I was sick over the holidays. First a suspected bout of norovirus and then one of the worst cases of flu I’ve ever had in my life. I was feverish and felt dizzy. I spent most of my time lying down listening to the radio and using my smartphone to read the Internet and check social media feeds.
I am absolutely disgusted with mainstream media coverage this week of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and her message. Spence, a Cree chief from Northern Ontario, has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 11, staying in a teepee on Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, a stone’s throw from the Parliament Buildings. Her goal was to continue her hunger strike until “Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston agree to sit down and talk about Canada’s treaty relationship with First Nations leadership.”
It’s not clear if Spence is continuing the hunger strike. The latest news is she will be joining other chiefs for tonight’s ceremonial meeting with the governor general. There was a meeting today between some chiefs and Harper but Spence boycotted that meeting on the grounds the governor general, who represents the British Crown, was absent.
On Monday the Prime Minister’s Office released a Deloitte and Touche audit of Attawapiskat’s finances. So the mainstream media spent most of the week quoting the audit, which noted bookkeeping problems and missing supporting documents to account for the reserve’s spending. I won’t go into the details of the audit but what shocked me was how little independent research media outlets did and how few put the audit in context of the Indian Act and the general situation facing First Nations status “Indians” living on reserves. Editorials and columns attacked Spence for mismanaging funds provided by Canadian taxpayers, for the band’s decision to hire her life partner, Clayton Kennedy (implying it was a decision Spence made alone), as the reserve’s co-manager. Their salaries were scrutinized, Kennedy’s own personal bankruptcy and credentials questioned, the fish broth and medicinal teas Spence consumed were scoffed at and some media pundits even suggested she was on a diet to lose weight. She was treated by many media as the equivalent of a corrupt big city mayor.
Indeed most Canadian municipalities have more power over decision making than do band council chiefs heading up reserves. As Geoffrey York states in his book The Dispossessed:
Because of the Indian Act and the restrictions it imposes, Indian bands are hampered by a great deal of legal uncertainty whenever they try to sign contracts, borrow money, purchase lands or launch lawsuits. (p. 134)
The Indian Act also imposes severe restrictions on the political power of Indians. The band council, headed by a chief, is supposed to be the elected authority at each reserve, yet the powers of the band councils are curtailed by Section 82, which gives the Indian Affairs (note the department is now called Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development) minister the authority to disallow any bylaw passed by a council. Even when the minister permits a bylaw to be passed, it is likely to relate to an insignificant issue (p. 59)
In case you’re one of the people who think what’s happened at Attawapiskat is simply terrible mismanagement by Spence’s band council and its predecessors, then check out this post from Ontario blogger Matt Hopkins. His analysis of what happened at Attawapiskat is better than any I’ve seen in the mainstream media. He actually took the time to find out what was going on and explain things in context, something most in the mainstream media did not do.
Toronto lawyer Lorraine Land posted this amazing analysis of Attawapiskat’s numbers in Dec. 2011. Judging from news reports this week, few in the mainstream media were aware of her blog post.
Canada is unfortunately a racist country and most Canadians don’t even have a basic grasp of First Nations issues even though most of us are living on land that was stolen from native people. I don’t think many Canadians have read the Indian Act or know much about treaties and land claims. It’s not clear how many people realize First Nations have rights under Canada’s Constitution or what the Crown means from an aboriginal perspective. I don’t think many Canadians realize that First Nations were never conquered, they never surrendered to any colonial power and they see their relationship with the Canadian government as something that needs to happen on a nation-to-nation basis, between equals. Courts continue to uphold aboriginal land and treaty rights, the very rights the federal government has been disrespecting.
The Idle No More movement is refreshing because organizers are appealing directly to Canadians to learn about aboriginal issues and join them in tackling issues. They’ve used social media to sound the alarm about Bill C-45, an omnibus bill the Conservative government passed in Dec. 2012. Idle No More says the bill changed the Indian Act and environmental rules in detrimental ways, affecting land and waters. Organizers are appealing to the grassroots, to status and non-status Indians and Métis alike and non-native folks to educate the Canadian public and get people across the country gathering together and pressuring the federal government to repeal those changes. They’ve been hosting teach-ins, performing flashmob powwow round dances in shopping malls, holding rallies in public places so that Canadians can learn firsthand about First Nations issues by meeting aboriginal people directly. There are petitions, press releases and an online forum. The movement is truly in motion, constantly evolving.
Idle No More is just taking off. Who knows where this movement will go. Their symbol is the red feather. I welcome this resurgence of First Nations pride. They’re asserting their rights while getting non-native Canadians to take interest in issues that affect us all.