Idle No More

It is wonderful to hear that Chief Theresa Spence is out of hospital. Her hunger strike lasted 43 days, and no doubt to a grave toll on her health. Further, I hope that Chief Spence’s protest, along with the greater Idle No More movement, bears lasting dividends for the First Nations people. Progress seemed to be made when she spurred the Prime Minister to meet with Native leaders, and there is hope – if naive hope – that talks will progress and help ameliorate the lives of the people on reserves such as Attawapiskat.

There are, however, elements of her protest that still leave a bad taste in my mouth. First, it is still not clear what she achieved, nor exactly what she was trying to achieve. The cynic in me agrees with David Frum:

The hunger strike by Canadian aboriginal leader Theresa Spence – now just ended – may be the first hunger strike in history staged to prevent attention to the conditions of her people.

Spence is the leader of an aboriginal community called Attawapiskat in northern Ontario. Attawapiskat has long suffered from notoriously dreadful housing conditions for its 1,500 people.

There are valid questions regarding the finances and operations of some reserves, including Attawapiskat, even if those concerns are sometimes overblown. Throughout the hunger strike, the narrative was that it was incumbent on Stephen Harper to meet with the Chief. By ignoring her and her protest – and the threat to her health – the Prime Minister was showing a disturbing callousness. The neglect played into the character of Mr. Harper as a soul-less robot. But that changed, eventually.

Mr. Harper did invite Ms. Spence, along with a number of other Native leaders, to a meeting. It was, from all appearances, held in good faith, even if there was never much promise that it would solve very much. The problems between First Nations people and the government of Canada are deep and complex. No one meeting could ever solve them. But, again, it appeared that this might be a good first step.

It was not good enough for Chief Spence, however. Though we had been hearing throughout December and January that she was fasting until she could have a meeting with Mr. Harper, she demanded that the meeting also include the Governor General. For those unaware of the mundane workings of the Canadian government, the Governor General is the representative of the Queen, who is, in turn, the official head of state of Canada. The Governor General signs all bills into law and he represents Canada at a number of diplomatic functions, funerals of foreign heads of state, for instance. His role is purely ceremonial. He has some power in that he can wield, but he generally must follow tradition and advice of the cabinet, which is headed by the Prime Minister. So, in the end, the Prime Minister is our political leader.

To ignore this reality and demand that a substantive meeting include the Governor General is a politically unwise move. The Prime Minister is not about to relinquish his power to the Governor General, and nor should he. Mr. Harper is our democratically-elected leader, not the Governor General, David Johnston. To a casual observer, Ms. Spence’s demand to include Mr. Johnston would appear as if her demand for a meeting was disingenuous. Such a stance bolsters the argument that her hunger strike was a diversionary tactic meant to obscure the real issue of her mismanagement.

That being said, there is a logic to Chief Spence’s demand to meet the the representative of the Crown, as treaties pre-date the Dominion of Canada. These were deals made during the days of British North America and were between the Monarchy and the First Nations. Seeking redress for the evils of colonization, it is understandable that one would seek to deal with the (original) colonizer. Britain was the colonial power, but to think that the Queen holds sway over the operations of Canada is to ignore the last hundred odd years. Further, if one’s grievance really is with the colonial power, one ought to camp out in the middle of the Thames not the middle of the Ottawa.

There is an irony that a people seeking to address the evils of colonialism (and post-colonialism) would demand that a democratic nation be beholden to a foreign despot.

In the end, I will not let my inner cynic dominate this issue for me. I will assume that Chief Spence, for all her faults, was operating in good faith and was not, as Mr. Frum suggest, lying about her fast (though I had never heard that she maintained a room at the posh Chateau Laurier during the entire affiar – that certainly does not look good). Similarly, I will assume that Mr. Harper is operating in good faith (even if he has proven that such is not always his modus operandi). If the Idle No More movement is to be successful, it will not be because it blocks one bill, nor because it fixes the housing crisis in one community. It will be successful if it leads to the improved living conditions of a wide cross-section of Native Canadians, and if it puts to bed much of the animosity and dirty dealings that have been the disgraceful signature of the Canadian government in their dealings with the Native peoples.

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. First Nations people have a serious problem with internal fraud and financial regulation, both down here in the USA and in Canada. I can’t speak to the exact particulars of Attawapiskat’s problems, but I know how fraud works in refugee camps. It’s a problem of governance and I think it has parallels for the Cree people. It’s also true in Afghanistan.

    The goal of refugee work is to get people on their feet, back into productive work of some sort, get their schools running, jump-start a society, if you will. To that end, the refugees must elect some leadership and thereby create mandate. Problem is, that leadership’s true mandate arises from their well-meaning external advisors and the money they bring to the table. The external advisors want the native people to assume their roles; clearly the outsiders don’t want to run the society, their goal is to get out.

    So all that money floods in from the outside world. The native leadership does what it would naturally do if there was ten dollars or a million: put it in their own pockets and dole it out judiciously to their favoured few and those few can dole it out to their favoured few — and it gets terribly feudal all the way down — and thus leaders maintain their power. They don’t consider it corruption the way we do. Why should anyone but their allies get any of that money? Let the others form their own power base and make their own money. When Karzai bet on the Americans, it wasn’t a popular position to take. He took the risks, nearly got killed several times, and now he’s pocketing the money and handing it out to his favoured few.

    Same goes for Chief Spence. Of course she’s hoovering off the money. Of course she’s staying in fancy hotels. That’s what leaders do. The mandate created by elections can be quickly supplanted by the mandate of money. The Peguis Manitoba leadership stole all that flood money, nothing will happen there. It’s a question of mandate: if Canada wants to give their tax money to a sovereign people, it shouldn’t complain about how it’s spent unless they want to take back mandate.

    There’s a simple, obvious solution to this problem: don’t give money to anyone like Chief Spence who has the mandate to spend it as she likes.

    • Blaise – From the linked article:

      Section 61(1)(a-k) of the Indian Act details that: “With the consent of the council of a band, the Minister may authorize and direct the expenditure of capital moneys of the band” for various purposes.

      What this means is that Ministerial approval is actually a requirement before any capital expenditures can occur on reserve. In practice, a Band will generally pass a Band Council Resolution (BCR) authorising a certain expenditure (say on housing), and that BCR must be forwarded to INAC for approval.

      That’s right. Most First Nations have to get permission before they can spend money. That is the opposite of “doing whatever they want” with the money. Bands are micromanaged to an extent unseen in nearly any other context that does not involve a minor or someone who lacks capacity due to mental disability.

      Any claims that INAC has no control over what Bands spend their money on is false.

      So, no, Chief Spence does not have the ability to spend the money however she likes.

      And I highly recommend the article; it greatly clarified my understanding of the whole matter.

      • The Deloitte and Touche audit says Chief Spence didn’t keep even the most cursory records on the expenditure of over 100 million CAD on Attawapiskat. Clearly Chief Spence did spend the money and nobody knows how it was spent.

        Let us put the most charitable reading on her inability to keep records. Let’s suppose everything was aboveboard, which I contend it wasn’t. I know refugee camps and incompetent administrators and most especially I know wasted money schemes when I see them and I know the excuses those administrators make when anyone dares to confront them. I also know the cadre of hand-wringers who arrive on scene when those confrontations are made. Ottawa didn’t dare to release the details for fear of looking like tyrants, despite this absolutely damning audit.

        The Hudson’s Bay communities are in bad shape, so are a dozen refugee camps I’ve seen. If the native peoples’ autonomy is threatened by demanding documentation for the moneys they spend, I’ve seen what comes of not making such demands.

        • I think the truth, and the reality, lies somewhere in the middle. The linked article by Chelsea Vowel relies a lot on a court’s interpretation of the financial situation, as well as the bureaucratic process. Courts aren’t going to be experts in financial audits, and may not have the mandate to take a holistic view. There was clearly some poor accounting, at the least, going on in Attawapiskat.

          That being said, I think it’s probably the nature of the beast that there’s going to some accounting errors. There isn’t always a robust infrastructure for financial transactions, and to keep things running, I can see how Chiefs and band councils might have to cross some official lines here and there just to keep everything going – even if there’s no corruption (to be sure, what Blaise describes is going to occur, but I’m not willing to assume it always occurs).

  2. Is Her Majesty the Queen actually a “foreign despot” when it’s your own constitution that states she’s the head of state?

    • Ah, I’m glad someone brought that up (and I expected North, our resident Monarchist to do it).

      I’m repeatedly told that we don’t have a foreigner as our head of state. And yes, she’s the Queen of Canada. In her role in our government, that’s all she is; it’s just some happy coincidence that she’s also the Queen of Britain (which, of course, means we should have been able to ditch all the sexist rules of succession, but somehow we couldn’t – no monarchist has ever explained that one to me).

      So what we have is some sort of Griffin Queen, both the British Queen and the Canadian Queen, 100% each with no overlap. Treaties were signed pre-confederation, so they were signed by the British Queen. So, if we’re stuck on a model where the First Nations grievance is with the descendant of the signatory, then it is with the Queen of Britain, not the Queen of Canada (since, I am told, they are completely separate entities). Hence, if we’re supposed to be subject to the rulings of Britain’s Queen, it means we’re under the thumb of a foreign despot.

      Or, Britain’s Queen and Canada’s Queen are the exact same thing… which would mean we’re under the rule of a foreign monarchy which we should ditch right away.

  3. Traditionally, folks often see the GG – and constitutional monarchy in general – as a check against the worst excesses of majority rule. So that ceremonial role, in its modern instantiation, is very important to people in cases where the exact complaint is that the majority gov’t is running roughshod over a minority group.

    • Perhaps to clarify, it seems as though the GG’s role is, at times, to ensure procedural fairness within the workings of the government. This comes in to play in matters of forming government, dissolving Parliament, confidence matters and prorogation. Policy-wise – and the matters we are dealing with are purely policy in nature – the GG has, in practice and tradition, no standing whatsoever.

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