Who is Chief Spence? She’s an Aboriginal Chief of the Cree Nation Attawapiskat, a small band of First Nations people who live up near James Bay in Northern Ontario. And she’s important because she’s part of the reason that the Idle No More movement is picking up speed.
Canada’s current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his Conservative government, passed Bill C-45 earlier this year, a bill that concerns Canada’s waterways and natural habitats. Many of these fell under the jurisdiction of First Nations bands, one of which I belong to, the Chippewas of the Thames. They are reserve lands, traditionally settled in by First Nations people.
Prime Minister Harper’s bill takes the control out of Indigenous people’s hands and puts it squarely in the hands of the government. Now, there’s nothing to prevent Harper from selling off these lands and waterways without the consent or even the counsel of Indigenous tribes who traditionally were stewards over these properties.
But Idle No More isn’t just about this gross atrocity. It’s also about the fact that many First Nations tribes suffer from a concentrated lack of funding. They suffer from lack of education, from even lack of proper nutrition and running water. Many of them suffer brutally from housing crises, like the Attawapiskat First Nation. Or they suffer from lack of health care, watching thousands of people die, like a reservation in Manitoba watched their people die.
The government sent that reservation body bags. They sent Attawapiskat buckets for toilets.
It’s no secret that First Nations people have their own issues. There’s alcoholism. There’s lack of education, there’s money mismanagement. But when they ask for help, they’re ignored by a government that turns its nose up at them. They’re still considered “savages”. And now, Chief Spence is asking PM Harper to meet with her to discuss the plight of her people and the people that populate this country.
My people, too. I’m a status Indian under the Indian Act. But this isn’t the reason I’m talking about this. I’m talking about this because these aren’t just my people; they’re your fellow Canadians. They’re your fellow North Americans.
PM Harper has refused. Chief Spence has gone on a hunger strike until he agrees to meet with her. She is now on day 24 of her hunger strike and is in great pain and discomfort. She’s waiting on Victoria Island, a traditional First Nations place of peace and meditation, in a tipi. She’s called together healers, supporters, and Canadians to stand with her until PM Harper decides to be a human being and listen to the millions of Aboriginal Canadians who are asking for his help.
The fact is this. It doesn’t matter if you feel like First Nations people “get everything”. They don’t, actually. They don’t get near enough. They don’t get the funding that other parts of Canada get. They pay inflated prices for food on some reservations and in the Arctic – prices that are so inflated that other Canadians gasp at the discrepancies. The Indian Act is oppressive as hell, requiring First Nations tribes to meet with the government through a specialized Minister of Indian Affairs before they can be heard. They suffer from conditions that are largely ignored by the general population. They’re pawned off at every turn, Canadians turning their noses up at their supposed “free gas” (thanks, Justin Bieber) and free schooling, insisting that they don’t need help or respect.
After all, they’re just “dirty Indians”.
Listen – I’ll tell you this much. If First Nations people would just be treated the same way other Canadians are, I’m certain they would give up every so-called perk they have. They didn’t want this, and they’re not getting it just because they’re Native. They’re getting it because thousands of Aboriginal children were sexually abused and maimed by government-run reservation schools. They’re getting it because they were forced into losing their language and culture. They’re getting it because they were made to sign treaties, often when their leaders were under the influence of alcohol, which made them lose their lands. They’re getting it because thousands died of European diseases that they were purposefully exposed to thin out their numbers.
And it’s not enough. It’s not even what they wanted. They don’t benefit from this . . . not when they can’t even access affordable food, housing and health care.
Chief Spence and the Idle No More movement stand for freedom. They stand for equality. They stand for mutual respect and for autonomy.
PM Harper, when are you going to stand up? When are you going to realize that a woman willing to die for her people is not doing this for false attention or just to make a statement? All you have to do is meet with her, and so far, you’ve refused. Oh, you’ve pawned her off on our special Indian Affairs Minister, who has done little to nothing for our people – but you’ve refused to meet with her.
She’s not going to stop. She’s not doing this for show. She’s going to do this until you meet with her or she dies.
You’ve met with mayors of Canadian cities, including Rob Ford of Toronto. Why not Chief Spence, the leader of a First Nations community?
Ignoring an entire body of Canadians doesn’t speak well for you as a Prime Minister. Making decisions that reduce these Canadians to second-class citizens, that force them to follow a colonialist governmental model that has never fit with their needs, that tells them that you think they’re less than you, is nothing short of disgusting.
As a Native woman, I am sickened by what our government is doing to the nations of Aboriginal people who want what every other Canadian has – to be heard and to be helped.
If you’d help a white Canadian, why is it so hard to listen to what a Native Canadian has to say? Why are we less important?
I wish I could meet Chief Spence. I would hug her and tell her that I respect her beyond anyone else I’ve ever met. I would tell her I’m willing to continue her fight, even if she can’t do it herself. Because enough is enough. We’ve all sat idle, people like me, who were raised in a white environment with a lot of privilege. People who aren’t Native at all and aren’t aware of what’s going on. And people who think that Natives need to sit down and shut up and enjoy their crappy housing and body bags.
It’s time to realize that we live in a first world country that should be above this bullshit. It’s time to act. It doesn’t matter if you’re Native, white, Canadian or American. This affects all of our Native peoples. This affects us as a country, as a society, as people who live in the world.
Chief Spence, I stand with you. I stand for change.