Hunger Strikes Have a Powerful History
Over the years, leaders from First Nation communities in the north like Attawapiskat, have fought hard for many of the basic services and programs that currently exist. However, I can understand my peoples’ frustration when at times, it feels like progress is actually falling back and we are losing what little we gained. In the end many issues negatively affect the overall Native community in terms of chronic health problems, unemployment and social issues such as addictions, violence and suicide. The sad truth is that First Nation problems, like those in Attawapiskat, are actually a small part of a larger story across Canada where many Native communities are fighting for proper water services, education, jobs, health services and decent housing.
This past month, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence decided to draw attention to these issues by taking part in a hunger strike in Ottawa. I can understand her reasons for resorting to such drastic measures to shine a spotlight on the plight of our people. When First Nation leaders are not consulted with in terms of legislation that affects treaty rights then we are in fact being ignored.
I know from experience that life in a remote Native community is not easy. From the moment a Native child in Canada is born, they will more than likely have poor nutrition, few medical resources, trouble achieving a proper long term education and fewer chances for meaningful lifelong employment.
Our First Nation leaders continually fight for basic rights that were agreed upon when our people and the government signed treaties a hundred years ago. We honoured our part of the bargain by losing just about everything, our land, our spiritual freedoms, our heritage, our language and our right to govern ourselves. The deplorable situation of many First Nations across Canada is only a symptom of how the government has failed in its part of the bargain. Chief Spence is merely calling to attention the plight of our people.
It is sad to see our leaders having to address First Nation issues in this way. When government systems have broken down and a leader can no longer meaningfully negotiate, communicate or address important issues, then they are driven to alternative solutions. I am concerned for the health of Chief Spence but we should not forget that her situation represents only a small part of the overall pain and suffering that our people have had to endure and continue to do so today.
Hunger strikes have played a significant part in our world history for the cause of freedom and justice. For centuries peaceful, non violent hunger strikes have been held by many famous and brave activists. Mahatma Gandhi was a famous example in India when he engaged in several hunger strikes to protest British rule of India. This led to freedom for India. British and American suffragettes used hunger strikes very affectively to win women’s rights including the right to vote and run for office. Nelson Mandela also used hunger strikes to protest issues in South Africa.
There has been much support for Chief Spence, across the country with the Idle No More movement. She has made waves around the world but it has been sad to see the criticism and racism that has appeared against her and Native people in general through anonymous posts and comments on many news sites. Many of these racist posts more than likely come from political parties trying to attack First Nation people and discredit them. However, there are also lots of people who are willing to say terrible, vicious and racist things about Natives and that saddens me.
I believe that media companies share some responsibility for these negative and sometimes violent comments appearing online. It is one thing for an individual to voice their view publicly or anonymously, it is a right we all share in a free country. However, public view points take on a whole new light when a group of people are allowed to anonymously voice their hate in a public forum. A website administrator should be capable of filtering or channeling the comments on a website under their control but this is not happening. If a major news corporation allows so many negative, hateful and racist comments on their site, it means that they are sharing in the negative view point as well.
As individuals we have the right to stand up and demand that hate should not be spread in any media. Public inaction can lead to negative results. Edmund Burke, an 18th century philosopher and political figure described inaction as, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Simon Wiesenthal, a Second World War Holocaust survivor explained that, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”
You might not agree with First Nation leadership and Chief Spence but resorting to hate and stereotype slander is not only wrong but illegal. I hope that Chief Spence accomplishes her goals. I also want to remind her of the words an old warrior told me a few years ago, “It is important to live so that you can fight another day.”
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