No end to stupidity bred by hunger strikes
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.