Attawapiskat chief surrounded by positivity
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike was featured on a sign during the Dec. 21 Idle No More rally on Parliament Hill. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to meet with First Nation leaders on Jan. 11, he did not mention Spence’s hunger strike during his announcement. Spence said she would not stop her hunger strike unless she sees “positive results” from the meeting.
A teepee sits on Victoria Island, just between the mainlands of Ottawa, Ont. and Gatineau, Que.
Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence sits in the teepee surrounded by blankets, flags, and tokens of spirituality such as sweetgrass, hand drums and sage.
“When we first started, there wasn’t anything in here,” Spence recalls of that first night of Dec. 11. “We just slept on the ground. It was cold.”
As she sits in her teepee on Jan. 7, beds and a woodstove have been put in place.
But where she gained relative comfort in temperature, Spence is beginning to lose her health. She is on Day 27 of her hunger strike.
“I’m tired,” she said. Spence has been sustaining on water, medicinal tea, and fish broth.
The fish broth was recommended by an Elder, Spence said.
Danny Metatawabin, her spokesperson, adds: “I was talking to an Elder and he said that’s what they used to have in the old days, during hard times.”
But the minimal nutrition gained cannot make up for the lack of solid food. As of Jan. 6, Spence has lost 22 pounds and has low pressure, but she is stable.
But if anyone is outside her teepee long enough, it would be difficult to sense that Spence is weak. Often, one can hear an eruption of laughter inside.
“Her body is weak but her spirit is strong,” an Ojibwa sundancer remarks following another chorus of laughter.
“Laughter lifts up your spirits,” Spence said. “This is where non-Natives don’t understand us. When we’re in a meeting sometimes and we get upset, we just laugh about it. And we say, that’s just the way we are. When things get out of hand or get really serious, we have to laugh.”
As she talks, Spence holds an eagle feather. She said it was given to her last year during the housing crisis by a traditional woman who visited her community.
“She said, use this when you talk and it’ll help your words to come out, words of truth,” Spence said.
A sacred fire burns about 30 feet from the teepee. It was started the day before Spence began her strike and has burned continually since. Visitors are asked to smudge and make a tobacco offering to the fire. But while it is tempting to pray for the woman inside the teepee, they are asked instead to pray for the First Nations youth, at Spence’s request.
And visitors pour in everyday from across Turtle Island bringing their songs, prayers, drums and support. From the M’kmaqs to the east to the Denes to west, and non-Aboriginals, all come to Victoria Island to see Spence. Lines form in front of the teepee, with visitors hoping for the chance to meet Spence and personally express their gratitude and support.
After the Dec. 21 rally, a young woman from Saskatoon approached her friends to tell them she met Spence, her demeanour akin to meeting her favourite celebrity.
She explained she left with $1.25 in her pocket and some paintings. She had planned to sell the paintings to make her way to Ottawa until she got a ride from other travellers.
“I never thought I would make it here,” she said as she began to tear up. “And now she just accepted my paintings.”
Spence is overwhelmed by all the support she has received. She said since her mother is a residential school survivor, she is not used to all the affection.
“Sometimes I don’t know how to take it,” she said. “It’s so much love.”
Inspiring a movement
When Spence began her hunger strike on Dec. 11, she was only aware of the Idle No More movement.
“I heard of (it) but not the facts of their movement,” she said while sitting in her teepee on Victoria Island, just across the river from Parliament Hill.
Spence began to consider going on a hunger strike months before she made the announcement in early December. But the breaking point for her to go through with the decision began when the Harper government proceeded to push through Bill C-45, an omnibus budget bill that affects First Nations in the areas of the Indian Act, the Navigation Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act. The bill was drawn up without consulting any First Nations leaders.
The bill had also drawn the attention of four women in Saskatchewan.
Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams and Nina Wilsonfeld, all lawyers, were concerned the bill would erode indigenous rights.
They decided to organize an event in Saskatoon, set for Nov. 10, and to help spread the word they turned to Facebook. They chose to call the page “Idle No More” as a motivational slogan.
A week after that small meeting, there were events in Regina, Prince Albert and North Battleford, Sask., and Winnipeg.
A month later, the movement had spread across the country. On Dec. 10 - the day before Spence commenced her hunger strike - rallies in the name of Idle No More were held across the country.
Spence had nothing to do with the movement. She is neither a spokesperson nor organizer. But as her hunger strike made national headlines, people across Canada began to incorporate the hunger strike into their rallies.
On Dec. 21, more than 4,000 people took part in a march that began on Victoria Island to Parliament Hill. Within the crowd, signs were held that expressed support for Spence.
Even a man with a megaphone made a shout out to Spence, telling the crowd “When I say Theresa, you say Spence. Theresa!”
As the marchers made their way to Parliament Hill, Spence could hear them in the distance.
“I’m proud of them because they’re standing on their ground, espeically the youth,” she said.
“They’re giving the message to the government that we’re not afraid anymore. It is the grassroots movement, and the youth are standing behind it.”
Spence said the rise of movement and her hunger strike was “good timing.”
“We’re all connected and even the leaders are hearing the message from the grassroots people,” she said. “My hunger strike is about unifying, working together with the leaders, government and the grassroots people. So it’s good to stand together on this. They’re making the movement.”
On Jan. 4, Harper announced he would meet with First Nations leaders on Jan. 11. He made no mention of Spence and her hunger strike.
“I can understand for him too because he doesn’t want to recognize my hunger strike and that he doesn’t want to honour it,” Spence said. “If he was a good leader, he would’ve responded as soon as possible. But for him to let a woman go on suffering for 27 days now, it only shows where his heart is coming from.”
Spence called the announcement a small step, but noted that the third party, the governor general, still needs to meet with the leaders.
Spence said she would continue her hunger strike until she is satisfied with the results of the meeting. This would include having the immediate needs of First Nation to be worked on right away, “not within a year but within months,” she said.
Those needs include infrastructural needs: housing and clean water; for the land to be protected, to include revenue sharing and for First Nations leaders to be part of the government, and to have better health and education systems.
“I’m hoping for positive results to come,” she said.
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