Last night, as we sat down to Christmas dinner, my mother’s dining room table practically groaning under the weight of all the food, I couldn’t help but think of Chief Theresa Spence, who is now on the 14th day of her hunger strike. As I piled my plate high with turkey, stuffing, potatoes and turnips, as the members of my family bowed their heads for grace and then raised their glasses in a toast, I thought of the woman who, only 100 miles away in Ottawa, was willing to die for her people.
Today, as others are rushing out to buy cheap goods in a glut of mass consumerism, I’m reminded of how very much so many of us already have, while others have so little.
Theresa Spence is the chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community near James Bay, which drew media attention earlier this year due to its ongoing housing crisis. Residents in Attawapiskat, and many other First Nations communities, face a shortage of funding when it comes to, well, just about everything, but the situation is especially dire with regards to housing and education. Late 2011 found families in Attawapiskat, including young children, living in uninsulated tents; some of those who were lucky enough to have more adequate housing still lacked basic necessities like running water, and were using buckets for toilets. Although the crisis in Attawapiskat drew significant media attention, it seems that little there has changed over the course of the year.
Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement it helped spark aren’t just about the subhuman living conditions in Attwapiskat and other reserves, though. It’s not just about the dire conditions found on so many First Nations reserves across the country. It’s not just about Bill C-45, which was passed earlier this year and both reduces the federal protection for Canadian waterways and also facilitates the government selling of reserve lands without consultation. Yes, it’s part of the fight against all those injustices, but it’s also about so much more.
It’s about the fact that our government has continued to ignore or downplay the rights and needs of this country’s Indigenous Peoples.
It’s about the fact that a small group of powerful, mostly white people still insist that they know what’s best for the diverse and culturally rich Canadian First Nations, even though history has proved time and time again that they don’t.
It’s about the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized in 2008 for the Canadian residential school system, which forced countless Indigenous children from their homes and into schools where they were beaten, sexually abused and grossly mistreated, and actually promised to help forge a “new relationship” with the First Nations based on “partnership” and “respect”, and yet refuses to meet with Chief Spence.
It’s about the fact that the next year, at the 2009 G20 summit, Harper said that Canada had “no history of colonialism.”
It’s about the fact that in the years since Harper promised to improve relations with First Nations peoples, he has instead cut aboriginal health funding, and his government sent body bags to a Manitoba reserve after its leaders requested federal assistance in dealing with an outbreak of swine flu.
It’s about the fact that over 600 Aboriginal women are missing, and no one seems to give a shit.
It’s about the fact that the Indian Act is so fucking oppressive that I don’t even know where to start. For one thing, a First Nation can only be “formed” and formally recognized by the crown if the Minister of Indian Affairs approves it, even if that nation and its people have existed since long before white settlers came to North America. For another, First Nations peoples have very little control over reserve land, and the Minister must approve any land sales or transfers. Not only that, but First Nations people need to seek government approval for selling or bartering any crops, livestock and other products grown, reared or cultivated on reserve lands; any First Nations person failing to do so will be guilty of an offence. Reserve lands, including roads, bridges and fences, must be maintained by the Band Council, and if the Minister decides that they’re not doing an adequate job, he can order them to make repairs, and any money for those repairs must come from the Band Council. Oh, and if you’re an Indigenous Person, you’d better hope that the government doesn’t declare you to be “mentally incompetent”, as that means that the Minister can force you to sell, lease or mortgage your land as he sees fit. Even a dead Indigenous person isn’t safe from the Minister; no wills drawn up on reserve lands are considered legally valid until the Minister approves them.
Like, what in the actual fuck? Other Canadians don’t have to live this way, and if they did, there would be a fucking revolution. Why are we okay with our government treating the First Nations this way? Even worse, why do people make remarks about Indigenous Peoples wanting special treatment, sneering at things like government-funded post-secondary education and exemption from paying certain taxes. To anyone privileged enough to make comments like that, I have only this to say: you fucking try living through a Northern Ontario winter in an uninsulated tent, shitting and pissing in a bucket and knowing that the government maintains control over nearly every aspect of your lives but pretty much refuses to lift a finger to help you, and then come talk to me about special treatment.
Chief Theresa Spence’s demands are simple: she wants to meet with the Prime Minister and the Governor General. She wants to sit down with them and discuss the plight of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. She has said that, should Harper refuse her request, she will die for her people.
Harper won’t meet with Spence. Instead, as Spence starves herself in a teepee near the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, he’s enjoying Christmas with his family in Calgary, and composing hilarious tweets about bacon.
Rather than engaging Spence himself, Harper has deputized his Minister of Indian Affairs, John Duncan, to meet with her. Duncan, in turn, has publicly decried Spence for refusing to meet with him, and has urged her to end her hunger strike, out of “concern” for her health. As if it’s not offensive to Indigenous Canadians to say that our Prime Minister is so busy and important that he has to pawn them off to the ministry that has been specially created to deal with them. As if there’s nothing inappropriate about a white man to telling a First Nations woman how to behave or what to do with her body.
Look, I’m not a member of the First Nations. I’m a product of colonialism, descended from settlers who came here from France in 1645. I’m as white as they come. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t my fight. This should be every Canadian’s fight. The treatment of the First Nations peoples should matter to everyone, no matter what the colour of their skin; this is a case of human rights, not just Aboriginal rights. We all need to take action on this issue.
At the end of the day, we all share the same country. And we need to make this a country that treats all of its citizens with dignity and respect, not just its white citizens, not just its privileged citizens. Other countries view Canada as a fair, peaceful nation where all people have the same rights and privileges – we as Canadians need to start living up to that reputation.
The Canadian First Nations have spent more than a century waiting for things to improve, waiting for better treatment at the hands of the government and hoping that every new promise made by each successive Prime Minister would prove to be more substantial than the empty talk of all the ones that came before. The time to wait is over; now it’s time to stand up and fight back.
Thank you, Chief Theresa Spence, for being so brave, braver than I could ever be. I stand in solidarity with you.