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Female Newsmaker of the Year: Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

Thursday January 9, 2014

Spence addresses media on Victoria Island while she was still conducting her fast.
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence speaks following the conclusion of her hunger strike on Jan. 24 in Ottawa.

Due to her hunger strike that garnered national headlines and inspired and influenced the actions of others, Theresa Spence is Wawatay’s Female Newsmaker of the Year.

As the calendar flipped to 2013, Spence was in the midst of her hunger strike on Victoria Island in Ottawa.

The Attawapiskat chief was calling on the prime minister and governor general to meet with her and all the other chiefs to discuss the treaty relationship and address the issues plaguing First Nations across the country.

Not mentioning Spence specifically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to meet with Assembly of First Nations chiefs on Jan. 11, but only a small group.

Since the meeting did not involve Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, Spence boycotted the meeting and called upon other chiefs to do so.

When the day arrived, hundreds of people gathered on Victoria Island in support of Spence and rallied at Parliament Hill, but not before they gathered outside where Harper was meeting with National Chief Shawn Atleo and small contingent of chiefs.

Spence met with Johnston later that day, but walked out when there was no “meaningful” talks.
Spence ended her hunger strike on Jan. 24 after a number of chiefs agreed to sign a 13-point declaration, which promised to continue pressing the federal government to address the issues Spence raised during her fast.

Spence did not get much time to rest the following month when two separate groups of Attawapiskat members erected blockades along the winter road leading to Debeers’ Victor Mine.
They called for a renegotiation of the IBA. Spence supported the community members and barred a sheriff from passing through Attawapiskat to enforce a court injunction.

That spring, Spence was busy again when rising water levels on the river led to the evacuation of many community members. Many were evacuated again in the late fall when a fire damaged a trailer complex during a power outage.

In August, Spence was reelected as chief, but not without controversy when off-reserve members complained they were unable to cast their vote unless they flew into the community.

Spence’s hunger strike was often cited as a source of inspiration for action, including the youth walkers in the Journey of Nishiyuu who walked 1,600 kilometres to Ottawa and the four youth who organized the hosting of 43 Canadians in Kitchenumaykoosib Inninuwug.


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