A Canadian First Nations chief in the third week of a hunger strike is urging Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to “open his heart” and meet with native leaders angered by his policies as small, impromptu protests spread beyond Canada’s borders.
Chief Theresa Spence, from the remote northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat, has been fasting since Dec. 11 and has vowed to continue until Harper commits to talks on a litany of complaints, including new legislation that she says will harm native lands.
“He’s a person with a heart, but he needs to open his heart. I’m sure he has faith in the Creator himself and for him to delay this, it’s very disrespectful, I feel, to not even meet with us,” she said in an interview in Ottawa.
Spence is at the center of an unprecedented Canadian First Nations protest movement called “Idle No More” that began with four women in the province of Saskatchewan raising awareness about the budget legislation the Conservative government passed earlier this month.
The legislation, which has also been criticized by opposition politicians, reduces environmental protection for lakes and rivers and makes it easier to sell reserve lands.
Aided by Facebook and Twitter, their protest proliferated and is now drawing comparisons to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
“Flash mob” protests with traditional dancing and drumming have erupted in dozens of shopping malls across North America. There have been rallies, marches and highway blockades by First Nations groups across Canada and supporters have emerged from as far away as New Zealand and the Middle East.
The campaign aims to draw attention to dismal conditions faced by many of the country’s 1.2 million natives, including poverty, unsafe drinking water, inadequate housing, addiction and high suicide rates.
Camped out in a traditional teepee within sight of Ottawa’s parliament buildings, Spence appeared weak and short of breath, but resolute on Thursday, day 17 of her hunger strike, staying warm by a wood stove as a snow storm raged outside.
“I know it’s hard for people to understand what I’m doing, but it’s for this pain that’s been going on too long with our people,” she said, sitting on her makeshift bed and flanked by supporters.
Blankets hung from the inside walls of the teepee and a faint aroma of cedar rose from branches spread on the ground. Spence is consuming only water, fish broth and a medicinal tea.
“It has to stop and I’m willing to suffer until the meeting goes on. Even if I don’t make it, people will continue my journey. Like I keep saying, I’m willing to die for the people of First Nations because the suffering is too much,” Spence said.
Spence was in the headlines last year when a housing crisis in her community forced people to live in tents in temperatures of minus-40oC.
The Canadian government suggested taxpayer funds were being squandered and appointed an outside adviser to oversee the town’s finances, a move seen as insensitive and later rejected by the courts.
At the core of Spence’s protest are what First Nations groups say are unfulfilled promises by the federal and provincial governments dating back to treaties in the early 1900s that would give the groups a stake in natural resources development, among other benefits.
Many native communities are affected by mining developments or projects like Enbridge Inc’s planned C$6 billion (US$5.9 billion) Northern Gateway Pipeline. The project, which has yet to win government approval, would take oil sands crude to the Pacific coast.