Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence should not risk her health with a hunger strike, nor is coercion a reasonable or responsible tool to be used in making a request to meet with the Prime Minister and a representative of the Crown. Ms. Spence’s actions do, however, reveal a depth of desperation over the challenges confronting her struggling first nation that should concern Stephen Harper.
When he stood in the House of Commons in 2008, and made an historic apology for Canada’s role in the Indian residential schools system, Mr. Harper asked for the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for “failing them so profoundly.” His sincere words revealed a respect for aboriginal peoples and, in his words, “their rich and vibrant cultures and traditions.”
At the same time Mr. Harper tried to put the relationship between the federal government and First Nations on a new footing. His government has sought to bring about needed reform and transparency to First Nations governance. The respect and the reform go hand in hand, and they are equally welcome.
Attawapiskat, a Cree first nation of only 2,000, is on James Bay, and by its isolation is on the fringes of contemporary Canada. It made headlines for a winter housing emergency that had families living in temporary shelters, some without plumbing or insulation, conditions of poverty that should embarrass all Canadians. A heavy-handed government response to install a third-party manager was overturned by a court. But then all Canadians should be equally embarrassed by the investment of millions in public funds that failed to alleviate an appalling situation.
Ms. Spence wants to discuss a treaty signed in the early 20th century and undertakings that were given regarding money, education and health care, in exchange for land. She says Canada has failed to fulfill its commitments. She speaks vaguely about a desire to create a new relationship between First Nations and the government.
The Chief should give up her hunger strike, and agree to meet with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, who has offered such a meeting and is the appropriate ear to hear such complaints. If she does not, Mr. Harper could make a magnanimous gesture. He has already shown he is a friend of aboriginal peoples.