The announcement that Theresa Spence has ended her hunger strike is good news for the many Canadians who were concerned about her well-being. Her supporters are grateful for her sacrifice and believe she brought her people’s issues to the forefront, where they belong. But in the broader issue of native rights, Ms. Spence accomplished little other than to polarize existing divisions within the first nations leadership and alienate Canadians who felt her tactic was extortionate and went on too long. She created problems, and solved none.
Ms. Spence’s failing was that, while there was sympathy for her cause and for native people, there was little support in the non-native population for her demands in general, and to the tactic of hunger-striking in particular. Canadians are not blind to the troubling conditions on some native reserves, and to the plight of native peoples in urban areas, but they do not believe it is entirely the fault of the federal government. They know that Ottawa funds first nations communities to the tune of billions of dollars annually and, to a large degree, lets those communities manage the money. And they know that some native reserves are successful and well run.
Ms. Spence’s hunger strike seemed to be saying that the dire housing conditions in her home town of Attawapiskat, where she is the chief, were entirely the fault of Ottawa, and that the only solution was to give her people more money and more land. She refused to consider that any other factors, such as her town’s extreme isolation and lack of a local economy, were in any way to blame.
She aggravated that sense of entitlement when she dismissed as a “distraction” an auditor’s report into the finances of Attawapiskat that found numerous deficiencies. She did so again when she refused to end her hunger strike after the Prime Minister met her demand to meet with native leaders. A poll taken during her hunger strike showed that Canadians’ attitudes toward first nations had been hardened by her actions and words.
As well, her liquid diet opened up deep divisions within the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations from which it needs to recover in order to continue effectively as a national body. And, though not her fault, her attention-grabbing protest hijacked Idle No More, a worthy grassroots movement that has brought attention to native issues through peaceful, non-confrontational means.
There is no question that claims over broken treaty promises, Ottawa’s slow movement on pressing issues, and the inclusion of changes to environmental protection laws deep in the bowels of its latest omnibus budget bill have aggravated its relations with first nations. And there is no reason to doubt Ms. Spence’s conviction and courage. If her hunger strike achieved anything, however, it was to damage first nations’ interests.