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Why I'm Not Willing to Die for My People

Darren Bonaparte
1/5/13

 

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.”

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.
 

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Anonymous's picture
Darren Bonaparte, you need to understand this. When you give your life over to something greater than yourself, like in the Sun Dance, it inspires all of us to do more. The sacrifice Theresa Spence is making has brought together positive momentum in Indian Country. She is not fasting because she has has no hope, as so many who commit suicide have no hope at all of making a difference. She is fasting because she has hope that her sacrifice will make a difference. And it has. Her sacrifice has given us all hope and set an example. Warriors always are willing to lay down their lives for the people. Soldiers in times of war embrace the potential for self-sacrifice as as necessity. I am sure that she has given more hope to some Indian youth who are most at risk of suicide through her fortitude and bravery in confronting the Canadian government than they have had in a while. We value the self-sacrifice of this warrior woman and what she is doing. Warrior up.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
thank you for putting things into REAL perspective!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
You quoted Robert the Bruce's father the nasty leper?
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Comparing Chief Spence's actions to outright suicidal actions is outrageous. She chose to hunger strike to draw attention to how dire the situation is, that was her choice as an individual and as a leader. Looks like it worked even if it wasn't stated publicly. Such is the nature of our time. Shock and awe.
Anonymous
Saraxyz's picture
If there had been no political resistance in the world, the fascists and despots would surely rule the world - and they pretty darn well do now. It wasn't too unusual for our people many eons ago, to stop eating if they felt that it was there time to go. Is Chief Spence opening the door for more tragedies? I don't think so, as her hungry strike is in the open, accompanied by ceremony and many prayers. Is this a desparate act borne of frustration and anger? Yes, and perhaps in a better time she wouldn't feel so compelled to do this. But this government is implementing the most aggressive attack on Aboriginal people and this land since the earliest days of colonialism. They have basically taken millions of lakes and rivers out of any environmental protection and opened the door for foreign governments to come in and rape and pillage. Well, while the PM hasn't agreed to meet her specifically, the Assembly of First Nations and other Aboriginal organizations have given him some face-saving space by organizing a meeting on January 11, with Chief Spence attending. Remember Ghandi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama and many others went on hunger strikes as a political act. I appreciate what you are saying however, as each of us must carefully and mindfully consider our actions because of the message it may send to our children and youth.
Saraxyz
Anonymous's picture
While reading the well written and thought provoking article ,"Why I'm Not Willing to Die for My People" by Darren Bonaparte on January 5, about the Chief Spence hunger strike he stated to be a native person one holds life as the most precious possession of all and Chief Spence is setting a bad example to the native population whose population has been hard hit by suicide especially the younger adults . This is paraphrasing a portion of the article. I believe everyone holds life as a precious gift and all humans' lives are as precious to them as the next person. Secondly this is the exact reason Chief Spence has chosen to go down this path .Self sacrifice is the opposite of selfishness and to sacrifice oneself of the most precious thing to them and in doing so to help many is the reason she had to do something drastic to help her people and bring attention to the treatment of native people not only in Canada but world wide .The poor conditions and subsequent. mental anguish no doubt lead to alcoholism , drug abuse and suicide.People seeing the sacrifice that Chief Spence is enduring may see this as an uplifting experience realizing how much positive response this has generated worldwide rather than a negative feeling and that there is someone that genuinely cares about their situation and is willing to jeopardize their life to finally get some action started.They will see a true Chief sacrificing for the good of her people and isn't that what a great Chief or leader would do? She has made a commitment to make sure Mr Harper will meet with native leaders and she is seeing it through She is not going to start eating on a promise of a meeting,she will start eating when the meeting is done.She is as great a leader as the great Chiefs of the past and her obstacles are as huge and more complicated as those in the past. Mr. Bonaparte said there is a well know Mohawk Chief that has waited a very long time to meet with Canada's leaders and he 's still waiting . It may have taken a strong woman and a different course of action to show the way to get things started as it's known that the women are the backbone of native cultures as many others . It is because life is so dear to Chief Spence and to her people that she felt she needed to do this to improve the quality of life so that her people are not just existing , they're finally living! John Rugar
Anonymous
abaachi's picture
I support her hunger strike even if she dies.
abaachi
abaachi's picture
I support her hunger strike even if she dies.
abaachi
Anonymous's picture
So critical? yet will probably not see you on the front lines! Its okay to be ashamed of your identity brother we truly understand! If you have not caught on to this movement you probably wont get it !
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
what about the way the band spent the money given to them and how it was documented...sounds like a cover up
Anonymous

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