Jan 282013
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Idle No More faces sexist as well as racist resistance.

by John Baglow

Idle No More was the brainchild of four young Saskatchewan women, concerned about the treaty-breaking implications of Stephen Harper’s omnibus Bill C-45. The notion quickly went viral, nationally and internationally, a single spark falling on dry tinder. Closely interrelated with the eruption of the Idle No More movement was the (yet ongoing) hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence, from the remote northern reserve of Attawapiskat. And it has been given substantial intellectual force and effect by indigenous Constitutional scholar Pam Palmater.

In this brief article I want to look at the past few weeks of controversy through a gender lens, and offer up some observations for consideration and discussion. Let me be self-critical, to begin with: until now, I have failed to foreground gender in my consideration of the movement and the strident media reaction against it. The frame of “race” has been consistently deployed: one consequence of the protests has been to reveal a shockingly deep and visceral, but perhaps not surprising, racism in settler Canada. But this is only a part of what appears to be at stake.

The sheer venom directed Chief Spence’s way has been duly noted by journalist Michael Harris and others. It has certainly caught my own attention. It seems utterly disproportionate, by any measure, and can only be partially explained by the considerable effect she has had on the process so far.

It may be no coincidence that the line-up on each side of the debate now going on is so obviously a gender divide. The sheer intensity of the reaction to women out of place — Chief Spence, Pam Palmater — is telling.

The white punditocracy, mostly men d’un certain age (with anti-feminist Barbara Kay and the idiosyncratic Christie Blatchford being the exceptions that merely prove the rule), have reacted with extraordinary antagonism to Chief Spence and her stand. Brutal character assassination has been the norm: she’s faking the hunger strike (called by some a “diet” — more on that below), she has, all by herself, mishandled the finances on her reserve; she drives a nice car. There have been snide references to her “live-in boyfriend” who was, on a second go-round, hired by the band council to straighten out the books.

And she’s fat. Readers might want to peruse some of these references for themselves. The commentary here is all too typical.

Now, we know — or at least the informed among us do — that obesity is a sign of poverty. But that obviously isn’t the point here. Fear of fat — and of failed diets — is a staple of “women’s magazines” and is well-canvassed in feminist writing. Fat-shaming is gendered.

But let’s move on. The Idle No More movement was, as noted, begun by four Saskatchewan women. It was championed by Pam Palmater, and incisive commentators like Chelsea Vowel. It has been vilified and denigrated by media mainstreamers, almost all of whom are men. The former (and their supporters) tend to speak holistically, of the environment, of history, of treaty obligations, of nation-to-nation sovereignty. The latter, when they aren’t calling Chief Spence “creepy” or a “race-hustler,” are at pains to point out the obvious: the Governor-General has no real power, so why are these civically illiterate Indians wittering on about meeting with him? The books at Attawapiskat have been audited and found wanting (the satirical #Ottawapiskat hashtag on Twitter has sent the double standards here well past the moon). What’s needed is practical approaches to concrete problems, not all this hippie-talk about Mother Earth and whatnot, and “pow-wow performance art.”

The white boys are full of such sage advice, when they take a break from being crudely insulting. Here’s a second-string journo on the demand to meet with the G-G: “Listen to constitutional relativism and the belief in monarchical magic? Not see how that helps anyone.”

“Magic.” That word speaks volumes in this context. On the one hand we have the Dionysians — visionaries, revolutionaries, magicians. On the other are the Apollonians — rational, practical types, imposing order on chaos, cataloguing the sand-grains as the storm roars on. The binary is obviously simplistic, and I don’t insist upon it as definitive, but we certainly appear to be seeing that dialectic at work in the thick of the current struggles. And it’s a gendered dialectic, too: men are supposedly the reasoning ones, women are emotional. Magic has been the province of women, and they burned for it.

In any case I am suggesting that it may be no coincidence that the line-up on each side of the debate now going on is so obviously a gender divide. The sheer intensity of the reaction to women out of place — Chief Spence, Pam Palmater — is telling.

I am reminded of Derek Freeman’s dogged pursuit of Margaret Mead, or David Stoll’s similar run at Nobel prizewinning Rigoberta Menchu. The former, a biological determinist, was unhappy with Mead’s cultural constructivist approach. The latter, apparently ignorant of the Latin American testimonio genre, strove mightily to find literal inaccuracies in her account. The measures they took to discredit two very tall and female poppies were extraordinary. And in each case the ideological framework in which their criticism was constructed was clear: the “objective,” the measurable and scientific, is privileged over immediacy, holism, and multivocality. Donna Haraway rightly calls this the “God trick.”

The gendering of the current dispute continues to play out. There was the gathering of the boys on January 11 — Atleo, Harper, Duncan, Clement, and a host of others, almost exclusively male, setting out to impose order upon chaos. There may or may not be another meeting this week, in which dissident chiefs have taken up Theresa Spence’s demands, perhaps not always with the noblest of motives.

No doubt we shall see yet more columns in the comprador media, willing Idle No More to die. A dissident former activist, Ernie Crey, has been trundled out by the likes of Terry Glavin as an authority to counteract the nonsense: Crey had no compunction about appearing on Roma-hating Ezra Levant’s The Source, which goes to his basic disconnection from current events. Meanwhile Chief Spence carries on in her tipi on Victoria Island, marginalized, no graceful way out.

Set against all this, there are music, drums and dancing. The spirit of Idle No More still burns bright. And that spirit, like its opposite, seems to have acquired a gender.

About John Baglow

John Baglow is a former Executive Vice-President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. He is currently a writer, researcher and a consultant in the fields of public and social policy
You can read his blog at drdawgsblawg.ca.

© Copyright 2013 John Baglow, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

  One Response to “The gender of Aboriginal protest”

  1. […] boyfriend” who was, on a second go-round, hired by the band council to straighten out the books. MORE Share this:FacebookTwitterDiggEmailPrintMoreLinkedInRedditStumbleUponGoogle […]

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