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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.



Hi Daniel:

I'll let Pam Palmater explain the current major political differences among the aboriginal people.

You can also get a sense of these differences from Friday's special episode of The Current, which you can listen to online. In the first segment of the show, Duncan McCue interviews AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo, and at about 15:35 of the segment he interviews Taiaiake Alfred of the Kahnawake First Nation. Alfred criticizes Atleo for a "politics as usual" approach, and a failure to confront the Harper government's "colonial agenda". Unlike Idle No More, the AFN has not called for the withdrawal of Harper's omnibus budget implementation Bills C-45 and C-38 that are disastrous to aboriginal rights and the environment; it has not called for an end to the Indian Act and the structure of colonial administration it has put in place (which the AFN chiefs themseves are a part of); it has not spoken out against Harper's assimilationist agenda, which is exemplified by plans to legislate the abrogation of communal property rights on indigenous land.

Of more direct interest to me, as a non-aboriginal, however, is how the settler parliamentary politicians respond to Idle No More. Those presumed to be allies of the indigenous populations and defenders of their rights, such as the NDP, have not stepped up to support the movement. In fact, Thomas Mulcair's natural inclination is to try to blunt and forestall any extra-parliamentary movement of opposition to government policy. He did it most notoriously with the Quebec "Maple Spring" movement, but has also turned a blind eye to the growing environmental activism around the tar sands and opposition to the various pipelines that Harper and his pals in the oil lobby are pushing. The NDP has for the last decade, in fact, viewed any activist movement with extreme suspicion and disdain.

Mulcair again demonstrated this essentially conservative attitude to both the Idle No More movement and the Theresa Spence hunger strike, ignoring the former, while urging Spence to give up her struggle. The leader of the opizishin gave cautious endorsement to Harper's plans for dealing with aboriginal concerns. His language is the language of reconciliation, "respectful dialogue", and, essentially, integrating aboriginals into the colonial administration. That's not what Idle No More is about.

But it seems that when "the natives get restless", the settler politicians band together and "circle the wagons".

M. Spector,

I completely share your views on Harper and the importance of working toward replacing him with someone who will listen. Assuming that the leaders you were talking about can be at least loosely grouped with what the AFN stands for (and not Brazeau or Manny Jules for example), I am wondering how the difference between INM and AFN is substantive rather than tactical and I'm hoping you can enlighten me.

How is INM's goal of fundamental change particularly different from the transformative change that AFN has been saying is the goal for years?  That's what I don't get. 

On one hand you have a movement that wants this change and is using protests, information sharing, flash mobs and other means to get that across.

On the other hand are people who also want this change, but have to go through Harper to get it. That means talking about small steps where there might be agreement and trying to prevent him from taking other steps against the interests of Indigneous peoples, at least for now.

It doesn't mean they have any success. There's no guarantee of success for INM's tactics either.  That's why this is a struggle. 

But I can't see a difference in objectives or in the conception of a new relationship, unless you just don't believe what one group is saying about their own objectives.

Perhaps you can explain?  I really am interested in better understanding this perspective.


Calling for "dialogue" and band-aids is not just a tactical difference. It is a political difference over the aims and goals of the INM movement and a profound difference in conception of the relationship between the indigenous populations and the settler state.

We don't need to be constrained by what we think can be accomplished with Harper in power. If we did that, we might as well save our energy. The Harperites are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The INM movement should be seen as a step towards removing them from power to make way for a new relationship between the nations and peoples within Canada.

I agree with Wester that the angry attitude of many is deeply disappointing, though nothing new.  I too try to remain positive about what yet may come.

M. Spector raises a point i have heard from others, but if you look at the 3rd and 4th final sentences in my piece, you will see that I think it is better to refrain from pointing fingers at those who share the goals, even if they differ in approach. Some of us will push for faster or bigger change, others will work toward what can be done now, realizing that progress will be severely limited while Harper is in power.  I wrote several blogs ago about the resiliency in a diversity of tactics and leaders and i stand by that as the most unified way of moving forward.  We make the circle larger and with it grow the movement.

Thanks to you both for your comments.

For me, the most astonishing and unnerving aspect to this entire process has been the level of vitriol and hatred aimed at FN peoples in this country.  After reading through various comment threads on both CBC.ca and the Toronto Star, I am left with the awareness that this is not the 'Just Society' I was brought up in and taught to uphold.  It's just so depressing to witness.  I remain hopeful, but that is about as far as I can reach at the present moment.

The hunger strike also exposed those among the reputed allies and leaders of the aboriginal struggles who were more concerned with getting Spence to end it than they were with joining the mass Idle No More movement and fighting for real change - not just more "dialogue" and band-aids.   

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