Skip to main content

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 after being released from hospital following an overnight stay.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Theresa Spence arrived in the ballroom of the Delta Hotel to a heroine's welcome.

The Attawapiskat chief was released on Thursday afternoon from a hospital where she had spent a day and a half under medical supervision for dehydration and the deleterious effects that 42 days of living on fish broth and herbal teas can have on the human body.

First nations leaders – mostly from Northern Ontario and Manitoba – were in the middle of a celebration staged in her honour, one that involved signing a declaration of commitment to press the federal government for fundamental changes in the way it deals with native people. The sparse crowd greeted Ms. Spence as if she were a rock star – or a saint. At least one chief has referred to her "our Mother Theresa."

Ms. Spence's decision in early December to embark on a hunger strike has made her a beloved figure for many first nations people. And, although her fast was separate from the protests of the Idle No More movement, she has become an icon for those who are dancing in malls and rallying in the streets to draw attention to native issues.

But Ms. Spence is also a polarizing entity. Those Canadians who are fed up with complaints that native people have been marginalized and their lands unfairly exploited readily point to her flaws.

Attawapiskat has done a bad job of managing its books. Ms. Spence is married to the band's finance manager, who makes a lot of money while people in the community need roofs over their heads. She does not seem to understand the role of the Crown in the government, as she continues to call for a meeting with both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor-General David Johnston. All of these issues have been used to discount her campaign.

But that has not thwarted her demand for a better deal for her people from both government and developers.

"I just want to give a message to the chiefs," she told the gathering. "Stay together no matter what hardship we go through and no matter what the government intends to do to divide us."

Ms. Spence did not get the meeting that she wanted. But she did bring a sense of urgency to talks between the government and the first nations. And, despite the fact that she is not a particularly good communicator, she has raised awareness of native issues among ordinary Canadians.

On the other hand, it's one thing to hear a message, it's another to buy into it.

Nanos Research recently conducted a poll to see how Ms. Spence and the Idle No More Movement are being received by Canadians. Just over 54 per cent of respondents said they did not believe Ms. Spence's hunger strike would help native people. But "less than one in five Canadians believe that her hunger strike will advance the cause of first nations," said Nik Nanos, the firm's president.

Meanwhile, first nations people say they can sense rising tensions among the rest of Canada as they take increasingly public stands like the one chosen by Ms. Spence.

"The racism, it's sad to say that it's still there and it's going to grow the more they see us," said Michelle Audette, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, who was at the ceremony for Ms. Spence.

On the other hand, many first nations people have come to look upon the Attawapiskat chief as an idol, Ms. Audette said. Some have appeared at the teepee on an island in the Ottawa River where she conducted her hunger strike hoping to witness miracles or to be cured of illness.

Ms. Audette laughs at that. "But for me it was an inspiration," she said. "I saw her and I saw people around her who believed that something needs to change."

Alvin Fiddler, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, who helped create the process that persuaded Ms. Spence to give up her hunger strike, said Ms. Spence's legacy includes broader public knowledge about indigenous problems.

Yes, Mr. Fiddler said, her actions have created a swell of negative comments. "But a lot of what we're hearing is just based on ignorance," he said, "and I think it is just lack of education, lack of awareness about the issues that we are trying to raise here."