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Photo by Luc Desjardin.

The face behind #IdleNoMore

January 15, 2014 — 

On her Twitter page, Tanya Kappo describes herself as a “proud mama, freedom fighter, Cree woman…and politically savvy.”

Kappo is the originator of the well-known hashtag #IdleNoMore, which sparked the largest grassroots uprising of Aboriginal people this country has seen in some time. She is also a 2012 graduate of Robson Hall, the U of M’s Faculty of Law.

Growing up at Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation in Northwestern Alberta, Kappo was surrounded by a large extended family. Yet even then she knew something wasn’t right in her community, although she could not articulate exactly what it was.

As a tween she began to read the writings of Chief Dan George, a prominent Aboriginal leader and writer from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia. “Something about how he wrote inspired me to want to speak to people in a way that would evoke a deep response and compel them into action,” she says.

Before law school, Kappo lived in Edmonton and worked in communications and journalism. It was events like Meech Lake and the Oka crisis that made her feel an urgent need to do something more to help Aboriginal people. She decided to go to law school.

However, things weren’t that straightforward. “The same day I got my acceptance letter, I learned I was pregnant,” she says. “So I put my plans to study law on hold.”

Nineteen years later, she graduated from Robson Hall, just months before that same child entered first year university.


Kappo on the Faculty of Law: “It made me feel there was a place for me there as an Indigenous person.”


In the intervening years, Kappo became more politically active in Aboriginal issues. She joined boards and committees and her determination to find a way to help her people grew.

“When I was ready to apply to law school again, I thought of the University of Manitoba. Winnipeg has always felt like a special place to me. I heard some negative stories from other Aboriginal people about what law school was like. I felt that my choice of school would be the single most important factor in determining whether or not I would complete the degree. I definitely made the right decision. My experience at Robson Hall was extremely positive.

“There was a genuine interest on the part of faculty to be inclusive of Indigenous worldviews, both through some of courses that were offered, like Advancing Indigenous Rights Internationally and Critical Conversations on Indian Residential Schools and within other course curricula.

“It made me feel there was a place for me there as an Indigenous person.”


Taking action, storming the castle

While Kappo intended to use her legal training to advance Aboriginal rights, she never expected to find herself in the midst of the media maelstrom she faced soon after graduation.

So what lead her there? Kappo felt that there was a significant gap between Aboriginal leadership and community members. “I expected our leaders to be educating people about Bill C-45 and its effects, because they are quite significant. But they weren’t doing that.”

Omnibus budget Bill C-45, which received royal assent last December and is now known as the “Jobs and Growth Act, 2012,” changes 64 different Acts or Regulations.

First Nations communities are particularly concerned about changes made to the Indian Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act.

Some of the changes include: allowing bands to lease reserve lands with support of the majority who actually attend meetings to vote, instead of the majority of eligible voters; removing protections for bodies of water thus facilitating large-scale resource development; and reducing the number of projects that require environmental assessment.

Kappo decided to take action and follow in the path of the four women credited with spearheading the Idle No More movement: Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams and Nina Wilsonfeld. Modelled on the teach-ins they held in Saskatchewan on Bill C-45, Kappo arranged to hold a similar event in Alberta.


Kappo: “A friend of mine told me how to do a tweetup, so I created the hashtag #IdleNoMore for the event and things just took off from there.”


“The leadership structures we have today don’t reflect our traditional systems of First Nations government, in which decisions were made by the community, rather than by a small number of officials. Holding a teach-in also seemed like a move toward restoring a more traditional approach,” explains Kappo.

The First Nation community where Kappo held the teach-in offered to broadcast it on its radio station and stream it live online. Kappo set up a twitter account so people around the province and the country could participate.

“A friend of mine told me how to do a tweetup [a meeting organized on Twitter], so I created the hashtag #IdleNoMore for the event and things just took off from there.”

Kappo says her legal training provided great preparation for the role of activist. “I learned to read legislation with a deeper understanding, to apprehend what some of the unintended effects may be. Law school taught me to look at the big picture. I found myself putting this knowledge to use very soon after I graduated.”

Kappo is pleased that the Idle No More movement has remained largely peaceful and within the limits of the law. When asked about the more aggressive actions taken in the name of Idle No More, like railroad blockades, she says that while she espouses peaceful forms of protest, she understands the deep frustration that drives some to take a more forceful approach. Kappo points out that even though authorities were called upon in several instances, they demonstrated considerable patience and the incidents were resolved peacefully.


In Kappo’s opinion, the biggest challenge is the federal government’s lack of political will.


Despite a number of acts of violence toward Aboriginal people that have been linked to the movement, Kappo remains heartened by the outpouring of support from the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community alike. She receives a constant stream of invitations to speak about Idle No More from a variety of community groups.

“People are interested in learning about and understanding the issues. They want to know what they can do to help

“For the first time it feels like average Canadians are interested in having a genuine dialogue with Aboriginal people.”

In Kappo’s opinion, the biggest challenge is the federal government’s lack of political will. However given the growing number of Canadians who want to see change, she remains hopeful that things will improve.

From a legal perspective, Kappo believes the most pressing issue is how to address the Indian Act. “While many advocate to abolish it, for all its flaws, it’s a source of protection for our land rights. We can’t just get rid of it. We need to think carefully about what will replace it, whether that’s Treaty implementation legislation or something else,” she says.

Kappo is currently articling with a Calgary based energy company. She is not exactly sure what the future holds in store, but she still feels the same sense of urgency to help advance Aboriginal rights.

“Legal action is incredibly time consuming and costly. I’ve begun to think about whether there may be other ways I can use my legal training to have a more immediate impact. I haven’t settled on just what that will look like yet, but anything is possible,” muses Kappo.

For a woman who waited nineteen years to realize her dream of obtaining a legal education, there’s no doubt she has the patience and tenacity to figure it out.

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