Chief Theresa Spence hasn’t eaten in over 11 days. The weather has taken a big turn for the worse and her tent home on Victoria Island is far from ideal. With Christmas week upon us, there is a real danger that the war room gamers in the Prime Minister’s office will think they can simply wait this one out. It would be a terrible miscalculation. Make no mistake, as Ottawa shuts down for the holidays, this hunger strike is entering a very volatile and high stakes phase.
I’ve been deeply worried about the timing of this Christmas hunger strike since Chief Spence first announced her intentions back on December 10. On the day she started her strike, Parliamentarians were focused on getting home for the holidays. It hardly seemed like an auspicious time to begin such a drastic action. She walked up to Parliament Hill with only a handful of supporters. There was no media present. I met her at the Eternal Flame and presented her with some presents of friendship — wool socks, a candle and a tartan blanket. I asked her to reconsider her decision. She wasn’t budging. This was a serious business and she told me she wasn’t backing down.
I knew then I was watching the beginning of a revolution.
Last year, the diminutive leader from Attawapiskat was thrust into the international spotlight when she declared a state of emergency over the horrific conditions on the James Bay coast. As the Red Cross touched down with emergency aid, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lashed out against the community, and accused Chief Spence of financial mismanagement. He tried to put an end to the story by deposing the Chief and Council.
It was a serious miscalculation. Chief Spence not only defied the government, but took them to Federal Court where she won a resounding victory. The mishandling of the situation was a black eye for both Minister John Duncan and the Harper government. A little bit of diplomacy and a little bit of compassion would have gone a long way to resolving the crisis before it became an international embarrassment.
As Chief Spence said at the time, “When I declared an emergency, it wasn’t my intention to cause embarrassment to Canada and I didn’t plan this type of exposure. I just wanted to help my community.”
It is a plea she would most likely repeat today as the hunger strike drags on. The question is what role will the Prime Minister play this time around? People often describe him as a “brilliant tactician,” but tactics aren’t enough to run a country. From a tactical point of view, he will no doubt assume that Christmas is the worst time to mount a protest because the public’s attention is being diverted to home and family. He might also think that a winter hunger strike will sap the energy of the Chief quickly and bad weather will dampen public support rallies.
Yes, this is all true. But what Mr. Harper needs to understand is that he isn’t the one holding the cards.
Hunger strikes are very volatile and potentially divisive actions. They stem from desperation and a belief that all other attempts to negotiate in good faith have been exhausted.
Chief Spence’s actions have touched a chord of anger that has been brewing in First Nation communities for some time. And the physical crucible of a winter hunger strike will bring these issues to a head much quicker than the war gamers in the PMO can respond.
Yesterday, John Duncan shrugged off mass protests and unrest as a case of “that’s social media. We’ll see how it goes.”
Well John, if Chief Spence gets sick in her tent over Christmas because of the refusal of the government to show some leadership, then it won’t take a crystal ball to see where this is going. Hunger strikes have the potential to create martyrs and stir rage. One has only to remember the days of Bobby Sands and the bitter death strikes that rocked the U.K. in the 1980s.
Chief Spence has put her life on the line. This is not a game. This is not a stunt. Every day that Mr. Harper tries to wait out the crisis, the stakes rise higher. Mr. Harper has a very short window to show leadership. He needs to come the table and begin to address the issues that have driven so many First Nation communities into poverty and despair.
If Chief Spence gets sick or worse, this country will be crossing a political Rubicon. It will signal a historic rupture between the government of Canada and First Nation people. Stephen Harper has a narrow window to avert a potential tragedy. Last year, the Attawapiskat crisis became known as Canada’s “Katrina” moment. Let us hope that political obstinance will not result in the world seeing Canada’s H-Block moment.
Photo: Tamara Herman