Roger Augustine, the Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, is right to have commented on Sunday that the hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation is not contributing to the AFN’s negotiations with the federal government. He courteously asked that she “should somehow respect our process in terms of the Assembly of First Nations” and let the chiefs’ executive continue their work; her protest has become “a concern.”
Chief Spence has certainly made her point. Her subsistence on fish broth and tea for more than 40 days is well known across Canada. Her reasoning, however, is faulty. She insists on meeting with both David Johnston, the Governor-General, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the ground that Mr. Johnston represents the Crown and that, “when the treaty was signed, it was with the Crown.”
The treaty is indeed still with the Crown, but that does not require Mr. Johnston’s presence at meetings about the right way to implement that particular agreement, Treaty 9. It was signed decades after Confederation, in 1906, not with the governor-general or the prime minister of the day, or with the federal cabinet, but rather with civil servants (one of them was the poet Duncan Campbell Scott). Attawapiskat did not adhere to the treaty until later, in 1930; again, the Cree chiefs dealt with civil servants. The federal government is the Crown in Right of Canada and the cabinet is the Governor-General-in-Council. Today, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development continues to be part of the federal Crown.
Chief Augustine’s point was essentially that Chief Spence’s hunger strike and her presence on Victoria Island in the Ottawa have become a distraction.There is no good reason for her to complain that the meeting earlier this month was called a working group. First-nations chiefs, on the one hand, and elected Canadian politicians and unelected civil servants, on the other, need to work with each other in good faith, and dramatic gestures should not be prolonged.