Hunger strikes and redress for wrongs done

Bob Wakeham
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My sense of priorities this past week became abundantly clear, if not selfish: of all the news circulating throughout the province and the country, it was the end of the hockey lock-out that was most important to me.

Cynicism about billionaires trying to outlast millionaires evaporated. All was forgiven. I realized I couldn’t wait to hear the opening music for “Hockey Night in Canada” and the archival recording of the iconic voice of Foster Hewitt — “Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland.”   

However, in a distant second place in my lineup of crucial matters was that well-publicized hunger strike taking place upalong, an event that earned such status not just because I stayed up all night in deep contemplation about its implications for the country (which you’d expect of someone of my consciousness-raising nature).

Nope, it was there in my noggin because I couldn’t help but wonder that if a hunger strike worked so well for Chief Theresa Spence and her followers, why couldn’t it function just as well for Kathy Dunderdale and her half-million constituents?  

Now the hunger strike in Ottawa is not exactly in the league of the legendary Bobby Sands, the IRA activist who starved himself to death back in 1981, along with nine of his comrades (dramatized, for the information of all you movie addicts out there, in a film called “Hunger,” one of the most under-rated flicks of recent years, in my humble estimation).

Now that was a hunger strike.

And Chief Spence didn’t look any worse for wear, from what I saw on the boob tube the other night, not exactly emaciated after a few weeks of surviving on fish broth in a tepee set up on an island in the Ottawa River (the Toronto Star says there have been media reports that she spends a few hours a day in a hotel, sleeping and showering).

She also seemed unfazed by an audit released the other day that revealed she and the Attawapiskat Band Council will not be receiving awards for competence in the way they have handled millions of dollars in funding from Ottawa.  

But Chief Spence had a bottom line and it was reached: Prime Minister Stephen Harper felt the pressure (no matter what he said to the contrary about the influence the hunger strike had on his decision-making) and agreed to meet with native leaders Jan. 11. She later declined to attend unless the governor general was there as well.

I’m still not sure what Spence and the First Nations leaders are actually seeking; their demands were vague, but anything but minor, merely and simply a correction and redress of every conceivable form of mistreatment they’ve received at the hands of federal governments for the last several hundred years, or something to that effect.       

Now, here in Newfoundland we can’t go back a couple of centuries to cite grievances against Canada, but many would argue that March 31, 1949 might be a starting point.

Kathy Dunderdale, of course, could set her sights much lower,

at least initially, and launch her hunger strike the next time Stephen Harper avoids her like the plague or when His Right-wing Holiness forces her to beg for an audience.

No solids until he agrees to meet.

But once he’s in her company, she could reach for the moon.  

If the First Nations can cry for justice, why can’t Newfoundland? The aboriginal peoples are the oldest residents of Canada, but we’re the newest, having been dragged as a nation kicking and screaming (or at least with ambivalence, if you so wish) into the Canadian bosom 64 years ago.

And Newfoundland could be just as generic in its demands as Chief Spence has been: Dunderdale could holler that we’ve been done in by the Canadian government, we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.  

Obviously, a tepee would not

be the appropriate site for Dunderdale’s hunger strike, but a temporary shed, built on the front lawn of Confederation Building, would give the stunt that Newfoundland flavour. And like Chief Spence, Dunderdale could attract a steady stream of guests for a cup of Tetley, a bowl of moose broth, and a monstrous plate of publicity.  

Spence had at least two former prime ministers making visitations — Joe Clark and Paul Martin — but Dunderdale might have to be content with, say, John Crosbie, who could get all dickied up in his sealskin attire and play his ongoing role of the gatcher for the media. (“Gatcher,” in case you’re wondering, is a Newfoundland word for show-off; it’s what my Grandfather Wakeham called my dad whenever the latter was playing the entertaining clown while growing up on Notre Dame Street in St. John’s: “Stop your gatching, Gerald,” he would demand.)

Back to our list of visitors: Danny Boy could drop by, and give Kathy some more pointers on the handling of his legacy, the “file” on Muskrat Falls.    

David Cochrane could have his CBC “On Point” program produced from there, a great promotional gimmick, especially if the hunger strike occurs during the television ratings period. What better way to grab big numbers than having a panel discussion in a shed covered in tartan, watching as the premier sheds pound after pound?

And if the hunger strike happened to take place during the holiday season, the CBC might want to consider having its turkey drive launched at the shed (although the sight of hundreds of turkeys paraded in front of a gut-founded Dunderdale might not be entirely fitting).

Let’s see what else might fit the bill for our local hunger strike:   

Peter Penashue could pay a visit, naturally enough. He could obviously bring greetings from Chief Spence and volunteer some of his endless free time to help Kathy’s Cause.

Penashue wouldn’t have to say a word, which would be right up his alley.

And Greg Malone could pop by and read excerpts from his book “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders.”

Malone might even have gained inspiration from the Idle No More movement taking place throughout North America and start his own version of the campaign for Newfoundland.  

He might call it “Screwed No More.” A hunger strike by the premier and “Screwed No More”: we can’t miss.  


Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: First Nations, Attawapiskat Band Council, CBC On Point

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Ottawa United States Ottawa River Notre Dame Street Muskrat Falls North America

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Recent comments

  • ginn
    January 14, 2013 - 18:07

    The Adams family,as usual, see not the real commentary behind BW's column. They feel that the $100 million plus dollars given to fish soup Spence which she used to enrich herself and friends while her people live in hovels (unlike her abode) is money well spent. She also has banned media from her reservation. The comparison to the hockey league fight over division of spoils is rather an apt one. Maybe the Adams family miss the point.

  • EDfromRED
    January 13, 2013 - 12:09

    I remain suspicious of Chief Spence and her bands sketchy accounting practices, but my overall sympathies will always reside with the struggles of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada...and throughout the world. Any history you read of North/South America contains countless atrocities, genocides, broken treaties, eager abuse by those of European ethnic background, who still hold power, in an attempt to willfully destroy the culture and lives of aboriginals. And when you hear about the un-investigated/unsolved murders of aboriginal women in BC, constant negative news focus on aboriginals, its all too plain to see how little value many people give the lives of natives.

  • Winston Adams
    January 12, 2013 - 14:37

    Bob , your piece has some humourous content. But there is nothing funny rating the Idle No More Movement behind hockey in importance. One is entertainment, the other is justice and issues of poverty and survival. Yes there are parallels between aboriginal mistreatment and that of nflders. They result from the same colonial class system of the British Empire--- a system that you appear to be proud that your ancestors fought for, including Beaumont Hamel.It seems our forefathers here learned some of this approach from the British and applied it to the aboriginals here and in Labrador. Spence nor the Chiefs are founders of this movement. It is a grassroots movement. It seems to me that the isolated small population of aboriginals ( like the nfld rural fishing settlements) have been easy prey. The colonial attitude government could always depend on swaying the chiefs despite the overall negative effect of any policy on the population. The aboriginals trust neither the chiefs nor the Federal government. Why is it that everyone who comes to Canada can prosper , but not the aboriginals? I think the essay on Rock Solid Politics called the Ugly Canadian says a lot. Your piece reminds me of this: Twenty years ago my wife's neice was an exchange student to the one of the Prarie provinces. The issue of aboriginals was a topic in class. She was asked how such matters are considered in Nfld. She replied " we don't have any problem, we killed all the Indians in Nfld." When no one else thought it was funny, she said she felt so ashamed.She was referring to the Beothic ,of course. The Idle No More Movement has resulted from the peoples desperation, and it's strength enabled by social media. Many of your pieces are humourous, and I gnerally enjoy them. Now a better parallel might be if some mayor of our small dying fishing community, maybe Hopedale or Nain ,( there are dosens of places that are similar), set up a tent by the confederation bldg to fast. But not many laughs in such a comparison. On the whole your piece is shameful, and makes me wonder if you would qualify, despite your good looks, to be a Ugly Canadian? Maybe it just me. I'm aware of too many atrocities and injustices against aboriginals to apprecate your flavour of humour here. But like our leaders, many of their's lack crebility. On that there is some similarity. Perhaps our leaders here need their feet held to the fire, given the Secercy Act, and all the disregard for democratic fairness.We have had our share of injustices, but it pales in comparison to aboriginals, in my opinion

  • Maurice E. Adams
    January 12, 2013 - 08:25

    I think you do the Aboriginal people a disservice by making light, not only Chief Spence and the Idle No More movement but more importantly the injustice that Canada has, and still is, inflicting on First Nations' people --- hundreds of thousands of which are still living well below the poverty line. As I understand it, the original treaties were between sovereign entities (nations) --- Britain and the various First Nations people. Our Constitution upholds those inherent Aboriginal rights and the onus is on the "Crown"/federal government to negotiate in good faith and to thereby give meaningful effect to those rights. I look forward to reading a more thoughtful, fair-minded article.

  • Brad Cabana
    January 12, 2013 - 07:46

    It's funny how you know who wrote an article before you get to the bottom to read the name. It's mentalities like Wakeham's that cause the rest of the country not to take Newfoundland and Labrador politics and issues seriously. Denigrating the struggle of one people to illustrate your own is just...pathetic really. It is an ALL to common theme in the provincial discourse.