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Spence brought attention to the cause, but what happens now?

Wednesday January 30, 2013

I just returned from a holiday in India. One of the things that struck me during conversations at the beginning of the trip was how little people knew about First Nations issues in Canada. In India, where indigenous populations in some states have been conducting armed resistance movements for decades, many people I spoke with had no idea of the history or reality of First Nations people in Canada.

Yet over the course of the month-long trip, I was amazed at how knowledge of First Nations in Canada seemed to change. In the beginning, no one seemed to know anything about First Nations people in Canada. By the end it was not uncommon to introduce myself as Canadian and have someone say “oh, where the chief is on a hunger strike!”

Theresa Spence’s hunger strike was not only a national story. It transcended borders, resonating with people around the world. In a country like India, where Mahatma Ghandi’s experiments with direct action and hunger strikes have given a mystique to the form of protest, her actions rang loud and clear. Amongst the young travellers we met from countries across the globe, the David vs Goliath story of the chief on a hunger strike against the government was viewed as inspiring, almost mythical.

However you feel about Spence’s fast, it is an undeniable fact that over the last month and a half she brought more attention and awareness to the plight of First Nations in Canada than almost anyone ever has.

And do not think that the federal government failed to notice the international attention Spence was getting. Prime Minister Harper kept quiet during the hunger strike, stuck to his guns and did not give in to Spence’s requests. But through it all Canada got another black eye on the international stage, another black eye that Harper will have to wear.

Nationally, of course, Spence became a household name during the strike. She also divided the country. On one hand she inspired supporters from across Canada to make the journey to Ottawa to meet and support her. On the other she stirred up much of the racist undertones of the nation, and provided a flash point for a lot of hatred against First Nations people. But her biggest impact nationally, just like it was internationally, was to bring unprecedented attention to First Nations people and issues.

Meanwhile the Idle No More movement, despite its independent origins, came to be associated with and intrinsically connected to Spence’s fast. The Ottawa rallies revolved around Spence, and organizers of events in cities and towns across the country cited Spence’s efforts as inspiration.

Whether the Idle No More movement was helped or hindered by Spence’s hunger strike remains to be seen. Certainly it received more attention in national media because of Spence. And certainly the chief’s actions spurred many people to get involved in Idle No More who may not have otherwise. But Spence also provided a leader-figure in a movement that professes to have no leaders. She gave structure to a movement that often seems to embrace its fluidity. Her involvement, even if she never intended it to, became a central focus of Idle No More.

Now, as Spence leaves Ottawa to go back to the day-to-day realities of being chief in Attawapiskat, Idle No More finds itself at a crossroads. It no longer has its rallying figure. It has to once again find energy and inspiration in the people of communities and cities across the nation, like it did at the beginning. And it has to find a cohesive, inspiring message to continue the momentum it has begun. Chief Spence brought an incredible amount of attention and energy to the movement. Idle No More has to find a way to sustain that without her.

As for Spence, her legacy also remains to be determined. She has become an internationally recognized figure, and a national icon. She has brought unprecedented attention to First Nation issues. Her hunger strike ended with a declaration to continue pressing the government on treaty issues. It was not a clear victory. But in dealing with such a complex issue as the relationship between Canada and First Nations, clear victories are never the goal. Change happens gradually. The impact of the past 44 days will manifest in a number of ways over the coming years. Only then will Spence’s legacy be clear.

Spence’s helper Edmond Etherington told Wawatay that the end of the sacred fast has not sunk in yet. After 40 days at Spence’s side, Etherington said he still feels her in his heart. He also spoke of carrying on the work that Spence started in his own community, of living the good way he experienced on Victoria Island when he gets back home.

If all the people Spence touched during her fast do what Etherington plans to do, then all of her efforts and all of her suffering will truly have been worth it.

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