Ottawa Citizen

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?”

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