Chief Theresa Spence is now on Day 13 of her hunger strike. Too weak to leave the teepee she is living in on Victoria Island, a mere stone's throw from Parliament, she called for a round dance yesterday at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, Prime Minister Harper's residence.
Throughout the duration of her hunger strike, Harper has maintained a chilly silence around the grassroots Indigenous movement now widely known as Idle No More, taking to Twitter instead to share his jokes about bacon with the Canadian electorate. What started as a string of emails between four Saskatchewan women back in November in protest of Bill C-45 eventually became a hashtag on social media, snowballing over time into a global movement for Indigenous rights.
Chief Spence is starving herself for her home community of Attawapiskat where there is a dire housing crisis, but more broadly for all Indigenous peoples in Canada, many of whom have rallied around her. Spence is asking for a meeting with the Prime Minister, Governor General and other leaders, and will fast until she gets it.
Spence began her fast just as the grassroots movement began to gather steam, and has said that she is "not afraid to die" for her people, taking their lead on non-violent direct action. In turn, Indigenous people have taken their lead from her. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike have started hunger strikes in solidarity. Across Canada and throughout the world, peaceful demonstrations have disrupted the normal order of things this winter.
On Friday, the winter solstice saw unprecedented protest action. Supporters of the movement staged solidarity demonstrations from as far away as London, England, Los Angeles and Egypt. In Canada, major thoroughfares were shut down and flash mobs took over malls and public spaces as protestors performed traditional round dances in support of the movement.
In Edmonton, protestors blocked downtown streets as they marched from Walterdale Bridge over to Canada Place, holding round dances in the middle of Jasper Avenue and in Churchill Square. Organizers at the rally in Churchill Square lauded protestors for showing up to march despite -20 C temperatures, noting that "this was nothing compared to what the ancestors went through."
"That's what this is about. Our treaties and the lack of recognition that Canada and the Harper government is giving to our treaties. Our treaties are strong, they have international recognition and we have to remember that. They aren't just written documents, they are a living spirit. We have to stand strong, this is the time for us to set our agenda, for us to stand proud. For us to say no. Enough is enough. We will not let this government unilaterally impose legislation on us, especially when it affects our lands, our waters and all the living things that give us life and that we use to sustain ourselves as indigenous people," said one of the organizers of yesterday's rally, Janice Makokis, a lawyer from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation.
"We're here to also support Chief Theresa Spence as she has gone on a hunger strike, this is her eleventh day. And she's not only doing that for her community, she's doing that for us. As a woman, and as women who started this movement, we must continue to recognize women and stand proud with them," she added.
The role played by women leaders and organizers of the movement was underscored many times during the rally. Speakers called on women to continue leading the movement they started in the name of Indigenous self determination and climate justice.
"There is an old prophecy that said when the world needed it most, the women would rise to lead us. I see that happening right now. This is a woman initiated movement and you can feel the difference in it," says Aaron Paquette, a First Nations artist and writer, who has been involved with the movement since its inception. Paquette is responsible for much of the art that has come to graphically represent the movement, especially through social media.
Art has also played an important role in the movement, inspiring people to join a growing collective of protestors and allowing those protestors to imagine a different future for indigenous peoples in Canada.
"I feel that being an artist as an Indigenous person is different from the common understanding. While I create for the joy of it, I also feel a responsibility to use my art to benefit my community, to speak to them, to share, so that we can grow together," says Paquette.
Paquette sees the timing of the movement as representative of its character. For him, the solstice day of action was reflective of what indigenous people have been through, in Canada and across the globe.
"This is an organic movement. There was no grand strategy, it just happened. It has come now because it's necessary. Symbolically, the winter solstice marks the end of a long night and the welcoming of light [and] renewal. There is a long road ahead before the spring. The days will get colder, the struggle will not be easy. But the sun gets stronger and so do we," Paquette said.
Paquette's vision for the future of the movement includes solidarity from settlers on Turtle Island. Many nonindigenous people have already joined the movement, which is growing by the day.
"Our nations are rising. We are extending our hand to everyone to join us. Enter the hoop and be welcome. Finally do something that makes you happy instead of afraid, that empowers you instead of making you feel impotent, that feels right and makes you proud to be human," Paquette offers.
Paquette imagines the future of the movement as one of joyful resistance leading to genuine change at the community level. He believes the time has come to transform the way we think about climate justice and the environment.
"Ultimately, I would like to see Idle No More fundamentally transform the way we look at Mother Earth and our role in our communities. I would like to see the maturing of the human race. I would like to see all the people discard their anger and their fear and be happy."
Organizers at yesterday's rally announced that Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille told Parliament earlier that same day his nation would be launching a legal challenge to Bill C-45. He invited other First Nations leaders to join him in doing so. The Prime Minister's silence has not deterred Spence, Paquette and other movement leaders, who are determined to see their goals met.
"Sounds like a long shot, but we're used to that. We don't think in quarterly statements and yearly projections. We think in terms of generations," Paquette said.