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As an unprecedented wave of indigenous resistance surges across the country and the Prime Minister finally prepares to meet with hunger-striking Chief Theresa Spence, we’re starting to witness a backlash. Though initially caught unaware, the pundits and trolls are now coming out in force.
Yesterday, an audit of Attawapiskat’s finances (2005-2011) was leaked to the press. Obviously timed to diminish support and sympathy for the reserve and it’s chief, it examined the band’s finances between 2005 and 2011 when Chief Spence gained national attention by declaring a state of emergency over a housing crisis on the reserve. In response, Harper accused the band of squandering funds and placed the band under “third party management”, a move later deemed illegal by courts.
Spence has dismissed this audit as a “distraction“, but in many ways the damage is done. Canada’s editorial class is taking the opportunity to re-frame the issue along more traditional lines, and the past few days have seen an explosion of negative press. Andrew Coyne claims that Idle No More is little more than a conflict between “modernizers” and “traditionalists” on reserves. John Ivison of the National Post states “whatever the Canadian state cedes to Theresa Spence, it will never be enough”. And of course Christie Blatchford has weighed in condemning police for endangering “the rule of law” by not arresting rail blockaders in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.
These pundits and the horde of trolls which fills the comment sections below their articles make up the Canadian state’s front line of defence against threats like this. After the failure of massive police/military mobilizations to stop demonstrations in the 1990s (Oka, Ipperwash, Gustafson Lake, etc), we’ve seen a shift toward somewhat gentler physical responses. This has left reactionary pundits to ‘hold the line’, but also fuelled their claims of “special treatment” and “lawlessness”. The narratives they present are fairly consistent if shockingly ignorant, and this new leaked audit fits perfectly into their tales.
Too Many Chiefs?
Of the stereotypes and clichés used to dismiss First Nations protests, the notion of a wealthy and corrupt leadership which keeps everybody else in poverty plays an incredibly important role. With Band Councils presented as “the real bad guys”, pundits can shift attention away from the government. What they don’t mention is that Band Councils are government institutions, imposed by the Indian Act to replace “traditional” leadership. Such critiques are often put forward by activists themselves, and generally fall on deaf ears. Many have questioned what gives Theresa Spence the authority to go on her hunger strike, but can anybody imagine the National Post giving her the same kind of scrutiny if she were simply trying to sell off her reserve’s timber and mineral rights to some big corporation?
If there is corruption on reserves (and there is), we should pay attention to where it tends to take hold – particularly those institutions most closely linked to the Department of Indian Affairs (“and Northern Development”). This is still one of the world’s most legendarily restrictive bureaucracies, and had to sign off on these expenditures at every step of the way. Attawapiskat has been under “co-management” for most of the last decade, while Theresa Spence was only elected in 2010. Much has been said about highly paid Band Council officials, but just like “wealthy union bureaucrats”, this critical light rarely shines on those they sit across the table from.
Regardless, there’s a very simple reason that “overpaid Chiefs” don’t explain the Attawapiskat housing crisis or any other case like it – there was never enough money coming in to prevent it, even if all the local authorities worked for free. With a yearly paycheque coming in around $70 grand, Theresa Spence has not yet been paid enough since taking office to put up a single house (around $250 000 given transport costs).
Along with this comes the distortions of indigenous politics and the division between “modernizers” and “traditionalists” (as Coyne puts it). This division is real and crucial to understanding reserve politics. Instead of examining that context, though, pundits like Coyne tend to characterize it as the same old “progress” debate. Left out entirely is the history of attempts to “modernize” reserves, well over a century old, filled with abuses of human rights not to mention being a spectacular failure. Toronto-style economic strategies have never worked in Canada’s North, despite decades of attempts to impose them. “Traditional” strategies, on the other hand, have a well-document and growing legacy of success in areas from governance to justice and health care. In the “Fourth World”, much like the Third, aid and development strategies which disregard local culture, custom and opinion tend to offend more than anything else.
The True North…
I don’t know how many of these columnists have been very far north in this country (no, not Muskoka and Huntsville), but it isn’t like Southern Ontario. Admittedly, I haven’t been as far as Attawapiskat, but I’ve spent enough time bumming around to get some perspective. For most of this country’s landmass, a “big city” has a church, a post office a general store. <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attawapiskat_First_Nation”>Their reserve</a> is a thousand kilometres north of Toronto, accessible mainly by air and has just under two thousand residents. Their roads are dirt, they speak mostly Cree and they’ve been mired for years in a housing crisis as well as all the other usual ailments of northern indigenous communities. Is anybody really surprised that they’ve had trouble finding a good accountant? Does anybody seriously think that accountants are what they need right now?
There’s one final point which needs making about the characterizations of Chief Spence, Idle No More and other indigenous resistance making the news right now: this is a movement. Theresa Spence does not speak for Idle No More, nor does any other official representative as organizers have already stated. Others involved include groups as diverse as land defenders in Unist’ot’en and the Assembly of First Nations. Coyne and others have, as usual, dismissed the lack of a single leader or central authority as a sign of incoherence. The implication they make is that only such kinds of top-down authority can be legitimate, which of course goes against most history and principles of both indigenous nations and social movements.
One “leader”, even one as noble as Spence, could be bought off or taken out. With a diverse and decentralized movement presenting many kinds of pressure in many places, Harper has little choice but to face the issue itself, rather than a few representatives. John Ivison is right about one thing – there’s no amount which could be given to Chief Spence to stop this movement. What Coyne, Ivison, Blatchford and others don’t seem to grasp is that this movement isn’t after anything so simple.
For nearly a month now indigenous protests against the Harper government and its policies have been exploding across Canada and beyond. Under the banner of “Idle No More“, protesters have targeted Bill C-45, our second budget omnibus bill which cuts funding and environmental protections while making it easier for outsiders to lease reserve lands (among many other changes). Adding fuel to this fire is Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who’s been on hunger strike since Dec 11th demanding to meet with Harper himself, who’s remained remarkably absent since the whole ordeal begun.
Within weeks, the mobilization had reached or exceeded the peak of turnouts for the Occupy movement in most parts of Canada. Given that First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples make up less than 4% of Canada’s population (rather than “99%”), and that December is one of the hardest months to organize, that’s a breathtaking achievement. Flashmobs of hundreds have struck some of Canada`s most iconic urban centres (malls, plazas and intersections). Blockades have begun on highways and railway tracks (like Aamjiwnaang, near Sarnia, which ended last night and Tyendinaga) and many more are planned. Tensions are rising quickly, solidarity demonstrations and words of support have been coming in from around the world, and at this point even organizers are having trouble keeping track of all the demonstrations happening.
In my experience, this kind of rapid and resounding success only comes when tensions below the surface are close to the breaking point. There have been a number of high-profile indigenous protests in the last decade, from the Aboriginal Day of Action in 2007 to years of events surrounding the controversy in Caledonia. Many have inspired solidarity demonstrations (including road/rail blockades) across the country, going right back to the infamous armed standoffs of the 1990s (Oka, Gustafsen Lake, etc). Few, though, have seen this kind of rapid and viral spread. What seems different this time, if anything, is the response – one which this time is seeing far more solidarity and less hostility.
Whether this is a continuation of inertia from the Arab Spring, Occupy and Quebec Student Strike (among others), a reaction to the increasingly radical and unilateral actions of our Prime Minister or simply the culmination of centuries of frustrations, it’s certainly about time we saw a mobilization like this.
The Big Tent
Idle No More, like Occupy, is a very broad, “big-tent” styled movement. Both the tactics and demands up until this point have stayed fairly moderate, considering what often happens at these protests. Even to the usually unsympathetic Canadian public, there’s very little which could be deemed unreasonable. After the national embarrassment which was the PM’s handling of the Attawapiskat housing crisis (later deemed illegal in court), ongoing struggles over pipelines and other Northern development and the horrific revelations which emerged from BC’s inquiry into missing native women, it’s becoming harder to pretend that anything’s really changed since the passage of the Indian Act in 1876.
This moderation hasn’t come without criticism, though, from more radical sectors who haven’t been “idle” for quite some time now. Particularly controversial has been the involvement of Band Council leadership in mobilizations, who many regard more as representatives of the Canadian government than their respective bands. Monday, organizers issued a statement distancing themselves from the chiefs and stating a “mandate from the grassroots to work outside systems of government”. The next day, Spence responded that the chiefs must “humble themselves and be one with the grassroots”, admitting their “imperfect past” by “becoming one and the same as the people”. I certainly share many of these concerns, and a longstanding respect for traditional leadership such as the Confederacy Chiefs and Clan Mothers at Six Nations, but I’m also inspired by the grassroots focus shown so far also can’t deny the incredible grassroots show of support so far. No movement is free of such internal conflicts, but is this a chance any of us can afford to pass up?
Our Home On Native Land
Canada has an utterly atrocious record when it comes to indigenous peoples, at home and abroad, which continues up to the current day. Last February, Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth And Reconciliation Committee was forced to admit that Canada’s Residential Schools clearly qualified under UN Conventions as “an act of genocide“. There have been involve in forced relocations, sterilisation programs, deposed governments, incredibly strict racially-based laws (an “Indian” could not vote, drink, gather in public, hire a lawyer for treaty matters or play pool for much of the last century) and sweeping efforts to strip groups (women, professionals etc) of their “status”. Reserves have been stripped of hugely valuable resources (timber, metals, oil, uranium) and dosed in return with nearly every kind of toxin imaginable, up to and including many cases of nuclear irradiation (Serpent River, etc). Then there’s the history of sexual violence, so pervasive and depraved that one can scarcely find words for it. “Atrocious” hardly seems strong enough a word for this horrific history, except in its literal meaning – the above-mentioned acts aren’t just crimes, they’re atrocities.
It’s time for Canadians to abandon cute and cuddly notions of our nation’s history. This isn’t a footnote, it’s a defining feature – without colonization of indigenous peoples and lands there wouldn’t be a “Canada”. First, because (treaties or not), it’s where we ultimately got every square millimetre of this country. Second, because the Fur Trade was the nation’s economic base for the first few centuries. And third, because we’d likely be an American state were it not for the warriors who fought alongside British troops in the war of 1812 (while most redcoats were occupied across the ocean with Napoleon and the Luddites). Even the names Canada, Ottawa and Toronto have their roots in indigenous languages.
At some point, as a nation, we will have to face the ugly realities of our past. We’ve been putting it off for decades, still hoping, like they did a century ago, that Canada’s native peoples would just die off or assimilate already. That’s not going to happen – in spite of centuries of efforts, aboriginal peoples are Canada’s fastest growing demographic. Indigenous rights are becoming just as large an international issue in the 21st century as they were in the 19th, and it’s sad that a country so willing to promote itself with native imagery has fallen so far behind in practice. No apology, no inquiry and no “Royal Commission” is going to suffice – only meaningful action on our parts can go toward healing these rifts. This isn’t something the government will or can do for us – they will continue on their path until they can no longer count on complacent and racist citizens to support them. Saying we’re sorry isn’t enough here, but showing a little solidarity might be.
The issues facing Canada’s native communities – pollution, neglect, corruption and poverty (to name a few) are the same which afflict every other community – white, black and brown – across the country as well. Regional autonomy and cultural are issues for Western, Eastern, Northern, rural and French communities, just as they are for inner-city neighbourhoods in Southern Ontario. This is not and has never been “just an Indian issue”. For many years indigenous activists have played crucial roles in broader struggles (poverty, development, environment etc.) – it’s time to return that favour. This is one movement which none of us, not even the Prime Minister, can afford to sit idly by and watch.