Idle No More

Lana Payne
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She has inspired so many, with humble courage, with quiet determination, with dignity and with steely resolve.

Some might call her hunger strike an act of desperation, a desperate act to save her community, her people. But it has become so much more than that.

Chief Theresa Spence has inspired her fellow First Nations citizens and so many more to “idle no more.” She has inspired them to dance and drum, to stand up, to speak out and to be one. To be peaceful, to use non-violence, because, in her words, the children are watching.

And by mobilizing young people, Chief Theresa Spence has done something great. She has given her people hope. Hope is such a powerful motivator. It is the foundation, the catalyst for change. And in the face of such desperation, such audacity, such humility, such dignity, once wonders how a prime minister, even one as taciturn as Stephen Harper, can continue to ignore her pleas.

Chief Spence has known adversity in her life, as a survivor of the residential school system. She writes for the http://www.idlenomore1. website that Christmas is an especially difficult time for her, having lost her mother at the age of nine on Christmas Day in 1951. The administrators of the residential school system barred her from attending her mother’s funeral.

And now, half a century later, the chief of a small northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat — which was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this year because of its substandard and shoddy housing conditions — has galvanized First Nations peoples with a single act of defiance, of desperation.

She started her hunger strike on Dec. 11. Chief Theresa Spence fasts on Victoria Island in the shadow of Parliament and by doing so has shown that sometimes when you feel the most powerless, it can also be the time when your courage reaches new heights.

She has said clearly and without hesitation that she is willing to die for her people. Such fearlessness.

Tired of feeling powerless, she took this grave act to bring attention to the hopelessness felt by so many in her community and in First Nations communities across the country.

Perhaps the latest undemocratic Harper government omnibus bill was the last straw, or perhaps it was something much closer to home: the plight of a single mother, living with her children in deplorable developing-world conditions in her own community. Perhaps it was years of frustration, injustice, contempt.

The problems facing First Nations people and their communities are profoundly complex. They will not be solved overnight or in one meeting between First Nations leaders and the prime minister.

The government’s latest omnibus bill (Bill C-45) is viewed by First Nations as a violation of long-standing treaty rights as well as in violation of various articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to participate in decision-making in matters that affect their rights through representatives chosen by them.

But in typical Harper government fashion, no one was consulted on Bill 45, the second nasty omnibus budget bill rammed through Parliament this year.

Is a hunger strike the answer? I honestly do not know, but then I have not known Chief Spence’s anguish. After all, she says her act is not about “anger, it is about pain.”

But I do so worry about this brave woman who starves herself while waiting for a meeting with the prime minister. I worry because Stephen Harper is a very stubborn man.

And Chief Spence is asking him, for once, to govern with his heart. I fear, and so want to be proven wrong, that this is not possible for this prime minister.

As I write this, Chief Theresa Spence had spent 15 days, including Christmas Day, on a hunger strike. By the time you read this, more days will have passed.

It is impossible not to compare the differences between this woman and the man she is trying to meet. She inspires hope. He trades in fear. She unites, while he divides.

And yet, this prime minister may have finally met his match. A match made out of desperation, hope, courage and a whole lot of heart.

I add my voice to the thousands calling on the prime minister to meet with Chief Spence.

Chief Theresa Spence’s act of hope reminds me of something written by Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Idle no more.

Lana Payne is president of the

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at

Her column returns Jan. 12.

Organizations: First Nations, United Nations, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Northern Ontario, Attawapiskat, Victoria Island

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Recent comments

  • Marie Poirier
    January 07, 2013 - 21:35

    Fasting means no food only water. Liquid fasting is not fasting as U can drink Glucerna, Ensure etc. Therefore she is well nourishing not weaking fast. Head games only work for Journalists as they report for selling papers & to keep thier jobs. Sad for Canada or whats left of it. Proper reporting would have opened the $$$ game at the beginning & not fed into the headgames. Your people starving while U were given $$ to help your own is ruining your honour & the Native honour which always was there. Now its gone How Sad & then the idlenomore uses that to move their headgames. SAD.

  • Dexter
    December 31, 2012 - 19:06

    I just don't understand how native bands can receive millions apon millions of dollars and still blame the government. They mismanaged the money, period. What I also don't understand is this whole "nation within a nation" stuff. If you declare yourself a nation, take care of your own, stop asking my nation for more handouts, because its never enough. Times have changed, it's time to integrate into society. Like work, use public schools, pay into the same system the rest of the country uses. Nation within a nation? I'd just be happy the landing immigrants didn't wipe out aboriginals, and I don't mean that in a rude way, but look south of our borders, most of them were. Treaties are old, misused, manipulated.

  • RevCo
    December 30, 2012 - 19:12

    Just because I dont agree with this so called "idle no more" movement doesnt mean I'm racist so please all those who support this idiocracy... stop playing the racist card. Just my 2 cents!

  • pete
    December 30, 2012 - 15:03

    "She has inspired so many, with humble courage, with quiet determination, with dignity and with steely resolve." Apparently you haven't been reading the majority of canadians opinions on this ridiculous show she's putting on.

  • g graham
    December 29, 2012 - 17:39


  • Chris Roberts
    December 29, 2012 - 16:35

    The time for hunger strikes was over two-hundred years ago. Idle No More take heed. Nothing short of seizing government buildings is needed. Nothing short of reoccupying ancient lands is needed. Nothing short of provoking an armed conflict with the army is absolutely needed. Where is your Wounded Knee Idle No More? Chris Roberts

  • Rick B
    December 29, 2012 - 15:23

    The minister has already stated he would meet with her. The department has also consulted with the First Nations on education. Bill C-45 does indeed remove some of the protection from the waterways, however nobody mentions that there is also other federal and provincial laws and regs on the books already protecting those waters.C-45 eliminated redundant regs. Of course throw the residential schools in the mix and of course nobody mentions the success stories, not all were bad. Its much better to repeat all the bad stuff for press. Do you really think if the schools were that bad, they wouldn't had been closed down until 1996? What happened to all the MILLIONS that were wasted on the reserves when the government as they requested were put in charge to look after their own finances. Of course the Band Chiefs with their $200,000 saleries when their own people don't have decent housing.So who gets the blame for this and must bail them out time and time again, the government of course. If they simply would take some responsibility for there own actions, things and attitudes would be better for them. Its obvious Lana Payne had axe to grind with Prime Minister Harper and is using the unfortunate actions of Mrs. Spence to further her agenda.

  • Ken Collis
    December 29, 2012 - 09:36

    "Idle No More" is a movement that we can all learn from. In the future it will prove to be the only way to take the government ownership from big companies and give it back to the people. We will be forced to join together and protest for better treatment from all forms of government. Would the fence in St. John's Hr. go up if everyone who enjoys the freedom of a stroll along the harbourfront were to gather day after day, blocking traffic, disrupting council mettings, etc...? Would the provincial government be willing to have Nalcor and the province use thier income from Muskrat Falls to help the ratepayers pay for the project if we all refused to pay our electricty bills until we were treated with that kind of respect? Remember that in five years the doubling of your power bills, combined with higher intrest rates, will be the start of the housing bubble bursting. If we were to join the native population in the current protest against the omnibus bill, would the Harper Government be able to ignore us all? In the future we will all have to join together in defeating the corperate governance in place, and the future could be now.

  • Pieface
    December 29, 2012 - 09:30

    Mrs. Payne, here's some food for thought. The efforts of Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan to appease and to achieve a face-to-face meeting with Chief Spence have been loftily dismissed by her as insufficient unto the day. Chief Spence, incapable of directing her attention to the well-being of her northern Ontario reserve, preferring to consider ineptitude and nepotism and a little corruption as evidence of her good intentions, insists on holding Canada's feet to the fire of her indignation. "Given your willingness to accept meetings now I am hoping that you will consider my offer, as a Minister of the Crown, to meet or speak with you by phone to discuss the issues you have raised publicly" appealed Mr. Duncan to the truculent Ms. Spence. But no; as Senator Patrick Brazeau observed ..."it seems that she doesn't want to meet with government officials or government representatives, but certainly she's open to meeting with NDP members and Liberal Party members." Nothing will do to satisfy Ms. Spence's sense of outraged entitlement but to meet personally with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor-General David Johnston. None others need apply for they will be curtly, robustly and rudely rejected. From Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan to Kenora MP Greg Rickford, Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau and presumably others not persuasively elite enough for her taste. So her taste remains with fish broth, lemon water and medicinal teas. For she, as a chief of her nation must meet with the chief of the Canadian nation. The Idle No More troupe states that it is convinced that the government's attempts to make changes to the Indian Act, which the First Nations communities, the government and the Assembly of First Nations all consider to be inept and failed, will erode their traditional rights. Chief Spence rants that changes must not take place without close consultation with First Nations. The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs sent missives to the Assembly of First Nations and individual chiefs, that "First Nations can make recommendations on the department website as to what they'd like to see in terms of a First Nations Education act. We will be doing regional consultations in the new year and have committed to sharing the draft legislation with First Nations." Misconceptions with respect to on-reserve "land designation" which appear in the Conservative omnibus budget bill do not reflect the reality that "These amendments are only about leasing and have nothing to do with surrendering reserve lands." They are meant to produce a benefit for First Nations, "to economically benefit from their lands and to manage them according to their bylaws". As for legislation that would require chiefs to make public their salaries and expenses, that move was propelled by "grassroots" members of First Nations, themselves hugely disgruntled at the autocratic method by which their reserves' entitlements are monopolized by their band councils. "The sad reality is that there are a lot of people who would like to meet with the prime minister but ... there is a chain of command within our parliamentary process", commented Senator Brazeau. "The minister involved in this particular issue has extended his invitation and has opened his door to meeting with Chief Spence, and I think that she should think twice and perhaps think hard about the opportunity that is being presented to her." Mentioning as well, in his considered opinion, that Chief Spence's defiance of reasonable behaviour sets a poor example for aboriginal youth, "especially in Canada, living in a democratic society where there's a lot of processes and procedures in place for all Canadians - of all creeds, religion, race and colour - to have their voices heard."

  • Wejitu
    December 29, 2012 - 09:17

    Sorry, but last news is that Chief Spence is Fasting in an effort to make the Prime Minister to meet with Indigenous leaders across Canada and this time to have meaningful dialogue with real results. She is not Fasting in an effort for him to meet with her. Having said that I do also support her in her efforts, even though it means I could be supporting her death.

  • John Jeddore
    December 29, 2012 - 08:53

    Wela'lin for taking the time to write on this issue. I am very glad you mentioned her time spent in residential school - many people think of RS as a dark spot in the distant history when in reality, the last RS didn't close until the 1990's. I read comments on this massive movement and so many seem to come from anger and ignorance, but if these people simply read about treaties, the contents of bill C-45 and the lack of communication with First Nation leaders on it, then it would be much easier to see where we come from on this. So many comments just read, "we should all be equal, those people should not have more rights than us", and they don't realize that with respect to treaty obligations, we do not have more rights. Treaties were an agreement between aboriginal people and settlers which gave them the right to utilize the land, profit from it and thrive upon this country which was originally inhabited by us, and in exchange, we received certain rights and became a significant member at the decision table when it came to big issues affecting this land (in this case, Bill C-45), however that is not so. This bill greatly decreases the number of protected waterways, allows changes to the Indian Act (originally an assimilation tool created by the Canadian gov't which is still in use today) without any First Nation consultation, legal rights for lands on reserves (federally recognized first nation communities) can be given to non-aboriginal people, violations of treaty rights to education, along with so many more changes that go against treaty obligations and the UN's declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. We are trying to become treaty equals in the government's eyes, which inherently should be so. However, given the current administrations lack of response to the numerous significant demonstrations and Saqamaw Spence's hunger strike, the outlook seems bleak. There are a number of Mi'kmaq on a 4 day hunger strike in solidarity with Chief Spence in Millbrook First Nation and Eskasoni First Nation. They are currently in day 2.