Last week, Chief Theresa Spence announced that she was ending her six-week-long hunger strike which began on December 11. Chief Spence initially started the strike in protest against the Canadian government’s latest omnibus budget Bill C-45, and in solidarity with the grassroots Aboriginal rights movement known as Idle No More.
Many Aboriginals including Chief Spence feel elements of Bill C-45 threaten treaty rights and the environment in a manner that is unacceptable to their cultural beliefs which are inextricably tied to nature. However, as Idle No More and the hunger strike progressed, the protests took on a much greater meaning to many First Nations peoples who feel the bill is one hurtful act too many by the government against Aboriginals.
Under the backdrop of Canada’s history of residential schools, along with the current conditions of squalor on native reserves across the country, many Aboriginal youth have taken great inspiration from Chief Spence and the Idle No More movement. And as educational demonstrations such as round dances and protest marches grow, so too does their confidence in their message.
However, the question that has been the focus of media attention is whether the movement is dependent on Chief Spence, who has up until this point, served as its poster child. It remains unclear whether the end of her hunger strike will diminish the momentum of Idle No More, as it did the Occupy movement when the tents came down.
In an interview with CBC radio Morning North Chief Shining Turtle of Whitefish River expressed his belief that this was not the end of the movement but the beginning, as Canadian and aboriginals should start to seek “a national vision for our relationship”.
Such sentiments were echoed by Sean Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) following Chief Spence’s annoucement. “This is different from all those times before” he said, referring to past Aboriginal rights movements. Like Chief Shining Turtle, Atelo made a plea to “acquire a deeper understanding between aboriginals and Canadians.”
Most Aboriginal leaders promised to exert continued pressure on the government to reassess Bill C-45 and include First Nations in that conversation. In addition, they also seek to address the impoverished conditions that exist on many reserves across Canada. In negotiating the end of Chief Spence’s hunger strike with other Aboriginal leaders along with interim Liberal Party leader Bob Rae, a 13 point document of demands for the government was drawn up. Journalists at both Chief Spence and Atleo’s press conferences have called the document a “wish list”, suggesting it was unrealistic to be accepted by the government at this point in time.
In response to the document and press questions, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of his Conservative party have reiterated their commitment to meeting with the AFN in the coming weeks to discuss Aboriginal relations but have clearly avoided any suggestion Bill C-45 might be on the agenda.