End to 44-day fast falls flat
She isn’t Mother Theresa, but neither is she a figure who deserved to be maligned and mocked the way she was.
Theresa Spence didn’t deserve the snide, accusatory asides and the social-media slurring about her Escalade, her double chin, jokes about her “diet,” gossip about her partner, her personal income, her showers and naps at a nearby hotel.
She didn’t deserve to have an unflattering audit leaked while she was fasting in an unforgiving winter climate.
She belongs on no pedestal and her demands may have zigged and zagged and she may have been guilty of overreaching, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t inspire.
But what exactly has the Attawapiskat chief accomplished after 44 days without solid food?
Here, she did deserve something more tangible.
Her fast was at times a distraction to the work being done by the Assembly of First Nations, but she deserves credit for hastening the first meeting on Jan. 11 between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo.
She was accused of hijacking the Idle No More protest movement, but she did keep the issue in the news and Canadian consciousness at a time when Canadian sympathies with Round Dances, flash mobs and blockades were about to be sorely tested.
Beyond that, this gets tougher.
If there is to be inspiration drawn from the ordeal of Spence and fellow faster Raymond Robinson from northern Manitoba, it would have to come from the belief that a 13-point declaration that allowed her to end the fast is something beyond the aspirational and something more than a document that provided an urgently needed exit for a growing problem.
The declaration looks very much like the demands Spence was making when she began her fast Dec. 11.
It has the backing of the Assembly of First Nations and the Liberal and NDP caucuses, and when Liberal interim leader Bob Rae was asked whether this was merely a way off Victoria Island with dignity for Spence, he offered a flat “no.”
Instead he called it a “realistic assessment” of the steps that need to be taken in our lifetime if we are to affect reconciliation between those who were on our lands first and those who came later.
A more equitable relationship with Canada’s aboriginals is part of the country’s unfinished business, Rae said.
“Everyone needs to join this struggle because it is a struggle for our true identity as a country,’’ he said.
Some of the 13 points could be delivered tomorrow.
There should be a commission of inquiry into unsolved murders and the disappearance of aboriginal women. Housing and education improvements in First Nations communities are long overdue.
Under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Canada is a signatory, First Nations must give informed consent to federal legislation that has an impact on treaty rights.
However, upon signing the UN declaration, the Conservative government made clear it believed it was non-binding and did not change existing Canadian law, which calls for “consult and accommodation.”
New Democrats will push the Conservatives on that declaration when the Commons returns today.
Some of the other 13 points, such as revenue-sharing agreements, bring the provinces and the territories to the table and are complicated.
Others fall into the “wish list” category, nothing more.
Harper is not bringing Gov. Gen. David Johnston to a meeting with the AFN, and the two omnibus budget bills that have drawn such anger have been passed into law, no matter how odious they may be.
Spence gave up her fast on her terms, said her spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, and was able to claim “absolute victory.”
The truth is somewhat greyer, frustratingly elusive and somehow deflating.
If Spence’s torch is carried by regional and national chiefs, opposition politicians and a determined Idle No More movement, she will have proved to have been that inspiration.
If future meetings between the government and the AFN produce results, she will quite rightly be given credit.
But somehow Thursday’s final chapter in this facet of the winter of aboriginal discontent was flat and without closure.
When she left the hospital, where she had been under observation, she thanked supporters, called for unity and said she was handing her cause to the chiefs.
But was it worth it?
She wasn’t saying, because no one was allowed to ask her, and we were left to craft our own, unfulfilling conclusions.
Tim Harper is a syndicated national affairs writer for the Toronto Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.