurt by it.
Sylvia, I get it. Believe me, I do. This country is founded on white supremacy, and racism abounds from the structural to the personal. And that shit hurts. But it doesn’t hurt me the way it hurts people of colour such as yourself, because I’m a white person. Well guess what? I’m also a white person who has no connection to the several cultures from which I descend (or to the family I am related to by blood), precisely because of the nature of that white supremacy and abundant racism; and I’m a white person whose chosen family is primarily indigenous peoples, including several residential school survivors. I can relate more profoundly to your struggles than you might have everyone believing when you accuse me of insulting you. Please, for the sake of the resistance we are both clearly invested in, start taking legitimate criticisms more seriously, regardless of who is providing them.