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Native peoples in this country have endured much worse than the disrespect Prime Minister Harper showed on Dec 21, tweeting about “mmm… bacon” while Attiwapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was on Day 11 of a hunger strike that won’t end unless he agrees to a meeting between himself, the Governor General and First Nations leaders including Spence.
But it is precisely at this point where respect would be worth so much. We have an uprising in this country for Native sovereignty, the Idle No More movement. This in a country where Harper ‘apologized’ for genocidal residential schools, yet the next year claimed on the world stage that Canada didn’t have a history of colonialism, and where the residential schools Truth and Reconcialition Commission has just had to turn to the courts in order to get the government to turn over the historical records that it needs to do its job.
And in Chief Spence’s community of Attawapiskat, when they were experiencing a housing crisis in the winter cold last year, Harper ‘took leadership’ of the situation by removing management of the community from the chief and council and putting it under third-party management, which a court later ruled was it was wrong to do. But contrary to what Jian Ghomeshi said (in an otherwise great piece) about Chief Spence being on hunger strike to get Harper to meet with her to discuss the situation on her reserve, Spence is in fact doing this on behalf of all Aboriginal people in Canada (and especially for the youth).
There is some recognition in this country that Aboriginal people have been unjustly treated, that there is validity to this movement to take the government to account and to demand better. And as such, the potential for broad public support for this movement is there. (And for those who cling to justifications against Native peoples, Maclean’s has helpfully deciphered those arguments).
Chief Spence’s actions are serving to supercharge this movement.
Idle No More started in Saskatchewan in November, and caught on through social media. It was this grassroots pressure, their people urging them to stand up against the government, that catalyzed some chiefs, who were having a meeting in Gatineau, to impromptly march to Parliament where a few tried to enter the House of Commons, causing a brief scuffle between them and security.
Chief Spence started her fast as the Idle No More movement continued to gather steam. She seems to have taken the lead from the grassroots people, and in turn they have taken her lead.
Some in the public sphere have urged caution or shown disapproval for her actions: Patrick Brazeau, a Native senator appointed by Harper best known for his boxing match with Justin Trudeau, stated that he thought she wasn’t setting a good example for Aboriginal youth; Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen warns that this isn’t the way to deal with a government headed by Harper; and NDP MP Charlie Angus worries that this type of potential martyrdom could lead to the type of strife experienced in Northern Ireland.
But in a lot of the reporting and discussion around the hunger strike, the very act of a hunger strike or fast is seemingly not understood fully.
Like many other hunger strikers, Chief Spence is issuing a demand that must be fulfilled for her to start eating again. But she is also engaging in a practice that is very much part of spiritual traditions of First Nations’ culture.
I had the opportunity earlier this year to hear about fasting in a Native context, at a talk on Aboriginal perspectives on mental health. Carol Hopkins explained the cultural importance and philosophy behind such practice, telling a story of the power of doing without, of praying, of the intent that others have some first, and of how it is not about doing only for yourself, but doing it for everyone.
In this context, a fast/hunger stike as part of Idle No More (along with the many prayer ceremonies, drumming, round dance flash mobs, etc that have been happening) shows how the very Native culture that the people are standing up for is very much alive and experiencing a (re)surgence that can be a point of hope and solidarity in this country racked with so much present and historical pain and amnesia.
As poet/musician and former American Indian Movement leader John Trudell writes in the last stanza of his poem ‘This Idle No More‘:
a real fast way to protect the spirit is to feed the spirit
real-ity of fast, a real fast, let the human sacrifice food
as well thought out decision not in emotional reaction
ceremony in spiritual offerings of self in physical groups
or alone, or together not alone, stand fast in idle no more
the ones who can, stand fast together in different places
stand fast real-ity fast together join the grandmothers fast
In Ottawa this past Wednesday, there was a community feast to feed Chief Spence’s spirit as she continued her fast. This was another example of how fasting is not only an individual endeavour, but something that is supported by — just as much as it is in support of — the broader health of the community.
As some are engaged in solidarity fasting with Chief Spence, and so many more have her and the cause in her prayers, perhaps another way to be in support is to be mindful in your eating to be not only feeding yourself but also her spirit and that of all engaged in this awakening, this (re)surgence, this whatever you would describe it as.
A post I saw on facebook put it this way:
Chief Spence said the pain had just become too much – she is trying in her way To Make Medicine Out of Pain. … Chief Spence has presented a bridge to the real great divide in Canada – between the First Peoples and the rest of us – and it is an Indigenous bridge – not the non-native bridge of law and rights and bureaucracy. She is sharing her pain and her heart in a very visible way, and in her way – in a sense it is the spirit of the Friendship and Welcoming and Sharing Wampum, inviting us all to her heart.
The bridge she is creating is not only unifying Native peoples in this country, but also offering the whole country a way forward.
Someone commented that this movement is being seen as ‘almost as big as Oka,’ referring to the moment in Canadian history that catalyzed Native pride perhaps as never before. Perhaps this present moment can catalyze a unified movement large enough to bring about lasting practical and structural change in the relationship between the Canadian state and the original peoples of this land, and between all of us who call this land home.
Greg Macdougall is an activist and writer who maintains the website EquitableEducation.ca