Fasting for a change: Why I joined Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike

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Sheila North Wilson

Going without food or water is not something I do often or take lightly. Mainly because I love desserts and coffee! But when our First Nations leaders in Manitoba called for a national inquiry looking into the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls earlier this summer, I felt the call to fast. In my belief however, such a call has to be confirmed in someone's heart or mind three times before a call to act is pursued. The first two confirmations came while I was reading, and while talking to someone. The third confirmation came as I listened to Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, Ont., talking during the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly on December 5. She said to fellow chiefs from across Canada that she was willing to go on a hunger strike to get answers for First Nations people. Chief Spence was asking the AFN National Chief and his executive chiefs to write a letter asking for a meaningful meeting with the Prime Minister and the Queen to discuss and resolve outstanding issues that directly affect First Nations people in Canada. She asked that a two-week deadline be given for the meeting and said if it wasn't met, she was willing to go on a hunger strike.

When I heard her plea, I felt an immediate connection to her; and I felt I needed to support her when or if she decided to go on the hunger strike. As we all left the meeting that afternoon, I talked with Chief Spence and thanked her for all that she did for First Nations people, by rising up and bringing awareness to issues affecting native people in this country, such as poor housing conditions. I asked if I had heard her right, publicly stating that she was willing to go on a hunger strike. She said yes. I told her that if she did, I was sure that many people would join her, meaning me! But I didn't tell her at the time about my own decision to join her. I didn't want her to feel like I was just saying it flippantly, that I was just caught up in the moment. As I listened to her, I noticed how kind and soft-spoken she was. I remember saying that her fasting might be during Christmas and talked about what that might be like. She said, "I know, that's why I need to talk to my family first, my daughters." I thanked her again. Later that day, we ended up at the same trade show table buying crafts, where we had another chance to speak. For those who've never met her, she is like many First Nations women I know -- she thinks and talks about family first and laughs easily. Chief Spence is a very nice person with a big heart and you get a sense that she has a strong conviction to find the best for her people.

As she initially thought, I didn't think her fast would start so soon. She started on December 11, the day after a national day of action many know now as part of the Idle No More movement, when it really ramped. On that day and days before, and every day after that in fact, I was extremely busy in my job as a communications officer for one of Canada's top First Nations leaders, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak. Because I was so busy, I didn't start my fast right on December 10, simply because I had not informed my family fully yet and felt I needed to do that first. My husband was supportive but concerned because of my body's tendency to be low on iron. My mother was concerned too, but as soon I told her, she sounded relieved! She said, "I was unable to eat all weekend and I felt something was going on. Now I know, you've been wrestling with the call for a fast." She said she understood, and working on difficult issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women needs to get to a higher level of work, like praying and fasting. I come from a very spiritual family and having their blessing was imperative. But since I was unable to take time off work, I agreed with my husband to go on a sun-up to sundown fast, so I could function normally at work and home. Or so I thought!

The first day, December 14, was not very hard, although I was pretty hungry and yearning for coffee. By the third day I was very emotional. Everything seemed to make me cry or angry. By the fifth night, I woke up with muscles cramping throughout different parts of my body. I had a hard time sleeping and during the day I would lose my train of thought really easily. I did eat before the sun up came up, anytime before 8:27 a.m. in Winnipeg, and then again after 4:27 in the afternoon. At least that was when the sun rose and set the week I started my fast.

Normally, in a spiritual fast, I don't tell anyone but my husband that I'm fasting. But this was different. This fast was to show my public support for Chief Spence and to fulfill a conviction to pray fervently for the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Throughout the day and night when I was hungry or in pain, I would offer prayers for justice and grace. And every day as I ended my fast, I would think of how Chief Spence and others who have since committed to a full fast, must be feeling. Based on how low I felt, I can say Chief Theresa Spence is an extremely strong woman. When she said in a media interview on December 18 that she was well but felt weak and light-headed when she stood up, I was able to relate. And I am in awe of her strength.

I am in full support of Chief Spence's decision to resort to a hunger strike in an effort to push for a meaningful discussion with Prime Minister Harper and the Queen's representative. She and many of our people feel the time is now for a serious discussion about what is best for First Nations people in this country and the fact she is on her hunger strike should tell the government how desperate the situation is. So far however, the Prime Minister is turning a blind eye and deaf ear to what is really going on. In fact, the Prime Minister on Twitter is rubbing in the fact that he doesn't care about the real issues and seems determined to snub Chief Spence, while taunting her and the rest of us with tweets about eating bacon, feeling sorry for NHL players and making time instead to play board games with his constituents  in his Alberta riding.

What he should know about Chief Spence's hunger strike however, is that many First Nations people are moved and they are not only talking about why the government needs to change its attitude about native people but many are also acting to reclaim their place in Canada. To make things right for our families and our future generations. That in essence is what the Idle No More movement and Chief Spence's hunger strike is all about. To show our united front, many of us are participating in flash mobs and rallies, and these peaceful movements are now happening all over the world. These public protests are helping the world understand some of the main issues and causing people of all cultures to start asking questions about why the Canadian government treats First Nations people with such distain and contempt.

Personally, while I support and witness the Idle No More movement and support Chief Spence's hunger strike, I am also fasting for the ones who are not with us anymore: the over 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. I have faith that a national inquiry will be called one day to look into the national tragedy. I want to know why the problem is still happening today and why the country is not outraged by the fact that a demographic of human beings are simply vanishing or being killed at alarming rates. But my faith is not with this government. My faith is placed in a Higher Power and I believe the decision-makers of this country need a spiritual shove to act right for our First Nations women and girls! When I tuned in to hear Commissioner Wally Oppal in Vancouver release his findings on British Columbia's missing and murdered Indigenous women, I felt a little vindicated for the families. Simply by the fact that what I've been hearing from families of missing or murdered women and girls in Manitoba is that they too feel police and society in general do not really care that hundreds of native women are going missing or are violently killed.

While police in B.C. have acknowledged that more needs to be done in cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, we need the rest of Canada to realize that as well. Grand Chief Nepinak says a national inquiry would create a public dialogue on the problem and I agree. This Christmas, and during many other celebratory moments in the past few decades, many Canadian children, fathers, mothers, sisters, cousins and friends are waking up to the fact their loved ones are not there and that there is no real effort to finding answers for these families. That is simply not right.

I commend Chief Spence and others who are committing themselves to their deaths for real answers and change. I wish I had their courage and drive. For me, however, I have not committed to starving myself to death because I don't feel Prime Minister Harper and his government really care if a couple more native women die on his watch. It seems it won't mean anything to him. On Christmas Day, I broke my fast to celebrate the season with my family and the many blessings afforded to us, despite the fact that we are treated like second-class citizens in our own country. I continue to pray for Chief Theresa Spence and all our people, however, and I may re-join her hunger strike, but I certainly will not be basing my decisions on what Stephen Harper does -- I am not casting my pearls before the swine! I do pray Harper does the right thing and calls for a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. And I continue to hope he will see reason and agree to meet our leaders to seriously discuss what we can all do to close the gaps between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

The First Nations people of Canada are awake and are seeing that we do have the power to change the situation in our favour, but are willing to sit down and talk about how the changes can benefit all Canadians. Much like the time our forefathers originally agreed to sit with the settler society when they welcomed them to this part of the world and signed treaties with them, agreeing to share the land. Now it's time for Canada to share the land. Peace.

RTNDA Award Winner and Gemini Award Nominee, Sheila North Wilson is a natural born story teller. Many of the stories she told as a journalist were of personal hardships and victories. As the Chief Communications Officer for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, Sheila continues to work toward raising awareness on the national tragedy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Sheila's primary role at AMC is to work with Grand Chief Nepinak and other First Nations leaders in Manitoba, by continuing to build bridges of understanding between First Nations and non-First Nations people through media relations and other forms of communication.

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