Why does it take a hunger strike to gain media attention for Aboriginal issues in Canada?

Dana Wensley | Troy Media

Theresa Spence (Image via Montreal Gazette) The issue is one of of fairness

As First Nation groups continue their protests against Bill C-45, what comes as a surprise to me is that it took so long to happen in Canada.

In the lead up to Canada Day I noted that while other post-colonial countries like Australia and New Zealand have their national days marred with indigenous activism, Canada manages to sail through July 1st looking like a haven of peace and calm. (Read: Canada Day: A reason to celebrate . . . for some at least).

It saddens me that the first form of protest that has gained widespread media attention in Canada is Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat’s hunger strike.

It saddens me not because her aim at drawing attention to what she describes as the ‘disrespect and shameful treatment’ of First Nations is not important but because it takes a hunger strike to gain media attention to the issues. A hunger strike is often the last resort of someone who has tried everything else. It is traditionally used by those who are powerless. Those who have found other – more participatory avenues – to address issues within government structures closed to them. Think of Mahatma Gandhi imprisoned by the British in India, or suffragettes protesting lack of rights for women.

To understand the psychology of a hunger strike we need to understand human behaviour. What sets us apart from other species is our ability to act in ways that are not predictable. To act in ways that seem counter intuitive to our personal interest to prove a larger moral point.

Offer a thirsty person a small sip of water but offer the person next to them more, and what will they do? Refuse the water. Given the choice between accepting injustice or rejecting token offers of assistance, humans will operate from a higher notion of fairness- and reject token offerings- as a matter of protest.

Researchers at University College London have conducted experiments on willing participants, hooking them up to a salty drip to induce thirst- and then offering them only a small amount of water – while telling them others in the study have more.

What the study tells us is that humans – unlike close animal relatives like chimpanzees – have an inbuilt sense of fairness, causing them to reject unfair offers in a way that is foreign to other primates who take what they can get (Scientific Report 2, at Nature.Com).

So let’s look at what is happening in Canada at the moment in this context.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has imposed two omnibus bills, Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, which, together, seek to amend the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the National Energy Board Act, and provisions of the new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. According to an Open Letter to the prime minister, the Assembly of First Nations are united in their opposition to key provisions of these Bills which impose wide sweeping changes relating to First Nations rights over their land and resources. It is alleged the measures imposed by the Bills – without adequate consultation and accommodation of First Nations groups – are in breach of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a declaration Canada endorsed in November 2010.

In another Open Letter to the Prime Minister last week, Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo stated that Chief Spence will remain on hunger strike until she gains a meeting between the Crown and all Treaty Nations to discuss their respective obligations and outstanding issues.

What Canadians need to remember at this time is that it is our ability to cooperate as humans that gives us the evolutionary advantage. Whe Idle No More calls for Canadians to join them, it may be helpful to learn that researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have found that children as young as 15 months old engage in altruistic sharing and model notions of fairness. It seems to me that the issue is not what First Nations communities have, but whether what they have is equitable and fair given the standard of living enjoyed by most Canadians.

Remember, it is not about giving a sip of water when you have a glass, but of sharing what you have in a way that even a 15 month old would recognise as fair.

Dana Wensley has a Ph.D. in Law from King’s College, London (England). Previously, she worked as an assistant editor at the London-based Bulletin of Medical Ethics, and was senior research fellow at the University of Otago (New Zealand).



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