HarperCons play hunger games

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike over Bill C-45 can't be ignored, despite the efforts of PM's spinners to portray her month-long fast as theatrics


There’s no better evidence of the sad Us vs. Them attitude poisoning what’s left of political dignity in Canada than the vitriol being spewed in conservative circles over Attawaspikat First Nation chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike.

We have respected national newspaper columnists (or at least Christie Blatchford) calling Spence’s hunger strike and demands for a meeting with the Prime Minister, an act of terrorism. All the drumming and smudging to coincide with that effort, and that the Idle No More movement that smells like a refried Occupy, are mere theatrics to opinion shape-shifters in the conservative press.

Yes, there’s allegedly an even more nefarious plot being concocted by Spence, First Nations leaders and their white supporters. Namely, to cover up the corruption on native reserves, the raping and pillaging of the national treasury by no-good welfare cheats of our hard-earned taxpayers dollars. Don’t look now but the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation has begun a PR campaign to expose the six-figure salaries chiefs are raking in. Perhaps they should be concentrating their efforts on MPs’ expense accounts and the government’s refusal to release details of those, after 10 months of trying, by the Auditor General.

Yet there’s even bigger fish to fry. It’s those natives who’ve got it real good, collecting welfare (as if that’s something to aspire to) and living off the avails, as it were, of Canadians’ good graces, and tax dollars, most of that being pocketed by unscrupulous chiefs.

It’s not really a hunger strike Spence is on, anyway. It’s more like a diet given her daily intake of fish broth and herbal tea. Besides, she can stand to lose a few pounds, all that living high off the hog she’s been doing. And so the narrative goes…

In another time, the ignorance too profound for words that has followed Spence’s efforts to focus attention on the HarperCons’ stripping of Aboriginal treaty rights through Bill-45, would have been called racism, and it has been by some. But it somehow passes for fair comment in the new normal, even if it is a convenient, and tired, portrayal of the state of native affairs.

Spence knows that all too well. Last year, the feds tried to blame the Attawapiskat chief for the housing crisis on her reserve. They appointed a third-party manager to oversee the band’s financial affairs, a move of last resort taken against reserves that are found in default of their Comprehensive Financial Agreement with the feds. All reserves sign one.

But the Federal Court of Canada found otherwise. There was in fact no financial mismanagement in Attawapiskat that led to the housing shortage there.

Justice Michael Phelan called the appointment of the third-party monitor by the feds “unreasonable.” It smelled more like payback.

After the housing crisis made international headlines, the images of people living in plywood shacks and using a bucket to go to the bathroom, the feds had to do something to make it look like the generous and rich government of Canada, the envy of the Western world for steering us clear of a worldwide depression, weren’t the ones leaving natives to freeze in Third World conditions.

Turns out the third-party manager the feds appointed was a former adviser to the Attawapiskat First Nation that had been fired by the band’s council.

Still, the stories surfaced last week, as Spence’s hunger strike came to a head and her demands to meet with the PM became harder to ignore, of the alleged corruption on her reserve, about her boyfriend finagling a job allegedly under the table, thanks to her influence on the band council.

This morning’s headlines included info from leaked government sources of an audit that’s allegedly “severely critical” of the Attawapiskat chief. My guess is that will show what anyone who understands how funding for reserves works that money earmarked by the feds for certain projects had to be used for other things, like essential services.

It’s an ongoing reality for have-nots among First Nations. Those reserves that don’t have a casino, for example, or economic development to bolster the bottom-line are faced with tough choices, often having to resort to using money set aside for projects like a local ice rink for essential services.

Truth is, there are tight federal controls on reserve spending. No major capital expenditure can take place without it first being rubberstamped by the federal government. Now the feds want to go one step further with C-45 – opening up reserve land for development without the majority say so.

When news came down Friday afternoon that the PM had agreed to meet with First Nations leaders on January 11, the statement issued by the PMO took pains to make clear the meeting would take place with Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leaders. Spence was nowhere mentioned.

Instead, the PM’s statement characterized the meeting as a continuation of ongoing talks with First Nations that started more than a year ago at the January 2012 Crown-First Nations Gathering, and “in the spirit of ongoing dialogue.”

At first, it wasn’t clear if Spence would be among the contingent meeting with the PM. The 24th was a meeting date mentioned in early reports, until Spence protested that she may not be able to continue her hunger strike until then.

Not all First Nations leaders share the problems of Spence’s reserve, or her mistrust of the PM. Some have done well under the Conservatives. On the Indian affairs file the HarperCons have been remarkably effective in playing the divide and conquer game.

There has been some symbolic recognition of First Nations concerns. The PM apologized for the Residential Schools horrors, winning praise for that move even though the commission set up to reconcile native claims never truly delivered the promised financial compensation to the victims.

The Tories have also managed to attract native candidates to the fold, including prominent MPs, to put a different face on a party stacked with former Reformers who’ve historically had a hostile approach to native self-determination. The Harper government has also found a willing partner, if not accomplice, in Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo, who pushed conciliation with the feds when he was elected chief in 2009.

He’s singing a different tune today, decrying the lack of movement on economic development and other issues promised by the HarperCons after that Crown-First Nations Gathering the PM mentioned in his statement when he agreed to meet with native leaders last week.

For all involved, the burgeoning grassroots movement growing around Spence – one that includes both native and non-native Canadians – is becoming harder to ignore.

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