Seeing Idle No More in Les Misérables

28 Dec

“Damn their warnings, damn their lies. They will see the people rise!” (Upon These Stones – At The Barricade, Les Misérables)

In a few hours, I’m going to see Les Misérables. As I know the musical by heart, I’ve been thinking of the similarities between this story of revolution in mid-1860s Paris and the Idle No More movement.

One of the central characters in Les Miz is the barricade. Building a barricade to create a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is both the physical representation of the deep divisions that exist in social equality and a tool to demonstrate that business cannot continue as normal.

Just a few days before Les Miz was released, The Barricade made her own appearance in Canada. The CN rail blockade outside of Sarnia by Aamjiwnaang First Nation has been up for a week. Another blockade has been set up by Garden River and Batchewana First Nations, near Sault Ste. Marie.

I suspect that more roads and railways will be blockaded as Harper’s outrageous and callous non-response to Chief Spence’s hunger strike continues.

Idle No More has, for a variety of reasons, sparked the imagination and creativity of thousands of people for whom mere existence is resistance. Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has created a single, unifying point around which Indigenous people and allies have organized.

The round dance flash mobs, the coordinated actions, the blockades and barricades, the use of social media and the unified message are all signs that maybe Idle No More will be different than past movements. Maybe Idle No More will become the moment where Canada is forced to honour the Treaties and negotiate nation to nation with Indigenous people. Maybe. Hopefully.

Revolution, as a concept, has been en vogue in the West since the the Arab Spring. From Time Magazine naming The Protester as person of the year in 2011 to the successes, failures and popularity of Occupy Wall Street, it doesn’t take a supreme cynic to see why the time is ripe for Les Miz to make her silver screen debut.

Of course, despite its content and the powerful call for justice, the movie was not created to spark revolutionary activity. Like whatever-the-hell-the-latest-Batman-movie-was-called, Les Miz is a movie out to make money and win some gold-plated statues.

But what if we watched Les Miz and saw the injustice of our own system? What if Fantine had died along the Highway of Tears or if Valjean had a Treaty card? Would Idle No More get stronger? Would there be a broader support among non-Indigenous people for Stephen Harper to change how he interacts with First Nations?

I don’t think that the parallels between Idle No More and Les Miz should be overblown. Les Miz is fiction and chronicles rich white students trying to whip up a revolution that ultimately fails. The Indigenous sovereignty movement on Turtle Island has always existed and isn’t fiction. It’s the real, centuries-old story of resistance, cultural and traditional protection and reclamation.

But I do believe that a value exists to popularizing stories of revolution. As a friend said to me after he saw Les Miz, the times today are different when the musical was first performed. The mid-1980s West, laden with Thatcherism and Reganomics was not a time where revolution was en vogue. In such a context, Les Miz was less real and more fantasy; a set of stories tied to beautiful music. You watch the musical, cry and then leave.

But times are different. Canada looks different. From the Occupy Movement to the Printemps Érable, people have seen that government can be stopped if you find the right tactic.

Are the times different enough? While movie-inspired protests seemed to peak most recently with the use of Avatar-inspired motifs, I’m not under any illusion that Les Miz will change the world.

Instead, let’s use the popular imagery to talk about the Treaties, Idle No More and the need to radical action to take back our democracy, take back our country and cultivate a system justice and peace for all.

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