Protest rhetoric tends to err on the side of boundless optimism, but when Stuart Myiow stood up in front of the crowd of hundreds at the Idle No More protest last Friday, he bluntly broke the mold.
“The Mohawk Traditional Council (MTC) can’t directly support the ‘Idle No More movement’,” he said, reading from the statement that the Council had released that day. Myiow is a temporary Wolf Clan representative of the Council.
The MTC’s statement goes on to outline its criticisms of the Idle No More movement, saying it has “too many voices saying too many different things, including some radical and controversial demands, allowing those responsible for the problems…to hijack the movement.”
The crowd didn’t seem to immediately register the potentially controversial content of the statement, which, like the other speeches that day, was peppered with cheers and applause.
Idle No More has been compared to the Occupy movement for its strong emphasis on being open to widely varying and dissenting opinions. However, the voice of the MTC is perhaps unique in the fact that its dissention is a critique of this very openness: it faults the movement for having “too many different voices saying too many different things.”
Wahéshon Shiann Whitebean is a Female Chief on the Mohawk Traditional Council and one of the co-signatories of the statement. She explained why she saw the breadth of opinions in Idle No More as problematic.
“People are standing up, but they don’t know what to do to make a difference, which is why there needs to be leadership and direction,” she said. “If Idle No More is the beginning of something, it would be good to see people take it somewhere.”
Ironically, what Myiow called the “directionlessness” of the movement is precisely what allowed the Council to make its statement at last Friday’s protest. Melissa Mollen-Dupuis is a Montréal-based indigenous rights activist and was one of the organizers of the march.
“I thought it was really important that [the MTC] should have a say, even if we don’t agree with everything they have to say.” she explained, adding, “I’m not scared of people not being okay with the movement, that’s for sure. I think it would be more scary if everyone agreed with everything.”
In response to the criticism of there being too many voices in the movement for it to accomplish anything, Mollen-Dupuis said that she saw Idle No More’s ideological openness as one of its greatest strengths.
“Idle No More definitely has a lot of voices and a lot of different ideas. They can see that as a negative thing, but I see it as a very positive thing,” she said. “Voices are like twigs: if you have one twig it will break, but many twigs won’t break as easily. People might want to have a clear unilateral voice that says the same thing, but that’s not going to happen.”
The Mohawk Traditional Council of Kahnawake co-exists with its Mohawk Band Council. The Council is one of 630 Canadian First Nation band councils whose chiefs are represented by the Assembly of First Nations, the current governing structure of First Nations on the federal level. In the past, some of the band councils have suffered heavy criticism after charges of corruption and failing to be properly representative.
The MTC’s statement listed a series of demands, including that band councilors fight to “dissolve the structure of the AFN, […] formally pull out of the self-government agreement [and] dissolve the elective band council system”.
Joe Delaronde is a spokesperson for the Mohawk Band Council of Kahnawake, which is a native reserve less than an hour from Montréal. He acknowledged that the AFN has had its share of problems in the past, but doesn’t see the dissolution of the Assembly as a viable road to solving the problems of indigenous peoples in Canada.
“The AFN is not perfect, the council system is not perfect, but is there any other body that brings native peoples together? I don’t see one,” he said in a phone interview. “If people don’t like the AFN, I invite them to come up with some other method that brings people together and gives them a chance to have a voice about issues of national importance.”
Whitebean, however, said that complete dissolution of the structure of the Assembly of First Nations and of the band council system is a perfectly reasonable and realistic goal.
“It would be stupid to support anyone in the band council system because it’s something that has destroyed our people,” she said. “The elected system does not work for our people. In fact, we’ve been contacted by other nations to help them set up their own traditional councils.”
In contrast to the electoral system by which a native community’s band council is formed, traditional councils’ representatives are nominated by clan mothers and confirmed through consensus.
“[Saying we’re going to dissolve the AFN is] like saying we’re going to dissolve the federal system of Canada,” said Mollen-Dupuis. “I don’t think it’s the best idea, I think we have to be realistic. We’re going to have to repair the relations we’ve already weaved, and get the knots and the holes out of the fabric that’s already been weaved.”
Chief Theresa Spence, who has been something of a lightning rod for the Idle No More movement, also came under attack in the Mohawk Traditional Council’s statement, which called her a “spectacle.” Chief Spence is an elected band council aboriginal leader who has been on a hunger strike since December 11th with the goal of obtaining a meeting between Stephen Harper, Governor General David Johnston, and aboriginal leaders, a goal that has yet to be realized.
Delaronde noted that Kahnawake’s Band Council has received several messages from people who didn’t understand the Traditional Council’s decision to read an anti-Idle No More statement at a rally for the movement.
“It’s a free country, they can say what they want, but we were certainly surprised,” he said, adding, “We received a couple of emails from non-native people who thought that it was ill-advised to release such a statement at a rally by and for native peoples, and who thought that the movement should have a more united front.”
Despite their multiple, harsh criticisms of Idle No More, the Mohawk Traditional Council nonetheless maintained that it does “support the movement of all people in this struggle to correct corrupt governments and return truth as the standard of our societies.”
“[Our problems with Idle No More] don’t mean that we won’t stand with people or support them,” said Whitebean.