Writers at (and supporters of) The National Post and The Globe and Mail (we know who they are) have mounted a rather pointed, and sometimes visceral attack on Idle No More in general and Chief Spence in particular. These writers (though I hate to dignify them with that title) seem to be running rather scared and as a result their attacks have begun to delve into the unseemly realm of race and terrorist-baiting. We have all read them and they have turned our stomachs. And, at some level, we are prone to think that these simplistic, sometimes racist attacks don't deserve to be dignified with a response. I can understand this position, but I also think that a reasoned defence of Idle No More (INM) and Chief Spence is a relatively simple matter and therefore should be made loudly and on a regular basis. (And I have no problem making the defence as a white male of European descent because in some ways it is this very constituency that needs to come to terms with this argument)
At a very basic level, attacks on INM and Chief Spence are based upon the incorrect assumption that extra-political activism with specifically political goals has no legitimacy in a "democratic society." There are many people who seems to assume that outside of electoral politics and the use of the courts, there is no legitimate political activity. This kind of assumption demonstrates a shocking lack of understanding of political systems and a sad lack of knowledge of history.
These kind of assumptions are based upon the idea that modern democracies are complete and closed systems, which of course they are not. Even if a 'democracy' has a high degree of participation (which ours does not) and a distinctly independent judiciary (a claim that even in our country can be brought into question), modern democratic systems suffer from some very basic, let's call them 'gaps' in representation and legitimacy. One of these consistent gaps has been experienced in the treatment of 'minority' and 'national' groups within the state. Democracies, in other words, have to be very careful about how they treat minority and national groups, and so we can understand the need and importance of written constitutions and bills of rights, documents which are often written in part to protect certain rights against the will of a majority. In other words, we enshrine certain basic rights precisely because democracy has unavoidable 'gaps' in its structure. An elected government will not always protect the rights of minorities or national groups. The problem, of course is that constitutions and courts will not always be able to fill these gaps, and even when we believe that the constitution or the courts will eventually prevail, extra-political activism is often an essential part of the movement to bring the issues surrounding minority and national rights to public attention. Such was the impetuous for the Civil Rights Movement in the US. (And even in that case it took presidential action to push equality forward.)
Now, let's come to the specific issues surrounding Indigenous groups in Canada. Indigenous groups in Canada constitute (according to the principles of the United Nations) separate nations within the state of Canada. They do so because they possess their own linguistic and cultural identities and have had a continual claim on specific areas of lands that are closely tied to their national identities. Now, sadly, history demonstrates conclusively that these national groups cannot rely on the governments, the courts, or the Constitution to protect their internationally recognized rights. We therefore have a demonstrable gap in the democratic system. These groups therefore have the moral right (one might even say the obligation) to assert their claims at an extra-political level. The normal political restrictions do not apply to these groups because a) they constitute separate national groups recognized historically, internationally, and in our own constitution and b) because they have basic recognized rights which, history demonstrates, they cannot depend upon politicians or courts to represent or defend. In other words, the extra-political claims of Indigenous groups are motivated by the very same principles that we claim constitute our treasured political system - principles of national sovereignty, participation, civil rights etc.
Of course, this argument is made even stronger by the fact that we presently have a government which is redefining our relationship to the state and the environment, and they are doing so with the consent of a relatively small minority (about 20% when voter turn-out is considered) of the population.
I believe this argument is reasonable, cogent, coherent, and straightforward. The Indigenous people within the borders of Canada have a right (and even obligation) to take their struggle to the extra-political level. If there were not significant gaps in our democratic system, if it truly represented and protected the rights of minorities and national groups, if the courts properly embraced the internationally and constitutionally recognized status of Indigenous people and their role in protecting the land and water, then perhaps one could question the extra-political activism of Idle No More. But these conditions do not prevail.