On a cold night in Ottawa, the last piece of wood was placed in the sacred fire that had burned for 45 days on Victoria Island.
The fire had seen thousands of visitors, many ceremonies, and received tobacco offerings and prayers from across North America since it was ignited on Dec. 10.
But on the night of Jan. 24, the fire turn to ambers, signifying the end of a 44-day sacred fast by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and Cross Lake Elder Raymond Robinson, who officially ended their fasts that afternoon by signing a declaration of commitment with other First Nations and federal opposition representatives.
Spence and Robinson began their fasts 10 hours apart, sparked by similar issues affecting First Nations communities across Canada. At the time, Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that took away water protection and affected First Nations in other aspects, was in the process of being read in the Senate. It was drawn up without any consultation with any First Nations leaders. It was passed into law before the Christmas holidays.
Spence began her fast, declaring it publicly as a hunger strike, with the goal of having Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston agreeing to meet with First Nations leaders to discuss the treaty relationships and how First Nations should be more involved in the federal legislative process.
But as days dragged into weeks, Harper and Johnston would not agree to meet jointly with leaders.
As the fast approached 40 days, concerns were raised about Spence’s health.
Already physically weak, Spence described feeling lightheaded and nausea,
“My arms were starting to feel numbness and even my lips,” she said. “I was in a critical stage.”
But it was not her deteriorating health that led Spence to reach her decision to begin the process of ending her fast.
All throughout the 44 days, Elders, leaders and community members asked Spence to end her fast.
But for Spence, it was important that a woman undertake the suffering for the people. The very reason she began her fast was because of the pain she sees in First Nations, especially the youth.
“When you’re a woman and see this pain, you do anything to protect your children,” she said while she was still on her fast in the teepee.
She said the suffering she was enduring in the fast was akin to giving birth.
“Because you give life, and when you give life, there is a period of time where there was pain, but once you hold your baby, the pain goes away,” she said, smiling as she pretends to cradle a newborn in her arms. “So as a woman, when you see your child or even your people in pain and you try to comfort them, and the only time the pain will go away is when their pain is gone away.”
It was letters from a male chief and another from a grandmother expressing understanding to those sentiments that changed Spence’s mind about continuing the fast.
“He spoke from his heart,” Spence said of the letter from the chief, who is from Manitoba. “He said, ‘We’ll take over. We understand what you’re doing. We understand what a woman does with love to protect the children and people.”
The chief told Spence she had done her part, and that others will take up the fight.
“To see that, they’re waking up from their role as chiefs, they do want to make that movement,” she said. “It really touched my heart seeing that they want to take over and for me to step down as a woman and they’ll do their role as a man and chief.”
The grandmother told Spence that other leaders will take over as well as the grassroots people in the Idle No More movement.
Spence gave the sentiments some thought, to fully understand the message. Then she came to the realization that she had done her part.
“In other words, they’re going to continue the journey,” she said.
Before she would stop, Spence wanted a commitment from the chiefs and federal opposition party leaders to continue the fight.
Spence, Robinson and their supporters drafted up a nine-point declaration, eight of which were on the AFN mandate given to Harper. They worked with NAN Deputy Chief Alvin Fiddler, NDP MP Romeo Saganaush, Liberal interim leader Bob Rae, Liberal party advisor Jeff Copenance and others to finalize the draft.
“There were a lot of conference calls, e-mails, text messages,” said Fiddler, who worked from Thunder Bay.
He said the process took about four days as they added four points deemed important to Spence and Robinson.
On the night of Jan. 23, word spread around Victoria Island that the declaration was finalized. A spiritual ceremony was held with those close to Spence on the island.
That night, at the request of family, she was admitted into a hospital for a checkup and was kept overnight for observation.
The following afternoon, she was released and surprised everyone at a NAN ceremony honouring her, Robinson and Joseph Jean Sock, a Mi’kmaq from New Brunswick who fasted with them before leaving for persona reasons.
Satisfied with the outcome of her efforts, Spence is staying under the care of doctors to ensure she does not go into shock and that she regains her strength. She plans to be back in her office in Attawapiskat next week.
Spence does 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.”
The days on Victoria allowed Spence to learn the different cultural ways of the people of Turtle Island.
“Especially the songs: there’s honour songs, spiritual songs. I don’t know how to describe it. It made me a different person. It made me feel I was in a different world, spiritually.”
The experience also brought her closer to the people who helped and supported her.
“When the people left and I left, it made me cry because I’m going to miss them,” she said.
The sacred fire that began on Dec. 10 is all but ashes now. But the memories created around it will remain.
“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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