Some thoughts about Chief Theresa Spence

People do not go on hunger strikes for fun. Keep that in mind as you read the following.

Today I visited Victoria Island, in the Ottawa River. That is the place where Chief Theresa Spence, of the Attawapiskat First Nation, is holding a hunger strike to protest against a huge long list of ways that the government has neglected and harmed her people over many decades. As you may know, Spence has stated she will end her strike if Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or Governor General David Johnston, comes to meet her to discuss Aboriginal people’s various grievances.

This morning, a friend of mine sent me a list of material things that they needed: food, water, fuel, warm winter clothes, and the like: so I packed a shopping bag with some winter clothes I wasn’t using anyway, and bought some food, and some tobacco for offerings, and set out for the island. It’s only seven kilometres from my apartment, so I can’t make the excuse that it’s too far away. Curiously, the route to get there from my house takes me past our national Parliament and the Supreme Court – symbols of my country which I usually admire, but which today looked strange to me.

I have to admit to feeling a little bit of nervousness, for I’m told that Victoria Island is Anishnabe territory (In whole or in part, I’m not sure) so going there felt a little bit like visiting a place which is – how shall I put it? – part of my country, but not my land. I’ve entered First Nations reserves before and often had that feeling, but given the political event taking place on the island, I was feeling it more so today. Still, I had read a lot on the internet about Chief Spence’s hunger strike, and although I was sure that most of what I read was factual, still I suspected that there was more to the story. For any event like this, there’s always four or five points of view. So I wanted to find out for myself.

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When I arrived, a tall Native gentleman at the gate told me it’s okay to just walk in. I found myself in a wide area enclosed by a wooden snow fence, containing two tents, a lean-to, and a wooden shed. Two fires were burning, to offer warmth: one for the community in general, and a sacred fire for the elders and those who wanted to pray. Around forty people were milling about, including four television crews: one from Sun TV, one from APTN, and two cameras from CTV. I got the impression that everyone was waiting for the arrival of some dignitary, at which time a press conference would follow. That’s why, I think, nobody said hello to me. It’s also likely that no one said hello because no one had any idea who I was. I eventually asked someone where I could bring my donations, and how to offer my tobacco to Chief Spence. I did not expect to meet her in person, of course; eventually I was directed to a gentleman who agreed to take my offering to her on my behalf.

In all, I stayed for about an hour and a half, and although I would like to have spoken with more people, I’m glad that I did something more than just share slogans on the internet.

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Hunger striking is a difficult kind of protest, not just for the obvious reason that it threatens the health of the person on strike. It only works when the person being protested against can be induced to feel shame. Can the Prime Minister be induced to feel shame? I don’t know. At the moment, I suspect Harper is betting that she will give up. He is perhaps thinking to himself that Spence has made her own choice to go on a hunger strike, and that choice has nothing to do with him. Which I think is only half-true: Spence certainly made her own choice, but I think she felt that she had no other remaining choice before her, apart from giving up. (More about that point below.) And additionally, Harper is, after all, the leader of my country, and aside from the Queen he’s ultimately responsible for the treaty relations between Aboriginal people and Canada.

Harper may also be betting that if he agrees to meet Chief Spence, a wave of other hunger-strikers will demand his attention, and he will end up having to cater to all of them. An impossible situation, to be sure: but notice the logic of the slippery slope fallacy here.

Of course, I don’t really know what Harper is thinking, but the line of thought I’ve just described tends to be favoured by those against whom a hunger strike is mounted. So I think it’s a reasonable guess.

The point is that Chief Spence will win if Harper can be induced to feel shame, and if that sense of shame overcomes whatever other reasons he may have for refusing to visit her – before Chief Spence succumbs to starvation.

This visit to Victoria Island also got me thinking about the virtue of courage again. Is Chief Spence’s protest courageous? I have only a partial idea of what courage means to Aboriginal people; but in my own spiritual and philosophical tradition, a thing is courageous when it involves facing danger for the sake of a noble cause. So, I’ll speak to that understanding. Is her protest dangerous? It’s clear the answer is yes: she’s facing extremely cold nights (it was -25C last night) in a tent, public derision and ridicule and racist hate-speech in the media, and obviously she’s facing her own death from starvation. I think there’s likely to be no disagreement on that point.

Is her cause noble? That is the big question, because I think that if the answer is ‘yes’, then other people may be honour-bound to support her.

Some may say her cause is not noble, because her Nation was given $90 million for development, and she and others in her community benefit financially from government spending quite generously. (Info here.) That’s a talking-point regularly repeated by government spokespersons. She should be satisfied with that. Actually, her community did not receive that much money at all, and here’s the proof (link here.) An associate of mine, who was an eyewitness to this fact, told me that when the housing crisis was first proclaimed in Attawapiskat in 2010, Chief Spence gave up her own house to other families in need, and lived in a tent just like hundreds of other needy people in her community.

Some may say her cause is not noble because the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has offered to meet her in Harper’s stead, and furthermore Harper already met prominent Aboriginal leaders last year in an unprecedented conference, and that should be good enough. Actually, Spence already met the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs a few months ago, with no result, and the aforementioned conference also produced absolutely no results either.

What else could Chief Spence have done other than go on a hunger strike? And the answer is, nothing that she had not already tried. She’s had meetings of every kind with all sorts of government people. She’s had media conferences all along as well – which are mostly ignored, because the mass media tends to marginalize Aboriginal people and their problems. She’s had the authority to run her community’s budget forcibly taken away from her (that’s what the third-party manager business was all about) for what turned out to be improper reasons. (link here.)

It’s also worth noting that Attawapiskat gets almost nothing from that nearby diamond mine: this independent documentary film presented the evidence. (Trailer on YouTube here.)

The deeper you dig, the more you learn that she’s done every peaceful and non-confrontational act available to her. I won’t claim to read her mind, but I think it’s safe to say that she now thinks that this hunger strike is the only remaining choice open to her – again, other than giving up in despair.

People do not go on hunger strikes for fun. And now she has around 72 hours left.

A noble cause is a cause which aims to achieve intrinsically worthwhile goals – goals that reach beyond personal self-interest and which benefit and uplift everyone affected, regardless of who they are. The goal Chief Spence is aiming for is social justice. Far too many reserves in Canada are effectively shantytowns – I have seen this with my own eyes – and this, it seems to me, is outrageously unjust, given that Canada is one of the richest nations in the world. Indeed the litany of injustices heaped upon First Nations people is so long it’s embarrassing. But the current list injustices which Chief Spence is emphasizing, to be short about them, have to do with recent Acts of Parliament which infringe upon Aboriginal treaty rights, without consultations with First Nations people.

Surely social justice is an intrinsically worthwhile goal! Social justice, when it’s done right, benefits and uplifts everyone. And if someone says it’s not, well, what can be said in reply?

Of course, I know there’s lots of disagreement about what exactly social justice is. But surely you get the point. Let’s not miss the haystack as we go looking for needles.

Why give treaty-based precedence the First Nations, then, instead of any other ethnic group in Canada’s multicultural world? Here’s what I think. Of all the many social groups which comprise Canada’s social fabric, the First Nations, the Metis and the Inuit have a special place in our identity. They gave to “us”, the visitors on this land and their descendants, a gift so precious and so valuable it’s likely that nothing we could give them in return could possibly compensate them. That gift was the land on which this country was built. Without one or two other ethnic groups in our history, we would have a different country, for better or worse; without the First Nations, we would have no country at all. Therefore, Canada has special responsibility, it seems to me, partly arising from the various treaties which the Crown signed with the First Nations, but also arising from the ‘economy of honour’ that surrounds gifts of that magnitude. Canada’s moral obligation, at minimum, to ensure that the living standards of First Nations people are at least as good as that of the average middle-class non-native Canadian person – and that’s not impossible, and that’s perhaps only the least of what Canada should do.

To achieve that standard of living for your nation, when it has been systematically denied your nation, seems to me an obviously noble cause.

As a final comment, may I speak to my companions in the modern pagan movement. Can any of you imagine any modern pagan leader who would risk his or her health and life for a similarly noble cause? I don’t just mean the comparatively abstract things like the right to worship whatever god you wish, in whatever way you wish. I mean the comparatively basic things like the right to eat, to drink clean water, or to dwell in a safe and warm home. What are the undeniably noble causes for which we could stand up and be courageous? Not just the causes which might benefit ourselves – but the ones which might benefit everyone. And who among us could show such courage? Does our community have sufficient moral unity to act with the kind of courage that Chief Spence is demonstrating today? I’m not asking this rhetorically. I really want to know. To that last question, I want the answer to be ‘yes’. But I fear the answer might be ‘no’. What do you think? And what are you going to do?

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