43 days and for what? Theresa Spence and the status quo

The chief’s approach cheapened the Idle No More movement, writes Martin Patriquin

Fred Chartrand/CP

So Theresa Spence has decided to ingest solid foods once again, thus ending a six-week “hunger strike” that began as anything but and ended in the manner of far too many vanity projects: dragged out past its prime, with Spence struggling to keep the focus on her, her demands, her narrative. She surely didn’t do this purely out of vanity. After all, the more we talk about Spence’s supposed sacrifices over the past 43 days, the less likely we are to remember her various over-indulgences over the past six years. To wit: a litany of questionable finances under her leadership, brand new houses sitting idle in the midst of a housing crisis, a dictator’s instinct and ability to remove pesky reporters from her reserveand a not insignificant number within her own community wishing she would just cut it out.

But her liquid-only fast didn’t just cheapen the legitimacy of some of her demands; it cheapened the movement with which she was most associated. Idle No More was started as a grassroots, largely leaderless campaign that sprung from the Conservative government’s omnibus approach to legislating changes to environmental laws. To be sure, Spence’s 13-point declaration—which, in a galling bit of egoism, thanks Spence’s own “self-sacrifice and spiritual courage”—calls for the undoing of these omnibus bills. The declaration also demands “Nation-to-Nation” negotiations on treaties, as well as resource revenue sharing and the implementation of a “National Public Commission of Inquiry on Violence Against Indigenous Women of all ages.”

Noble goals, all. Yet there was a convenient omission from the list of Spence’s kitchen-sink demands. The Idle No More movement wasn’t just about hoisting a middle finger at the Conservative government; that same finger was to be pointed, as the Globe’s Joe Friesen recently pointed out, at “the traditional First Nations leadership—the chiefs and band council system‚ which is often described as male-dominated.” It’s not hard to see why, say, a comprehensive look at the band council system wasn’t number 14 on Spence’s list. Part of the Idle No More movement is an attack on the status quo and, having been in various governmental positions for most of her career, Spence is very much the status quo.

What have we seen of Idle No More with Spence as its de facto face? A meeting with Stephen Harper bookended by infighting amongst various chiefs, an aggressive power struggle within the AFN, and the constant will-she-or-won’t-she question of Spence’s own continuing hunger strike.

In short, a dance of the aboriginal government status quo, rather than a challenge to it. Pity.

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