Why I'm Not Willing to Die for My People

Darren Bonaparte


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
I think Mr. Bonaparte is rather brave to make this statement. Not everyone is in support of Spence's hunger strike. Before making a commitment I would suggest that people do their research. I found out that there were several issues to consider i.e., budget bill c-45, the people of her village, a diamond company, the First Nations people human rights, etc. Then I read where Spence is not exactly on a REAL hunger strike. I am a tribal member too, and am familiar with violation of civil rights, human rights, and treaty rights and everything else I suppose. Nelson Mandela and Ghandi were involved with their endeavor for most of their lives...Theresa Spence's solution to getting a meeting with the Prime Minister is a hunger strike? That is a slow suicide, like alcoholism. Then there is the audit...what is the secrecy behind the financial reports of this village? If this is as important to some of you why not join Chief Spence? Hopefully on January 11, the meeting the Prime Minister will include Theresa Spence. Didn't people in other countries used to douse themselves with gas too? To no avail. I read some where that there is an art to diplomacy.
Anonymous's picture
the state always regards those who embody goals and ideals other than its own or of its own making as potential threats to the cohesiveness of its polity and security of its interests, no matter what those goals and ideals are, and reserves the right to use any amount and type of violence to assure its authority in those matters. since the state reserves for itself the legitimate use of violence no matter the end goal, anyone else automatically becomes a terrorist regardless of the merit, ethics, or legitimacy of their cause. anyone remember bobby sands? the irish know too well what it feels like to have the heavy boot of british oppression on their necks and have for far longer than ndgns peoples on turtle island have. he held a hunger strike while in prison incarcerated as a political "terrorist"...the brits refused to meet with him or consider his demands (which were calling for a reform on how irish political dissenters were treated in prison)....he died of starvation in a prison hospital with several other of his community members. no one remembers the name of the guards or the warden, but they all remember bobby sands as being willing to do what needed to be done, as uncompromising as he needed to be. the problem with people like you is that you are fine with compromise because it means you get to have your substandard cake and eat it too. if i recall the ending of braveheart, the main character did not compromise and from this a nation of people were reborn.
Lau's picture
Treaties are well and good? No, treaties and land clmias agreements are legal contracts that are constitutionally protected and if you hoped it would suffice as an answer to the question of whether or not you think that Canada should live up to it's legal and constitutional obligations you bet wrong. Would your answer be a yes or a no cantuc?And let me ask you another question, if we cannot trust the Canadian government to live up to its legal and constitutional obligations can we really trust it at all? For anything?A culturally appropriate education system is one that allows Aboriginal people to learn in their language and one of the two other official languages of Canada, and respects their culture and values. Your talk of buffalo and canoe journeys into the interior [of the day] is simple hyperbolic rhetoric no reasonable person is calling for a return to buffalo hunts on horseback, or for that matter tipi's and igloos, or snow shoeing an entire community to the winter hunting grounds, or fluffy rabbit skin underwear it's old, it's tired, it's worn out, and it's a lie you should save that sort of nonsense for the National Post and Sun media where it's appreciated.VN:F [1.9.15_1155]please wait...VN:F [1.9.15_1155](from 1 vote)
Leafejes's picture
The general pattern is that the largest increases in unemployment over and above the last year were in countries at the centre of the disaster - Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal. There was also a shrewd enlargement in Slovenia, a native land seen as a credible prospective candidate exchange for a financial rescue. The comprehensive formation is that the largest increases in unemployment beyond the matrix year were in countries at the centre of the turning-point - Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal. There was also a sardonic grow in Slovenia, a homeland seen as a reasonable expected office-seeker for a pecuniary rescue.