Pressure mounting on PM Harper to meet hunger striker Theresa Spence
by Obert Madondo:
Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to tear down his stubborn wall of silence over hunger striker Chief Theresa Spence. First Nations leaders, the opposition, unions, the media, grassroots movements and individuals are urging Harper to meet with the Attawapiskat First Nation chief as her indefinite protest reaches the mid-point of its second week.
Chief Spence started her hunger strike here in Ottawa on Tuesday, December 11, 2012. She’s undertaking her peaceful protest from a teepee on the Anishinabe traditional territory of Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, about a kilometer from Parliament Hill. She’s demanding a meeting with Harper and a representative of the Queen to discuss the oppressive treaty relationship between Canada and First Nations.
Chief Spence is also protesting the Conservative government’s repeated imposition on Aboriginal peoples, without consultation, of federal legislation that threaten First Nations’ livelihoods and future, such as the government’s the omnibus budget implementation Bill C-45. Chief Spence says these bills and treaties disempower, exploit, control and marginalize First Nations.
“I’m willing to die for my people because the pain is too much and it’s time for the government to realize what (it’s) doing to us,” she said when she announced her protest on Parliament Hill on December 10.
The APTN National News reports that the Prime Minister’s Office has responded to Spence’s demands by saying that Harper already met with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. The PMO also said the prime minister agreed to last January’s Crown-First Nations gathering that included Governor General David Johnston and First Nations leaders from across the country.
“The prime minister hosted an historic gathering of Crown and First Nations this past January. Since then, the government has been working with First Nations leadership to make progress in several areas, most notably education and infrastructure on reserve,” said the PMO in an emailed statement to APTN National News. “In fact the prime minister met with National Chief Atleo to review the progress to date and to discuss a range of issues.”
The prime minister’s response is not enough. In an exclusive interview with the CBC on Tuesday, Chief Spence reiterated her call for a face-to-face meeting.
Two high-profile First Nations chiefs are reportedly traveling to Ottawa this week to support Chief Spence. Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, flew in on Sunday. Steve Courtoreille, the chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, will travel to Ottawa sometime this week.
Nepinak has called on First Nations and their allies across Canada to support Chief Spence and pressure the Harper government to meet her demands.
“Fly, drive or otherwise and demand that the conditions of breaking the fast be met by this prime minister,” he said. “If this prime minister fails to meet the conditions and this powerful Attawapiskat chief passes, the long silent war drums of our people must ring loudly in the ears of everyone.”
On Tuesday, Elder Raymond Robinson of the Cross Lake First Nation in Northern Manitoba launched his own hunger strike.
Nepinak’s call follows growing support of Chief Spence’s protest by the Aboriginal leadership. On Sunday, National Chief Atleo called for an urgent meeting with the prime minister and Governor General David Johnston to discuss “the critical situation facing First Nations.”
Three of Canada’s four federal opposition parties have now voiced their support for Chief Spence’s strike. Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the Official Opposition NDP, has called on Harper and the Governor General to meet Spence’s demands.
“Across Canada, First Nations are organizing and reacting strongly to continuing inequality and to a new injustice that could deprive them of their inherent right to continue to hunt and fish on their traditional lands and waters,” Mulcair said in a letter to Harper. “I ask that you please act swiftly to avoid a personal tragedy for Chief Spence.”
Last week, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada’s largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members, called on the prime minister to meet with Chief Spence. On Tuesday, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers released a solidarity letter honouring her “courageous stand in defense of the land against the moral bankruptcy of the Canadian state.”
Instead of probing why Chief Spence was on hunger strike, the mainstream media initially greeted the protest with incurious and superficial reporting. That has since changed. On Sunday, the Toronto Star called on Harper to meet Chief Spence. On Tuesday, the CBC carried an exclusive interview with Chief Spence.
The CBC has also admitted that Chief Spence’s hunger strike is part of a wider movement, and a focal point of a fresh wave of protests by First Nations activists and their allies, led by the Idle No More grassroots movement. Since last week, the movement has held hundreds of peaceful protests in major cities across Canada, calling for progressive action on aboriginal and land treaty issues. On Twitter, hashtags associated with the movement, such as #idlenomore and #nativewinter, are gaining in popularity.
The Idle No More movement is rapidly growing beyond the First Nations community. The movement’s big day is Friday, with events planned for Ottawa and across Canada.
Across Canada, dozens of individuals have held solidarity fasts, according to messages posted on a new focal event page on Facebook. The page has already attracted more than 4200 followers.