During my 85-day hunger strike against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s New Jim Crow-style crime Bill C-10, the deceptively christened “Safe Streets and Communities Act”, a prominent opposition MP told me hunger protests weren’t part of the process of democratic engagement in Canada. I was shocked and disappointed.
First, during our conversation on the steps leading to the Parliament building, the individual mentioned that he was associated with social activist and former senator, Jacques Hébert. Twenty-six years ago, Hébert completed a 21-day hunger strike protesting former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney’s decision to nuke the Katimavik project. Second, until this moment, I’d assumed that the individual would know that Ghandi’s hunger strikes facilitated the demise of British colonial rule in India.
Third, I wondered whether the individual had ever heard of a certain Elizabeth May, the leader of Green Party leader, current MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Canada’s “MP of the year” for 2012. In 2002, May completed a 17-day hunger strike in front of Parliament Hill, “demanding that families be moved from the toxic waste of the Cape Breton Sydney Tar Ponds.”
Elizabeth May shares her hunger strike experience and begs Harper to go down to Victoria Island and meet Chief Spence, who is in Day 2o of her hunger strike today:
I was reading Naomi Klein’s piece the other day about her wakening to take care of her little boy and then thinking about Chief Spence, hungry in the night. I thought to myself, “she’s not feeling hungry. You don’t feel hungry after about the third day on a hunger strike.” Up till yesterday I could monitor how I thought Chief Spence was feeling based on my own hunger strike in 2002. I spent roughly half the month of May of that year sitting in front of Parliament Hill (pre-9-11 you could sit right near the MP entrance) demanding that families be moved from the toxic waste of the Cape Breton Sydney Tar Ponds. People kept worrying about me and asking about my “exit strategy.” I didn’t have one other than “winning.” And that was my answer.
On Day 17 of my hunger strike, Health Minister Alan Rock said the government would act and I stopped my fast.
So as of today I have no point of reference for how Chief Spence is feeling. I only know that she is increasingly putting her health at risk of long-term damage. And as she has rejected any exit strategy other than dying for the cause, I am begging the Prime minister to go down and meet with her.
The #idlenomore campaign has my full support. I did everything I could to oppose the horrors of the fall omnibus bill. My amendments dealt with a proper definition of “aboriginal fisheries” respectful of treaty and inherent rights as well as protecting the navigable waters of Canada. Government House leader Peter Van Loan even tried to block my amendments in particular – arguing to the Speaker that they should not be tabled because there was no chance they would pass. There’s an interesting appreciation of democracy. Fortunately, the Speaker rejected the notion quite firmly. But Van Loan was right. No amendments succeeded, whether NDP, Liberal, Bloc or Green. C-45 has cleared the House and the Senate, but as the cross-country #idlenomore movement takes off, the Canada-China Investment Treaty and its potential to violate treaty and Constitutionally protected aboriginal rights is not yet ratified.
Meeting Chief Theresa Spence is an easy thing for the Prime Minister – and he should do it sooner than later. As a “demand” it is hardly onerous. It is a nation to nation request, and, to the extent it sets a precedent, it is circumscribed by the fact that this is a request from a Chief of a recognized First Nation. We are still in the Christmas season, and will be until January 6th and Epiphany. Certainly, a spirit of compassion can overtake the politics? I have called the Prime Minister’s Office to request that he meet with Chief Spence as soon as possible.
Ending her hunger strike is only the first step. Once that is done, we need a meaningful engagement on the wide range of critical issues being raised from coast to coast to coast. For that we need leadership, and right now, that leadership is coming from flash-mobs of drummers and blockaders, aboriginal women and youth. It is coming from Chief Spence. Can we not hope that leadership might come from 24 Sussex Drive in response?
As I have posited before, we should all be ashamed that a First Nation leader has had to put her life on the line to be heard. A hunger strike is a weapon of last resort for the oppressed. A hunger strike in Canada is a sign of imperfect democracy. It betrays an invisible police-state lite. Spence’s protest is a journey of hope. A call to compassion, fairness and respect for fundamental rights.
Spence is urging Canadians and First Nations to rediscover the lost art of democratic conversation.
- Elizabeth May wants CSIS to weigh in on Canada-China treaty
- Elizabeth May’s Green Party of Canada supports the #idlenomore movement
- Unpacking my Canada Crime Bill C10 hunger strike