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Why I'm Not Willing to Die for My People

The Idle No More movement and the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence are all the rage on social media these days. Facebook has become a powerful, unifying factor among aboriginal peoples who have long complained of the sketchy coverage of our issues by the mainstream press. A long-time social media snob, I reluctantly started using it about a year ago to promote my various projects, and quickly realized how enthusiastically natives have taken to the technology.

When the Canadian government tabled the omnibus budget bill C-45, native opponents of the legislation took full advantage of social media to organize. One of the complaints was the apparent lack of consultation with aboriginal leadership. One leader, Chief Theresa Spence, began a hunger strike in protest, calling for a high-level meeting between the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, and native leadership. She declared that she was willing to die for her people. Many of my friends on social media rallied to support her and praised her courage. For many, it amounted to little more than sharing a few home-made “memes,” which is basically a graphic with a pithy slogan on it. For others, it involved making personal trips to meet personally with this woman who, up until a month ago, was virtually unknown.

Recently it was announced that the Minister of Indian Affairs was willing to meet with her, but she refused, insisting that only a meeting with the Prime Minister and Governor-General would do. As any chief will tell you, it is extremely difficult to wrangle a face-to-face meeting with the Minister of Indian Affairs. A meeting with the Prime Minister is virtually impossible, since he has a whole ministry dedicated to Indian Affairs that speaks for him. A well-known Mohawk chief, who has been in office since the 1980’s, has been calling for a meeting with the Prime Minister for years but has always been rebuffed.

It was not surprising that Chief Spence would refuse to meet with the Minister of Indian Affairs and insist that her hunger strike would continue. Once you take such an extreme position, it is hard to back down from it, even after people begin to reach out to you to suggest it may be time to do that very thing. It reminds of a line from one of my favorite movies, Braveheart: “Uncompromising men are easy to admire. But it is our ability to compromise that makes us noble.”

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We don’t hear about hunger strikes very often. When we do, it is usually by some prisoner, political or otherwise, who has no other options. It is an act of desperation. Usually the strike ends when the person is hooked up to medical equipment and nutrients forced into them. Nothing of the sort will happen with Chief Spence. Another thing that won’t happen will be that the government will give in, and the high-level meeting she demands will actually take place. For the government to give in to Chief Spence’s demand is unthinkable. Her hunger strike is most likely viewed by those in power as a type of terrorist act, even if the only life she threatens to end is her own. If she were to succeed, the government would be inundated with similar campaigns.

I do not support Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike. Not for one second. For native communities suffering an epidemic of suicide, that simply should not be a card in a native leader’s deck. Life is sacred and should always be considered as such. The sanctity of life is not something that makes us stand out from the rest of humanity but instead unifies us with it. Who among us has not watched a loved one with a terminal disease cling desperately to life, even to their last breath, wishing they could have just a little more time with those they love? Even in Akwesasne, which has a much higher standard of living than other native communities, far too many families have known the unbearable pain of losing a young person to suicide. What would Chief Spence’s sacrifice do to change any of that? If anything, it would be an endorsement of the concept that no matter how bad life gets, there is always death.

Not long ago I jumped on a commuter flight and found myself flying with a young man from my community who was heading to a private school. He was tall, handsome, athletic, and quiet. When he told me his name I realized he was a distant cousin and told him so. Then I wished him the best of luck at school and let him get back to his iPod. Several months later I learned that this young man, whose whole life was ahead of him, had committed suicide. I was devastated to hear of this, and wondered if I should have said more to him when I had the chance. Since that time the specter of death has swooped even closer to my home, but thankfully did not take its prey.

I call on Chief Theresa Spence to end her hunger strike immediately—if she hasn’t already—and embrace the sanctity of life. Her name is now known all over the world. She should take advantage of that to further the cause of aboriginal people in Canada. Apartheid in South Africa came to an end because of people like Nelson Mandela who put a personal face on the struggle. To say you’re willing to die for your people may make for great headlines, but we need more than dramatic statements and hyperbole. We need leaders willing to live for their people, and to convince our young people to do the same.

Author’s Update: Recent developments have reminded me why I prefer history to current events: history doesn’t change much from day to day. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that he will meet with a delegation of native leaders organized by the Assembly of First Nations on January 11th. He did not acknowledge the hunger strike in his statement. Chief Theresa Spence has let it be known that her hunger strike will continue. As for myself, I will continue to pray for a long life for Chief Theresa Spence.