Last week, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence ended her hunger strike of six weeks. As a condition of the end of her strike, members of the Assembly of First Nations met with Liberal and NDP leaders, including interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, to sign a 13-point declaration in support of First Nations issues.
The Conservatives were unsurprisingly absent from this meeting.
Looking back, Spence’s successes seem clear. She became a figurehead of the Idle No More movement, which galvanized local energies into a nationwide movement to raise awareness about aboriginal issues, including the negative environmental impact of the Harper government’s omnibus Bill C-45.
After pressure mounted in the new year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with aboriginal leaders (though not Spence) on Jan. 11 to discuss First Nations’ concerns. And now, Spence has ended her strike with the two major opposition parties’ commitment to modernizing Canada’s treaty system.
Spence’s successes are impressive, especially considering Harper’s refusal to do her the credit of acknowledging her or taking a stance against her; indeed, Harper has made a concerted effort to avoid even the mention of Spence’s name for the last seven weeks.
But the Idle No More hashtag is no longer trending on Twitter, momentum is fading and Spence seems to have gone out with a whimper rather than a bang, especially when compared to the activity of the week of Jan. 11 when activists swarmed Parliament Hill with drums and political chants.
So where does this leave us?
If Idle No More’s goal is to convince Canadian politicians to take First Nations concerns seriously, and to raise awareness more generally, then Spence’s strike hasn’t been an unmitigated success. A CBC poll indicates that only four of 10 Canadians understood why people were demonstrating in their malls and blocking their highways — though support for Idle No More is higher on the coasts than it is in the prairie provinces or central Canada.
Moreover, the first point of Spence’s declaration is an “immediate meeting between the Crown, the federal and provincial governments, and all First Nations to discuss treaty and non-treaty-related relationships,” which is something that Harper has already shown he’s uninterested in. Despite his meeting with several AFN members, he has refused to acknowledge the goals of the movement Spence has galvanized.
I had wanted to say that this was nevertheless a good first step toward a national conversation about native issues, but then I rubbed two brain cells together and paused. While Spence’s hunger strike was the first big step in the Idle No More story, it’s not true that this is the first step of the conversation, not when one side has been trying to talk about these issues for more than a century and the other side is still barely listening.
What does it mean for Idle No More when we observe that Harper’s government has been pretending it doesn’t exist?
Not that other federal governments have had a great track record here, but the Conservatives’ reluctance to address Spence is a fair indication of where their priorities lie when it comes to First Nations’ issues.
Is Harper’s bullish indifference to Idle No More an indication of the direction our country will be taking? Or is it the case, as Rae suggests, that Harper’s lack of vision and leadership here has been a misstep? I hope it is proven to be so. I hope that the Conservative stance will reveal itself to be out of touch with what Canada wants for itself.
The hope at the end of the day is that Idle No More has encouraged people to become more educated. The hope is that the 2,000 people who were diverted off the Pat Bay Highway on Jan. 16 went home that day and looked up the Indian Act or the 1969 White Paper.
All colonial nations have a responsibility to shape our futures in ways that are responsible, respectful and fair. This requires that every citizen is educated about who we are, and what kind of relationship our government has with the people on whose lands we now live.
Idle No More has, I hope, made some steps in promoting greater awareness. Heck, they got Stephen Harper to meet with the AFN, even if he did do reluctantly.
So have they been successful? I guess that’s up to us.