Yesterday evening, as I stood shivering at the corner of Robson and Burrard in Vancouver in the middle of a flash mob, the insight struck me: The people who refer to the Idle No More events as protests have the wrong idea. The events are not just protests – they’re at least as much celebrations.
Not that politics don’t enter into what the Canadian First Nations are doing. Most of the people at last night’s event could cite at least Bills C-45 and C-27 among the half dozen bills that the movement is protesting. A political pamphlet, obviously hastily made, was being handed out, and the organizers speaking to the media could talk knowledgeably about the issues.
However, politics were no more than half the story. Political signs were scattered throughout the crowd (My favorite: “We want to speak to the Crown, not the court jester,” a reference to requests for the Governor General to intervene, and a dismissal of Prime Minister Stephen Harper), but there were also Canadian and British Columbian flags, as well as variations on the flag that the Iroquois Warrior Society flew during the Oka Crisis. One man carried a flag with a Northwest Coast copper in the center. Others had tied flags around their shoulders that proclaimed, “Idle No More” in large letters.
Even the organizers didn’t spend much time on the issues. Two or three made some obviously unprepared remarks for the cameras before moving on to the drumming and dancing as soon as possible. In fact, of the entire ninety minutes of protest, no more than fifteen were concerned with talking politics.
That’s not surprising. The flash mob was the third Idle No More event that day, and many in the crowd had gone to all three events. They must have had every opportunity they could wish to hear about the politics, and almost everyone in the crowd must have made up their minds long ago.
Anyway, you could tell it wasn’t a political crowd by its composition. A crowd bent on political action is usually young, and predominantly male. It doesn’t consist of grannies and elders on scooters, or mothers carrying toddlers and families with strollers.
Unless I am very much mistaken, the people I saw had come to celebrate being First Nations, to feel good about being survivors and the descendants of survivors of disease, neglect, and abuse. Some were wearing traditional button blankets. Others were wearing T-shirts that talked about Haida Gwaii, or simply declared an cultural identity like Haisla.
But, more than to support any cause, they had come to show their pride in being aboriginals in a modern world, and most of them couldn’t get enough of the idea that their identity was something to proud of. For some, especially the senior citizens in the crowd, that might have been a new idea they were still exploring.
But you could tell what they were there for: the drumming and the dancing. They couldn’t get enough of either. At first lone singers with drums played at scattered points through the crowd, the drumbeats echoing stirringly among the tall buildings above them. Then many of the drummers formed up in two facing lines, each line trying to outdo each other in volume and enthusiasm until it seemed only a matter of time until a few drums were broken from the pounding they were taking. Around me, people swayed and shuffled to the music, clapping hands and whooping as each song finished.
Later, as the crowd moved to block the intersection, many didn’t walk so much as dance. As the drumming and singing continued, several chains of circle dancers formed, continuing for at least twenty minutes.
I remember sitting on a fire hydrant through part of the intersection blockade, watching the police diverting traffic to make sure they were continuing friendly, and my eyes kept continually drifting back to the dancing. It seemed a little tentative, as though some of the people couldn’t quite believe what they were doing, but they were enjoying it anyway.
I remembered the early twentieth century anarchist Emma Goldman saying that if there was no dancing at the revolution she wouldn’t be attending, and found myself thinking that, with that attitude, she would have loved what I was seeing.
Even when the crowd moved back on to the sidewalk and started breaking up into twos and threes and drifting away, there were some who couldn’t stop dancing. I had seen one teenage girl with “Idle No More” painted on her face who was already dancing half an hour before the start of the event; I saw her at the end, and she was still dancing, seemingly tireless.
Then the last echo of the last drum beat faded. The dancers continued for a few seconds before stopping to clap and cheer, and the noise of the traffic suddenly seemed unusually loud.
To all appearances, nothing happened or didn’t happen because the intersection of Robson and Burrard was blocked early in a winter evening. But it would be a mistake to imagine that the event served no purpose. The event ended with the participants feeling good about themselves and their cultures – and I suspect that it would be an even greater mistake to dismiss that result as having no consequences.