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Theresa Spence’s hunger strike captivates headlines

Thursday January 9, 2014
Theresa Spence feeds geese during her hunger strike on Victoria Island in January 2013. The hunger strike lasted 44 days and drew support and criticism alike. Regardless of one’s opinion of the fast, it captured the attention of thousands.

While it has been a year ago this month that Attawapiskat First Nation Theresa Spence ended her hunger strike in Ottawa, it continues to linger in the minds of First Nations across the country.

Her sacred fast, as she called it, drew thousands of supporters and detractors alike during the highly publicized event on Victoria Island.

Because of its impact, the hunger strike is Wawatay’s News Story of the Year.

Spence had been fasting for three weeks on Victoria Island when 2013 began, and many were concerned about her state of health.

But attention turned to Attawapiskat’s finances when a letter about an audit conducted by Deloitte and Touche was leaked to media, which said that “an average of 81 per cent of files did not have adequate supporting documents and over 60 per cent had no documentation of the reason for payment.”

In a release, Spence dismissed the timing of the leaked audit as a distraction and remained steadfast in her fast.

Around that time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to meet with a small group of chiefs. There was no mention of Spence or the governor general.

Spence boycotted the meeting since it did not meet the conditions of her fast, where she wanted Harper, Gov.-Gen. David Johnston to meet with all First Nations chiefs to discuss their treaty relationship.

Spence called for all chiefs to boycott the meeting as well, but National Chief Shawn Atleo and less than 20 chiefs attended the meeting on Jan. 11.

Spence and other chiefs did meet with Johnston that evening, but Spence left when no meaningful discussions took place.

But even as she entered her 35th day without eating any solid food, Spence said she did not fear what might happen if her demand was not met.

“I don’t even think about death, you know,” she said at the time. “I just wake up every morning and look forward to the day.”

All throughout her fast, Spence was surrounded by the traditional spirituality of her people.

Spence started her days waking up to the sound of a traditional whistle blown by the sacred fire outside, followed by a drum prayer. She smudged, meditated and prayed before she had a cup of fish broth and medicinal tea.

Spence said she would not necessarily pray to give her strength, but for the youth, and for Harper to find the compassion in his heart to meet with her and the other chiefs.

And Spence was never alone in fasting. She was joined early on by Attawapiskat member and Ottawa resident Lorraine Iahtail. Joseph Jean Sock of Elsipogtog First Nation joined Spence days later, along with Cross Lake Elder Raymond Robinson.

Days went by and there was still no sign of a meeting with Harper and Johnston.

So on the night of Jan. 24, the sacred fire that had been lit at the start of Spence’s fast turned to ambers.

Spence and Robinson ended their fasts after they signed a 13-point declaration of commitment by First Nations chiefs and federal opposition leaders.

Days later, Spence said she did not regret ending the fast. She said it resulted in allowing First Nations people across the country to stand together for a common cause.

“We sacrificed so many days to get a message to government and we didn’t give up,” she said. “We allowed the journey to be taken up by the leadership.”

The 44-day sacred fast drew thousands who made the pilgrimage to Victoria Island to offer blessings and gifts for Spence, while helping to inspire the Idle No More movement. And at all times, Spence was surrounded by spirituality and the traditions of indigenous peoples.

“It was an incredible journey,” she said. “The compassion and love, the taking care of each other.”

Although she never accomplished what she had set out to achieve, the experience was something to remember.

“It’s a day and journey I’ll never forget,” Spence said. “And I’m sure the helpers and visitors will never forget.”

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