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.