Public remains confused about Idle No More protest aims, poll suggests

OTTAWA – Canadians remain confused by – and are disengaging from – ongoing aboriginal efforts to improve the relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canada, a new poll and a separate analysis of social media activity suggest.

While the ongoing effort to codify First Nations priorities for resetting the relationship may help advance the public’s understanding, keeping them connected to the cause at a grassroots level remains a challenge, the reports indicate.

The latest Canadian Press/Harris-Decima telephone survey found that four out of 10 respondents said they are both familiar with and sympathetic to the goals and aims of the Idle No More aboriginal movement.

The waves of protests, teach-ins, blockades and flash mobs began in December in the wake of the federal government’s decision to change oversight of waterways via an omnibus budget bill.

Fuelled by social media, the movement has since expanded into a call for ongoing grassroots mobilization of First Nations to educate themselves and others about the need for self-governance and environmental sustainability.

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Much of its public communications came via the Internet, with active Twitter and Facebook campaigns that attracted attention from around the world.

Those numbers are now on the wane: At its peak, tweets about the movement came from 17,000 different sources, but as of late last week, those numbers were down to around 5,600.

Despite the traffic, it’s unclear whether social media has failed to actually educate people as to the cause at hand, suggested digital public affairs strategist Mark Blevis, who compiled the data.

“I think it was largely a tool for organizing and getting information out in terms of when events were happening, sharing status updates about events,” Blevis said.

“I think that a movement like Idle No More has to work harder to figure out how to communicate their concerns to the public.”

The Harris-Decima survey does suggest that the more people know about the goals of the movement, the more supportive they become.

Almost two in three respondents to the poll who said they were aware of the movement’s goals expressed sympathy for it, with Atlantic Canadians and British Columbians most likely to be supportive.

“This suggests to me that if Idle No More can continue to raise their profile and understanding of what they stand for, their influence can only grow,” said Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg.

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The telephone survey of 1,000 people was carried out between Jan. 17 and 20 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Online Idle No More activity reached a crescendo during the Jan. 11 meeting between First Nations chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with a second bump of about 12,000 sources during a follow-up day of action five days later.

Since then, engagement has steadily been declining, Blevis said – and social media’s built-in limitations represent part of the challenge in keeping Canadians engaged.

“There’s a lot of production value that has to go into content and messaging these days in order to get people’s attention,” he said. “If you can’t condense your messages into their essence, they won’t have a particularly long lifespan on the web.”

Blevis said it’s not immediately obvious what’s behind the decline in online activity, nor what will happen next.

“It’s almost kind of like a star that really expanded very quickly and now, I don’t want to say it’s collapsing in on itself, but it’s returning to where its energy exists,” he said.

“There will be a group of committed people in the epicentre who will continue to carry it forward, and there will be some transient people who come and go and comment, but I wonder how long they can sustain the momentum of the round dances and all that stuff given the fact they’ve already started to trail off.”

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Those rallying under the Idle No More banner separate themselves from formal First Nations leadership, even as those chiefs have seized upon the publicity they’ve garnered as impetus to force new talks with the federal government.

The Idle No More protests happened to coincide with the start of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger protest, which began Dec. 11 in an effort to secure a meeting between First Nations leaders, Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston.

Spence soon became the public face of the Idle No More movement, even though the two were never formally linked.

On Thursday, in exchange for Spence agreeing to end her protest, aboriginal leaders and opposition politicians signed a 13-point declaration setting out how they intend to move the First Nations cause forward.

Idle No More supporters are planning to keep their cause alive as well, with an international day of action planned for Monday – the same day federal MPs return to the House of Commons after their Christmas break.