A Dakota group drums in honour of Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike, as 600 people attending an Idle No More rally in Vancouver, B.C. pray for her health. (Photo: David P. Ball)

Chief Theresa Spence Resolute in Hunger Strike, as Her Body Weakens

David P. Ball
December 24, 2012

As Attawapiskat First Nation chief Theresa Spence enters her 13th day of a hunger strike protest on December 24—surviving on only medicine tea and fish broth in a tipi near Parliament Hill—supporters say her strength is ebbing, but her resolve is not.

Spence began her fast on December 11, one day after the Idle No More indigenous rights movement sprouted across Canada. The Ontario chief is demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a representative of the Queen to fix the broken relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Though she spends much of her time resting, surrounded by traditional drummers, singers and fire-keepers, Spence insists she is willing to die. 

“She's lying down or sitting, and she goes out for walks in the yard around the fire,” missing-women activist Gladys Radek told Indian Country Today Media Network after visiting Spence on December 22. “Right now she's doing a lot of resting. She is getting weaker, but her stance hasn't wavered. She's got no fear of death. You could see it and feel it: She is not afraid to die. She's a real stubborn woman. I feel very proud of all our First Nations people for standing up and saying, 'No more!' I feel very honored that it took one little woman to move the world.”

Radek, Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en, told ICTMN that she sat with Spence around a bonfire on Victoria Island, just minutes from Ottawa's Parliament Hill, while fire-keepers smudged with sage and visitors offered tobacco.

“We were allowed to go in and see her just for a few moments,” Radek said. “I was really moved by it. I spoke to her about how much support she's got from all over the world. She told me that she is getting a little bit weak. It's really something that I never thought I'd witness in my lifetime—this soft-spoken woman with such strength and resolve. I told her, 'The whole nation is praying that Prime Minister Harper comes and speaks to you immediately.' Quite frankly, we do not want a martyr here. We don't.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has also visited Spence. She is “in good spirits, but feeling weak," he told reporters in a conference call on December 21. "She has a tremendous amount of support. There are pipes being lifted and prayers being offered.” 

Spence came into prominence in early 2012 when she declared a state of emergency on her reserve. It led to international media coverage and public outcry over the community's abysmal housing and health conditions—a situation that, while extreme, is common on many reserves in Canada. Prime Minister Harper's government responded to her plea for assistance by seizing control of the band's finances, but Spence objected, took the dispute to court—and won.

The current hunger strike, she said, is for all aboriginal communities, not simply her own. “I am not going to give up,” Spence told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). “I am here for my people, for our rights. The government needs to really open its heart. I don’t really see myself as a saint or anything like that, or a hero. There are times when you can’t take the pain, you have to do something. This is why I am doing it. There is too much pain, that pain has to go away. If not, the pain is going to get worse, and things will get worse.”

The head of Ryerson University's Indigenous Governance program told ICTMN that Spence's hunger strike is emblematic of indigenous oppression, and resistance, across Canada.

“Each day that she does not eat, she is slowly dying. And this is what is happening to First Nations in this country,” Pamela Palmater said. “The purposeful, chronic underfunding of essential human services like housing, water, sanitation and education has resulted in our pre-mature deaths by up to 20 years, youth suicides, over-representation in child and family services, prisons and hundreds of murdered and missing women. Chief Spence's pain represents the pain of our peoples. She is a true warrior spirit who is humble, determined and prepared to die for our peoples. We are all inspired by her strength and stand beside her in solidarity.”

And while Harper has not expressed any move to meet with Spence, Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau criticized her fast as a setting a “bad example” for young aboriginals.

“Obviously, her health should be first and foremost, top of mind to everyone, including myself,” Brazeau told APTN. “But having said that, I personally don’t believe in Canada, in 2012, that is the way to go, and I don’t really believe it sets a good example for young aboriginal youth. If people don’t take advantage of our democracy and those processes in place, well that is unfortunate for those who choose not to.”

Aboriginal Affairs minister John Duncan told ICTMN that he is also worried about Spence's health, but insisted he has attempted to contact her to meet, to no avail. Spence said she will only give up her fast upon meeting with Harper and the Governor General, representing the Queen.

“Since she began her hunger strike I have indicated that I would be pleased to meet with her,” Duncan told ICTMN. “I have also attempted to reach her by phone several times. I have expressed my concern for Chief Spence’s health. We remain committed to the belief that the best way to achieve our shared goal of healthier, more self-sufficient First Nation communities is by working together.”

As activists staged a second weekend of Idle No More rallies—dubbed the Round Dance Revolution because of thousands participating in traditional circle dances in public—people at many rallies prayed and sang for Spence.

“She's a great inspiration,” Krazie Nish, a Gitxsan and Mohawk activist, told ICTMN. “She's led people across Turtle Island—not just in Canada—who are doing their own hunger strikes in support of what Chief Spence is doing.”

Likewise, Anishnaabe broadcaster Wab Kinew described Spence's action as “awe-inspiring.”

“It definitely seems as though the world has chosen her to be a catalyst or a primary actor in bringing some of these issues to the forefront,” he told ICTMN. “She's a special person, and I pray for her well-being.”

Radek told ICTMN that though Spence is still strong two weeks in, her entourage seemed anxious about her survival. Meanwhile, other Canadian aboriginals have joined Spence, including 72-year-old Cree Emil Bell, of Cole Bay First Nation, Saskatchewan, and 51-year old Manitoba resident Raymond Robinson, according to CBC News. With Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak warning that if Spence dies, “the long silent war drums of our people must ring loudly in the ears of everyone,” as APTN reported, Radek concurred there would be widespread upheaval if Harper fails to meet the fasting chief.

“The only thing we can do is hope and pray that the Prime Minister finds the heart,” Radek said. “How in the world can this man, on December 25, sit across the table from his wife and family, going ahead with his dinner, when he knows all he needs to do is talk to this woman who is starving? How can he, with a clear conscience, even think about Christmas dinner, when so many of our people and our children are starving? There's going to be blood on his hands. What's she's fighting are crimes against humanity. If she dies, I believe there 's going to be a huge, huge revolution. People are angry. We're all tired of living the way we have.”

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on

Cheif Theresa Spence is jot sending a bad message to Aboriginal youth, but an inspiring message to fight for your people, your rights and take action! How many people take such strong action like this.

Submitted by Anonymous on

These are extremely good actions and comments on native life. Too bad it comes as people sought to look into corruption among the chiefs.

This certainly diverts attention away from the mismanagement of money.designated for natives of the reserves and all going to the band councils and their friends.

The best defense is always a good offense. In this case point out what government hasn't done.

3 cheers to Chief Spence.

Submitted by Anonymous on

It isn't only in Canada but all over the world. There are thousands of people in trouble and it isn't as simply they don't want to work. We want to work we want to earn our way but their are no jobs and the money goes to bigger government and big business. It's time to put up or shut up. We will rise above because we are survivors.

Submitted by Anonymous on

We the people of all tribal nations need to unite in prayer this day, for our relative who is now in her 14th day of fasting...she remains diligent in her sacrifice of self so that conditions may be made better by her actions. She believes in her heart that is willing and ready to die for her belief. For all peoples across this nation who are experiencing the same hardships. We must pray that our Creator give her the strength and courage to continue until she accomplishes her goal. Pray that her heart be strong for the peoples of all Red Nations. We stand with our relatives to the north and we stand strong and ready.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I pray that the Great Spirit clears a path to victory for Chief Spence.
The stars read that the universe is in her favor!!
To me she has become the milestone in this movement for her people, I feel her courage deep down in my heart.

Submitted by Anonymous on

She is a great spirit who knows when the earth and its people hurt.I admire her ,she will do fine here on the planet just as she has been doing on other planes. I would like to mention that water from the roots/base of tree springs will give her what ever she wants or needs to do. But than again she knows this.

Submitted by Anonymous on

So many people trying to dissuade the guilt they feel for being such assholes for so long. Pardon my slang but there is no way to sugar coat this. They are trying to sound like they are so willing to meet, but come on, where were they months and years ago? Screw you and your trying to not feel guilty- you ARE

Submitted by Anonymous on

ChIef Theresa Spence, you need to stay healthy, and stand and fight for the sake of your family and your people. Placing your life in the hands of our Politicians is not the answer. "IDLE NO MORE" has momentum and now this movement requires Leadership to take it to the next level. You have to play part in that. You life currently hinges on Government "non response" policies with regard to suicide. You have proven having not had a response exactly what kind of individuals you are dealing with. They don't care, but Canada and other Nations that follow do care. Allow yourself to grab a lifeline now so that you can continue your work and lead your people to resolve with the help of a majority of Canadian citizens. The Creator has given you the gift of Leadership. PLEASE.....for the sake of your family and the cause, regroup, re-acquire your health and stay here to help make a change. Reconsider your actions and play part in leading your people to victory.

Submitted by Anonymous on

ChIef Theresa Spence, you need to stay healthy, and stand and fight for the sake of your family and your people. Placing your life in the hands of our Politicians is not the answer. "IDLE NO MORE" has momentum and now this movement requires Leadership to take it to the next level. You have to play part in that. You life currently hinges on Government "non response" policies with regard to suicide. You have proven having not had a response exactly what kind of individuals you are dealing with. They don't care, but Canada and other Nations that follow do care. Allow yourself to grab a lifeline now so that you can continue your work and lead your people to resolve with the help of a majority of Canadian citizens. The Creator has given you the gift of Leadership. PLEASE.....for the sake of your family and the cause, regroup, re-acquire your health and stay to help make a change. Please reconsider your actions ....

Submitted by Anonymous on

The power of Ghandi and so unto you.... On May 8, 1932, Mahatma Gandhi started a 21-day hunger strike in protest against the British authorities in India.

Mahatma Gandhi was an Indian nationalist leader who fought for India’s independence through a non-violent revolution. Gandhi was born into a Hindu family in the town of Porbandar in today’s state of Gujarat on October 2, 1869. He spent his entire life fighting against the British government in India.
In 1932 Gandhi started a new wave of civil disobedience against the British. He was arrested twice when he resorted to hunger strike, which was a very successful method of fighting the British. If Gandhi had died, there was the possibility of the revolution to have spread outside of India as well.

Submitted by Mr realistic on

Show me where 98 million dollars went in that community and I'll show support until then let her starve.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau in my opinion, is an "apple" a "sell-out" and most Native People that I know do not consider him as one of us!

Submitted by Anonymous on

Well said. The prime minister who killed acheif, hope he likes the legacy cause we will never forget.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Prayers and support from Turtle Island for Chief Spence.here in Nebraska. Tonight we will be demostrating a peaceful protest to the "Christian Government of the Prime Minister." But remember my dear relatives Christianity never loved the Indian. That explains how the Prime Minister can eat without conscience. Historically nothing has changed. I never want to be "civilized".

Submitted by Anonymous on

Prayers and support from Turtle Island for Chief Spence.here in Nebraska. Tonight we will be demostrating a peaceful protest to the "Christian Government of the Prime Minister." But remember my dear relatives Christianity never loved the Indian. That explains how the Prime Minister can eat without conscience. Historically nothing has changed. I never want to be "civilized".

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