Columnists

Alice Klein
Chief Theresa Spence's exceptional accomplishments

| January 31, 2013
Photo: Michael DancingEagle Cassidy

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In media time, it's been light years since Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence ended her 44-day fast last week. But beyond the dismissive attention span of Canada's mainstream body politic, there are different ways to count time.

In the near term, Spence has been shockingly belittled and underestimated because she spoke to the country in a new language, and I don't mean Cree, though that is also true.

Through her fast, Spence spoke to us in the language of the body and the spirit that animates it. It's a far more feminine style of language than our own non-native tongue, so no wonder she's been dismissed and derided and the power of her actions has been missed by many.

That's still the common fate of our feminine side in this culture, but things are changing, and we see the signs everywhere. She is an emblem of an amazing shift happening all around us.

What the history books will say, if things work out as they should, is that Spence stands among the most courageous and creative political leaders to have graced this country's mainstage. She will be praised for her uncanny timing, bold strategic initiative and ability and willingness to serve as a bridge to ways of thinking and seeing that are still very unfamiliar to the mainstream.

Whether we notice or not, our perceptions are going to shift as we step into a new time through a new relationship with our First Nations sisters and brothers. 

This is why some of the meanings embedded in her approach are only now coming to consciousness. Take Spence's insistence on including the Governor General in her demand to meet with the prime minister. At first it seemed odd and arcane. But as time passes, I see how that demand continues to reverberate in my own psyche. It crashes against the unconscious non-indigenous Canadian certainties and political calculations. It demands that we recall instead the actual history of our country and how it still lives in the unrelentingly colonized amongst us.

Thank you, Theresa Spence, for offering us newbies a glimpse of what the long view of a very old culture looks like.

What an astonishing political powerhouse Spence has proven herself to be. Well before she took up her fast, Attawapiskat had become one Cree word we all somehow learned to pronounce. 

This is a woman who managed to plug herself and her community into the daily conversation of the country as a whole despite the fact that she came from a place with a geography, history, culture, language and ancestral relationship to the land that is pretty much another planet to most of the rest of Canada.

For more than a hundred years in this country, we have been ignoring aboriginal communities just like hers in literally hundreds of places with names from many different languages. It's worth a serious pause to think about the way Spence was able to put her place and its name on Canada's political map.

Then Spence decided to fast, and by doing so she once again mobilized the country's media -- this time for 44 days on a daily basis. Excuse me, but that is nothing short of brilliant. 

With her body, she made us keep paying attention to her unwavering physical prayer for her people through the distraction of the holidays and on into the dead of winter. And what a crucial and important media space that created and held for the independently arising Idle No More movement.

There was no master plan for all this, but in the emerging worldview that appreciates the reality of interconnectedness, this was the energetic space Theresa Spence sat in and held open with her moose broth and herbal tea through this winter's short days and long nights.

While she firmly gripped public attention, a new grassroots movement was able to birth itself in power and beauty. While Idle No More danced its way into Canada's nature-loving heart, Spence's arresting act of courage kept the high-level political dialogue between Assembly of First Nations leaders and the PMO hopping.

How amazing that this soft-spoken woman has twice forced Stephen Harper personally into the ring with her.

And he has thrown everything at her. First came the third-party manager imposed on the whole community in late 2011. But, hey, the chief took the issue to court, and the court found the government's action "unreasonable and, therefore, unlawful." The judge called it an "inappropriate and unreasonable response." One for Attawapiskat.

Then, mid-fast, Canada released negative audit info on the community. Quelle surprise.

Okay, now, we all know that the bookkeeping in Attawapiskat sucked. But we also know government spending for housing, health care, infrastructure, administration and education amounted to $11,000 per person per year in that community since 2005, though costs for everything are multiples of what we experience in the south.

Funny, they had no suite of highly trained accountants on the payroll taking care of business like we do down here. Go figure. A closer look at the audit report includes major criticism of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, as well as of the community's financial accountability systems. One-all on the bookkeeping mess.

But let's be real. People who are in office to line their own pockets do not sit in tents for weeks on end, in the middle of the winter, starving themselves. Needing a few moments of downtime and a shower every once in a while (which was reported as something of a gotcha moment) only speaks to how much commitment and tolerance for discomfort it takes to keep putting one's whole being on the line, day after 24/7 day, as she did.

All the mud that's been slung cannot obscure how big she stuck it to Stephen Harper. To avoid meeting with Spence, he had to veer off his own agenda to meet with someone in Indian country. That would be National Chief Shawn Atleo and other AFN chiefs. The PM was forced to make some personal high-level promises that will continue to put him in the hot seat, and started paying the price already this week as the new session in Parliament began. This level of standoff is not what Harper was dreaming of for Canada's oil and mining sector when he passed the omnibus bill.

And though once again I needed time to digest the process, how Chief Spence ended her fast was typically exceptional. First, she didn't die. That was so right, and so many of us are so thankful for that. This is a time when the movement is in the process of giving birth to itself. The grief of more martyrdom when so much suffering has already taken place would have been too dark a shadow for the joyful self-resurrection that is taking place all over the country.

Second, she got both opposition parties to sign on to a wide-ranging 13-point aboriginal rights agenda. They got to bask in her spotlight, and in return they now have no choice but to make good in Parliament on their promises. Wow. That is a capper on quite an array of amazing outcomes on so many different levels.

In Cree, "attawapiskat" means "the people of the parting of the rocks," which seems like a really appropriate name that destiny seems to have picked for the heavy lifting Spence and her crew have managed so far.

And by the way, no humans were harmed during her show. That is something to pay deep attention to. Hats off and deep honour to you, Theresa Spence. I would be proud to have you as my chief.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

Photo: Michael DancingEagle Cassidy