Ottawa Citizen

No end to stu­pid­ity bred by hunger strikes

- CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD

The last Canada heard of At­tawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and her be­lea­guered re­serve in North­ern On­tario, it was in re­la­tion to the ap­palling con­di­tions on the First Na­tion, specif­i­cally the state of the al­leged houses, which in too many cases were over­crowded di­lap­i­dated shacks and tents wholly un­suit­able for a James Bay win­ter. That was about a year ago. Now, of course, Chief Spence has parked her­self on an is­land in the Ot­tawa River, is on Day 17 of a hunger strike, and all around her, the in­evitable cy­cle of hideous puffery and horse ma­nure that usu­ally ac­com­pa­nies na­tive protests swirls.

Al­ready, there is much talk of smudg­ing cer­e­monies, to­bacco of­fer­ings, the in­her­ent abo­rig­i­nal love for and su­pe­rior un­der­stand­ing of the land, and treaties that were ex­pected to be in place “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows.”

The chief’s own per­ceived dif­fi­cul­ties — when she was just a deputy chief, her life part­ner Clay­ton Kennedy was hired as the At­tawapiskat co-man­ager — and the band coun­cil’s role in the mis­un­der­stand­ing that led to the re­serve be­ing taken over by a third-party man­ager, a de­ci­sion later found to have been un­rea­son­able by a Fed­eral Court judge, have all but dis­ap­peared from pub­lic con­scious­ness.

(She claims she ab­sented her­self from all dis­cus­sions about Kennedy’s hir­ing, and that ev­ery­one knew they were lovers, any­way, and that she was elected chief by in­formed vot­ers. But the story il­lus­trates, if noth­ing else, the old na­tive adage that “the chief’s drive­way is al­ways paved.”)

Chief Spence is de­mand­ing a na­tion-to-na­tion meet­ing with Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David John­ston — she has also in­vited Lau­reen Harper to pop by — to dis­cuss treaty obli­ga­tions and the Canada/First Na­tions re­la­tion­ship, and has even at­tempted to dic­tate the terms of that meet­ing, telling The Globe and Mail that it must last “at least a week or two weeks.”

The 49-year-old also has be­come the face of the Idle No More move­ment — it ad­vo­cates “a rev­o­lu­tion which hon­ours and ful­fils In­dige­nous sovereignt­y,” and is be­hind the block­ades, flash mobs and protests of re­cent weeks — and is reg­u­larly vis­ited by celebri­ties, jour­nal­ists and can­di­dates for the lead­er­ship of the fed­eral Lib­eral party such as Marc Garneau (“You can­not ig­nore this re­quest”) and Justin Trudeau (who tweeted that it was “deeply mov­ing” to meet the chief ).

Cer­tainly, no one could ar­gue the sta­tus quo is any­thing other than an em­bar­rass­ing, frus­trat­ing fail­ure for ev­ery­one in­volved.

The bu­reau­cra­cies, fed­eral and pro­vin­cial, which pur­port to serve First Na­tions of­ten make a mess of it. The In­dian Act clearly breeds de­pen­dence and learned help­less­ness both, and in­fan­tilizes na­tive peo­ple. The mil­lions that flow ev­ery year to First Na­tions — At­tawapiskat alone, the prime min­is­ter said last year at the time of the hous­ing emer­gency, has re­ceived $90 mil­lion in trans­fer pay­ments since the Con­ser­va­tives were elected in 2006 — seem to do noth­ing to raise the abo­rig­i­nal stan­dard of liv­ing. First Na­tions gov­er­nance it­self of­ten of­fers a less than pretty pic­ture.

And by al­most any mea­sure — poverty, un­em­ploy­ment, sub­stance abuse, rates of chil­dren taken into care, even free­dom of speech and ex­pres­sion on re­serves where the only me­dia are band-owned and op­er­ated — abo­rig­i­nal Cana­di­ans live in near-Third World con­di­tions.

Con­di­tions on all re­serves are not as de­spair-in­duc­ing and soulde­stroy­ing as they are at At­tawapiskat, but nei­ther is At­tawapiskat unique. On too many First Na­tions, sex­ual abuse, pro­found dys­func­tion and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence are the stuff of daily life.

So, while Chief Spence, and oth­ers, may long for “na­tion-to-na­tion” dis­cus­sions, there is I think a gen­uine ques­tion as to whether there’s enough of abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture that has sur­vived to even dream of that lofty sta­tus, or if the cul­ture isn’t ir­repara­bly dam­aged al­ready. Smudg­ing, drum­ming and the like do not a na­tion make.

But hunger strikes have a way of re­duc­ing com­plex is­sues to the most sim­ple el­e­ments: Na­tives are suf­fer­ing, and Chief Spence, as she has said re­peat­edly, is pre­pared to starve her­self to death un­til and un­less she gets that meet­ing with the PM.

It is tempt­ing to see the ac­tion as one of in­tim­i­da­tion, if not ter­ror­ism: She is, af­ter all, hold­ing the state hostage to vaguely ar­tic­u­lated de­mands. But if she were to die on Harper’s watch, it would not only be tragic, but also dis­as­trous.

I cov­ered the last days of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died on May 5, 1981, in the Bri­tish prison where he was serv­ing time on a weapons charge.

He too was seen as a hero; he too was used as a po­lit­i­cal pawn. I re­mem­ber in­ter­view­ing his mother and an­other rel­a­tive, as they were about to visit him or had just vis­ited him for the last time (I am op­er­at­ing on me­mory here) and ask­ing if they would be beg­ging or had begged him to stop. I just as­sumed they would have done.

They would do no such thing, they said. Why, they be­lieved in what he was do­ing. They loved him, but plead­ing with him to save him­self was not in the cards, no ma’am.

There is no end to the stu­pid­ity bred by hunger strikes when even friends and fam­ily ar­gue that death be­comes the per­son starv­ing.

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 ?? COLE BURSTON/CANA­DIAN PRESS ?? At­tawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence vis­its with ac­tor Adam Beach on Christ­mas Day. Hunger strikes, such as the one be­ing staged by Spence, can re­duce com­plex is­sues to sim­ple el­e­ments, writes Christie Blatchford.
COLE BURSTON/CANA­DIAN PRESS At­tawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence vis­its with ac­tor Adam Beach on Christ­mas Day. Hunger strikes, such as the one be­ing staged by Spence, can re­duce com­plex is­sues to sim­ple el­e­ments, writes Christie Blatchford.

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