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Daniel Wilson served 10 years as a diplomat in Canada’s Foreign Service, working mainly with refugees in Africa and South-east Asia. Joining the Assembly of First Nations, he became Senior Director of Strategic Policy and Planning. Of Mi’kmaq Acadian and Irish heritage, Daniel was a founding Chair of the New Democratic Party Aboriginal Commission and manager of the 2011 Romeo Saganash campaign for leader. He now works as an independent consultant and writes about rights. Topics covered on this blog include Indigenous and other human rights as they relate to Canadian and international politics.

Canada exposed: The legacy of a hunger strike

| January 24, 2013
Canada exposed: The legacy of a hunger strike

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Chief Theresa Spence and Elder Raymond Robinson are going to eat solid food and return to their respective homes.  That is a good thing from nearly everyone’s point of view, even if people have different reasons for believing so. 

Myself, I simply didn’t want to see anyone die that way. 

Even in the short term, we can note some accomplishments, mostly attributable to what the hunger strikes exposed. 

In acceding to any kind of meeting at all, we saw that Stephen Harper can blink in the face of opposition – something he rarely does – and that is an achievement for Chief Spence, whose insistence was the trigger. 

This also exposed his dark side once again.  Having been temporarily outmanoeuvred by the hunger strike, Canada’s Prime Minister marshalled the troops to assault the Chief as an individual and derail the discussion, showing his infamous tactical savvy and giving another glimpse of just how nasty he is willing to get when cornered. 

And it exposed those in the media and public who helped Harper do it for what they are.  Not satisfied with just allowing hunger strikes to continue – since the impossible step of inviting the Governor General to attend a meeting couldn’t be taken – they undertook first to defame Chief Spence, then the people of Attawapiskat, and then by an extension logical only to themselves, all “natives”.  But don’t call them racist, they hate that.

By refusing to meet with John Duncan, Chief Spence effectively exposed that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is a complete irrelevancy.  That is a concrete and useful result.  He won’t be missed.

And by providing a focal point, the hunger strikes helped awareness to build.  Chief Spence’s twitter account has over 35,000 followers.  It got global media looking.  IdleNoMore has received messages of support from people in dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica.  Many Canadians are learning, finally, about the issues.  And that is essential.

In fact, I suspect the only people sorry to see the hunger strikes end are those who wanted a martyr for the cause. 

In case you hadn’t noticed, there already are martyrs.  New ones every day.  They were murdered women, they were taken for “starlight tours”, they had minamata disease and uranium poisoning, they were suicidal children.  There are too many martyrs.

What we need is actual change.  We need to change both the discussion and the way it is conducted.

For the entire history of this country we have been facing the same question: are Indigenous people going to give up their legal rights or are Canadians going to hold up their end of the bargain that created this country? 

It isn’t a complicated question.  In the words of Justice Linden, “we are all treaty people”. That just doesn’t lead where some want it to go.

Despite 200 years of failure, those people want to stay the course.  The attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples is a proven failure, but still they insist.

They insist on the same rights for everyone, which means taking rights away from only some, but they don’t see why that should be a problem. 

They insist that there should be no more money, so the failure to meet legal obligations will worsen, as will the peoples’ lives.

And they insist on accountability, so long as it is only the accountability of First Nations toward the federal government, never Canada’s accountability to Indigenous peoples. 

These are the new slogans of assimilation.  Not so very different than “killing the Indian in the child” when you get right down to it.

What makes it more ironic is that assimilation policy has failed to achieve the goal of those who support it: actually assimilating Indigenous peoples.  The First Nations, Inuit and Métis are still here.  The fastest growing population in the country is not a sign of abject surrender.  Nor are the protests.

There is an alternative to continuing this insanity and those alternatives can lead to greater prosperity for everyone in Canada, but it has to be given a chance.

The declaration endorsed today by the opposition New Democrats and Liberals points toward that path, but it needs the people leading the way.

We can help give success a chance, as Chief Spence and Elder Robinson are now doing by allowing the conversation to move on.

We can refuse to criticize the tactics of those who share our goals and, in so doing, keep the focus on the broader struggle. 

We can refuse to help tear apart what we are only starting to build.

We can mark the end of the hunger strikes as a celebration of the commitment and sacrifice of those involved, and a reaffirmation that the struggle will continue. 

We can stand in unity, for all our relations.  And we will learn what that means.

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