Straight Talk
PETER WORTHINGTON - Theresa Spence hunger strike not ideological gesture but blackmail

Credits: QMI AGENCY

PETER WORTHINGTON | QMI AGENCY

TORONTO - The hunger strike started by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence 25 days ago as a means of forcing a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (and/or Gov. Gen. David Johnston) seems to have worked.

The PM is going to meet with Assembly of First Nations leaders next week — and Spence says she will attend. So what if it isn’t a private meeting, Spence’s presence is the face-saving compromise.

The hunger strike, such as it was, has captured the fancy of the media and predictable types, but it’s kind of sad when compared to, say, the IRA hunger strikes in Northern Ireland 30 years ago.

Prior to going on her fast on Dec. 11, Spence didn’t look like she’d missed many meals in her life. After 24 days, still doesn’t. Indeed, hers wasn’t a Bobby Sands-type hunger strike where no calories were consumed, since she opted for a diet of fish broth and herbal tea.

All in the cause of what?

If you can believe it, she wanted to get the PM and GG to discuss (and renegotiate?) things like the 1905 treaty, as well as the Idle No More movement that Native peoples hope will get them more benefits.

Her ultimatum was 72 hours to respond “or else.” Or else what?

There’s irony in Spence’s hunger strike. Hers is not an ideological gesture like those IRA hunger strikers who died for their cause, but a blackmail attempt to force Harper to pay attention to her.

We all know Attawapiskat is a cesspool, but we also know that Spence is well paid — gets a chief’s salary — and that millions are invested in the area thanks to federal government largesse, and millions in contracts to companies owned by the band, plus $30 million to the band by De Beers, which has a diamond mine in the area.

Yet housing conditions are abysmal in Attawapiskat, which means, sadly, that if the federal government doesn’t improve conditions, then nothing happens.

The people who’ve been raised on handouts and benefits seem unable or unwilling to fend for themselves. Instead of improving their lot, they fester in squalor and blame an insensitive government.

And it’s not the fault of those who live on reserves — but the tradition of paying Natives to stay subservient and lethargic on reserves, instead of making something of themselves in the big world outside.

Do Canada and Aboriginals benefit from the $8 billion in federal funds spent annually on Natives? Periodic suggestions that Natives be assimilated into the Canadian population evoke hostile reaction. Native leaders have it pretty good, but those they ostensibly represent often fare poorly.

Politicians pander to Natives, who can block highways and interrupt daily life with impunity. Our political masters order police to cool it when Natives protest, and to tolerate transgressions that would get others arrested.

In the long run, this is unfair to Natives, who are quite capable of achieving everything other citizens achieve, were it not for the policy of encouraging them to depend on Ottawa and stay on reserves.

Hunger strikes are often more effective than they should be. Margaret Thatcher, when she was Britain’s PM, tended to regard IRA hunger strikes as a self-liquidating problem. It’s an attitude Harper might have considered if Spence were a serious hunger striker (which she is not).

Instead, he caved. Sort of. Par for the course.

The likes of former PM Joe Clark visited Spence in her teepee on that island in the Ottawa River, as has (wouldn’t you know it) Justin Trudeau. These visits merely feed Spence’s vanity.

Succumbing to blackmail never looks good, even when it’s sensible.

So Chief Theresa Spence and her supporters win this round, but the good folk of Attawapiskat still live in squalor.

Harper probably feels he has more to gain by listening to her, even if he’s unlikely to funnel more money to Natives — which is the bottom line of most Native protests.

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