Ain’t idle no more

From Winnipeg gangbanger to Keystone Cop, Clayton Thomas-Müller’s life story reads like a paint-by-the-numbers, Hollywood movie script.

Brought up by a single mother (“poppa was a rolling stone”), in and out of over 40 schools by Grade Eight, incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre at 16, and working for the Manitoba Warriors gang a year later, one has to wonder how Thomas-Müller came to be one of Canada’s foremost environmental activists.

I first met the Indigenous Environmental Network’s anti-tar sands campaigner on Parliament Hill in September 2011, where he’d co-organized a protest against TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

With the Peace Tower at his back, Thomas-Müller’s voice rang out like a call to arms over a crowd of hundreds. His long black hair pulled back in a ponytail, fist pumping heavenwards, he looked every part the acolyte for environmental action.

And yet it’s hard to reconcile that image with the soft-spoken Thomas-Müller that I met at an Ottawa coffee shop nearly 18 months later. His 35-year old cherubic face framed by a black toque, he pulls me to him in a bear hug.

Thomas-Müller says he’s just returned from my motherland where he joined activists from the UK Tar Sands Network to present a petition to Canada House in London.

But he says he can’t chat for long – he’s visiting members of the First Nations community ahead of another Idle No More day of action.

“Idle No More is the largest native social movement that Canada’s ever seen,” he says. “I hope we can steer the thousands of newly-politicized First Nations people and take it to big oil – as that’s who’s pulling Harper’s strings.”

Recognized by Utne magazine as one of the top 30 under-30 activists in the U.S. and as a “Climate Hero” 2009 by Yes magazine, Thomas-Müller’s campaigning for environmental justice has since taken him to five continents.

But Thomas-Müller’s path to becoming environmental campaigner hasn’t been easy. His childhood was a transient one with his mother – a single parent and psychiatric nurse – going wherever the work was.

“We lived in a whole bunch of places ranging from Brandon, Dawson Creek, Winnipeg, to Montreal,” he says. “She mainly moved for economic reasons, but I think in her own way she always trying to get away from her own history as a residential school survivor.”

But it was when a 12-year old Thomas-Müller moved to Terrace, B.C., with his mother in 1989 that his life began to unravel.

“It was a very racist town, and a difficult place to live,” he says. “Being a young Cree from the prairies I was different. When I wasn’t fighting white kids I was fighting local native kids who didn’t care for my fair looks.”

He dropped out of school and moved out of his family home at a time when his mother was divorcing his German stepfather.

“My love of nature came from that time,” recalls Thomas-Müller. “Hiking in the Skeena valley and fishing for salmon – it was an escape for me.”

But Thomas-Müller says he soon resorted to hustling, selling pot, stealing, robbing, doing whatever it took to survive on the street. With his mother having returned to Winnipeg, he resorted to couch-surfing where he could, and sleeping in abandoned trailers. A year later he was incarcerated in a Prince George juvenile detention facility for 6 months for breaking and entering.

This downward spiral continued upon his subsequent return to Winnipeg. His brothers got him involved with the Manitoba Warriors gang, “doing what gang people do.”

Thomas-Müller credits his girlfriend at the time – now his wife – for the metamorphosis in his life.

“Koren said that if I didn’t change my lifestyle, and straighten out, she’d not be able to stay with me.”

He attended an inner city high school for high-risk youth, before getting the opportunity to register for a government-funded community development program at a Winnipeg community centre.

At the end of the program the government gave graduates a bursary to develop their own community project. As a result, Thomas-Müller says the Aboriginal Youth With Initiative organization was born.

“Within one year we had offices in four inner city community centres, with staffers doing teenage pregnancy and gang intervention work.”

Thomas-Müller went on to co-found the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Youth Council, and became the youth spokesperson for the Assembly of First Nations.

He says it was his mother who politicized him at a young age.

“When the Oka crisis unfolded she sat down and discussed with me what it meant,” he says. “She was also very open about the abuse she suffered in the residential schools.”

“Those conversations didn’t make me hate the government, but they certainly helped me understand at a young age the history of colonization and how that affected us as indigenous people.”