Justice at Stake: Chief Theresa Spence Inspires a Nation

Launched in the shadows of Parliament Hill two weeks ago, the hunger strike by Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence goes on. There is little to be heard from the federal government or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but a cowardly silence.

Launched in the shadows of Parliament Hill two weeks ago, the hunger strike by Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence goes on. There is little to be heard from the federal government or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but a cowardly silence.

Chief Spence said she is willing to die in an attempt to get the federal government and aboriginal leaders to discuss the treaty process and make fundamental changes.

Spence's protest was ignited by the recent passage of the government's second omnibus budget bill and has the support of "Idle No More." Through flash mobs and round dances in shopping centres around the country, they have shown their ability to disrupt, to make noise, celebrate and engage thousands of people across the country.

According to French philosopher Alain Badiou, only from outside the traditional political frame, outside the logic of the state, can a true political sequence begin. Only through the opening of such an event can we begin to see a new possibility that was not there before. This rupture that has been opened up has the profoundest of implications precisely because of its affirmative demands. A true negation of the present political order needs to begin with an affirmative logic if it is to bypass the crisis of negativity that regularly befalls social movements. That is why the political sequence that has been initiated by Chief Spence and Idle No More is threatening to the Stephen Harper government and could fundamentally reshape the political landscape in a meaningful way.

By this point in the hunger strike, it becomes difficult to concentrate. Muscle mass is weakened and emaciation starts to set in. A critical accumulation of toxic components from the metabolism process build up and can lead to death from liver and kidney damage and brain toxins if the strike continues for a few more weeks. Unlike Occupy, Idle No More and Chief Spence have demands. She has become a national symbol and has bravely highlighted the gross public policy extremes of the Harper government and has deservedly shamed them nationally and internationally.

If Occupy meant anything at all, people from that movement should be supporting the indigenous community. While there has been some support from the labour movement, environmental movement and the student movement, it has not yet been loud enough. There is so much at stake here, that the non-indigenous community must speak louder and support the demands of Chief Spence and Idle No More.

This movement, like Occupy, is decentralized, is multi-site and has the commitment for duration that is necessary to make a political opening real and substantive. Furthermore, If there's going to be an environmental justice movement in this country that's going to mean anything at all and have any kind of legitimate moral position, it needs to be led by the original inhabitants of this land, the people most closely connected to the land. Aboriginal people have been largely tokenized in the environmental movement and that needs to change. What has just been unleashed is not just about a political moment, but is in fact a message that has over 500 years of indigenous resistance to colonialism at its core. At its heart is a universal claim for justice and a radically open message for support and solidarity from non-indigenous Canadians and from supporters around the world. This movement, more than many that have come before it, has the opportunity to radically shift the relationship between First Nations and government -- it also has the opportunity to re-educate a complacent and passive Canadian public that has all too frequently closed its eyes to the injustices faced by the aboriginal communities around them and have too often sought the false safety of a polite, made-in-Canada, armchair amnesia.

It could become a generational moment that authentically opens up a new political space. But what's holding this movement back is that the non-indigenous Canadian public is not engaged in the way that they should be, given what's at stake. Aboriginals have the country's lowest life expectancy, the highest child mortality, and highest proportion of children not graduating from grade eight or high school. Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-Aboriginal youth. Suicide rates among Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average.

Back in 2006, when the Harper government opposed the ratification of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Chief Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said in an interview, "The [Stephen] Harper government has eroded the relationship between First Nations and the federal government. This government is opposed to doing anything associated with collective rights and has favoured individual rights. There has been no consultation with Canada's aboriginal community."

At the time of the United Nations vote in November 2006, the Indigenous Peoples' Caucus released a statement which read in part, "It is clear that these actions are a politicisation of human rights that show complete disregard for the ongoing human rights abuses suffered by Indigenous Peoples. This betrayal and injustice severely impacts 370 million Indigenous Peoples in all regions of the world, who are among the most marginalised and vulnerable..." According to the Assembly of First Nations, there is a backlog of 800-1,000 unresolved claims within Canada's own federal specific claims process. Estimates of the total value of these unresolved claims range from $2.6 billion dollars to $6 billion. It takes an average of 13 years to settle a claim under the current system.

Tony Penikett, the author of a book on British Columbia land claims and a former premier of the Yukon, said in 2006:

"One of the problems for Canada in the past was trying to say with a straight face that they supported aboriginal advancement and were standard bearers for other countries. It is more accurate to say that Canada was bad, but was better than others."

"The Harper government has passed a human rights bill based on individual rights as opposed to collective rights. In Canada, we have individual rights, but also collective rights for the francophone minority and aboriginal people."

"The idea of self-government is through one's own tribal government. By moving in the direction of individual rights, the government is inherently chipping away at that. Their refusal is part of that pattern, and I am surprised that no one has effectively made this a political issue at the national level."

'Harper's advisers are interested in privatizing reserve land and attempting to deal with rights on an individual level ... they are essentially promoting an idea that was abandoned in Canada in the early seventies."

The Harper government's approach to aboriginal issues is largely shaped by the ideas of Stephen Harper's mentor, University of Calgary political science professor, Tom Flanagan.

Once again, a fundamental tenet of this government has been to catch its opposition off-guard and come in with an overly ideological policy blitz, full of shock and awe, without consultation of those communities who will be directly affected by policy change. It is the Harper playbook par excellence. Legislation, time and time again, has been brought in under omnibus bills and passed with ruthless efficiency.

Enjoying a fundraising advantage against the other political parties, the Conservatives have launched American-style attack ad campaigns that have effectively decimated their rivals. Once the real effects of these policies are put in to practice, the real anger will begin. The recently passed Navigable Waters Protection Act allows the government the right to approve projects on more than 160 lakes without consulting First Nations. It has effectively gutted the environmental review process.

What Harper has failed to recognize as a politician is that when one wins a majority, one also ought to have the wisdom to govern for all the people rather than just his own, narrow base of supporters. Stephen Harper is playing a dangerous and divisive game that has severe long-term repercussions for the political culture of the country. The lack of civility displayed by this government has no modern precedent in Canada. As such, there will be a loud and long-term response to ring in the New Year.

The genie's out of the bottle. This movement isn't going away. The Harper government's downfall will be remembered as one of its own making.

Chief Spence, we thank you for your brave and important hunger strike. There is justice at stake here and that affects everyone. Our thoughts are with you and we will be with you every step of the way.

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