Meet with chief, former lieutenant-governor tells PM
Bartleman becomes unexpected ally to Spence
Theresa Spence gained an unexpected and passionately outspoken ally Thursday as a former lieutenantgovernor of Ontario called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to “show that he’s a leader” and meet with the Attawapiskat chief as she enters the third week of her hunger strike.
Harper need not fear meeting with Spence to negotiate better living conditions for Canada’s aboriginals would show any weakness, said James Bartleman, who served as Ontario’s lieutenant-governor from 2002-07 and is a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation.
“If he was to do something like that, he would be doing something that he could be proud of for the rest of his life, but if he doesn’t do that, I would say ‘shame on him,’” Bartleman told Postmedia News on Thursday. “If she carries on like this, I would think she would die.”
Spence’s strike has become the focal point for Idle No More, an aboriginal rights movement that has garnered momentum among Canada’s First Nations peoples and received support from federal opposition parties, several major unions, religious groups and academics.
Spence insists she’ll starve herself to death if the prime minister doesn’t meet with her. She had also sought a meeting with Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, but he has said the issue is best left to elected officials.
“I would hope that Prime Minister Harper would show that he’s a leader. It is not a sign of weakness to go and see someone who is suffering and talk to them,” Bartleman said Thursday. Bartleman said he appeals to Canadians to try to get the Conservative government to pay more attention to native issues.
Bartleman, 73 — who spent much of his childhood living in tents and shacks on the outskirts of cottage country in Ontario — was very much affected by the “appalling,” “desperate” conditions he saw aboriginal children living in during his travels north, and used much of his time in office to help aboriginal communities.
He has always had a streak of social justice in him, he said.
Now that he’s retired he says he has a responsibility to speak out about the injustices he sees in the country — “particularly when they’re so flagrant,” Bartleman said.
His hope, he said, is Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement will go beyond a piece of legislation in the House of Commons.
“I’ve long said that native people are the invisible people, and native children in particular are the invisible children of Canadian society,” Bartleman said. “What we need to do is raise the consciousness of the public, and raise the consciousness of the Canadian cabinet, that these are real people. And they suffer.”
Spence began her hunger strike on Dec. 11. She wasn’t taking visitors Thursday. Since Spence pitched her tent on Victoria Island, the encampment has seen heavy rain, sleet and nearly one metre of snow.
“Spence is a very, very strong woman. She’s still laughing at jokes, she’s still taking her walk around the camp every day,” said Thomas Louttit, an elder from Moose Factory, Ont. “Of course, she is getting weaker every day. But her spirit is strong.”
The fact that it’s the holiday season also compelled Bartleman to speak out, he said. “I just could not eat my turkey dinner and think of this determined lady in a tent in a blizzard of the Canadian winter, drinking water and taking fluids only, while the rest of Canada was celebrating the holiday season,” he said.
He also doesn’t think it’s at all inappropriate for a former lieutenantgovernor to politicize himself in this way, he added.
“I would think that former lieutenant-governors and former prime ministers and what-all have a responsibility to serve as wise men and wise women in the country, and if we were silent, how could we ever look at ourselves in the mirror?”