Over the years, leaders from northern First Nation communities like Attawapiskat have fought hard for many of the basic services and programs that most people in Canada take for granted. However, I can understand my peoples’ frustration when it feels like progress is being reversed and we are losing what little we gained. Many difficult issues plague our Native communities: including chronic health problems, unemployment, addictions, violence and suicide. The sad truth is these issues are actually a small part of a larger story across Canada; one in which many Native communities are fighting for proper water services, education, jobs, health services and decent housing.
A month ago, Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence decided to draw attention to these issues by taking part in a hunger strike in Ottawa. I can understand her reasons for resorting to such a drastic measure to shine a spotlight on the plight of our people. When First Nation leaders are not consulted on legislation that affects our treaty rights, for example, then we are being ignored.
I know from experience that life in a remote Native community is not easy. From the moment a Native child in Canada is born, they will more than likely to experience poor nutrition, few medical resources, trouble achieving a proper long-term education and fewer chances for meaningful employment.
Our First Nation leaders continually fight for basic rights that were agreed upon when our people and the government signed treaties a hundred years ago. We honoured our part of the bargain by giving up just about everything: our land, our spiritual freedoms, our heritage, our language and our right to govern ourselves. The deplorable situation of many First Nations across Canada is only a symptom of how the government has failed to deliver its part of the bargain. Chief Spence is merely calling to attention the plight of our people.
It is sad to see our leaders having to address First Nation issues in this way. When government systems have broken down and a leader can no longer meaningfully negotiate, communicate or address important issues, they are driven to alternative solutions. I am concerned for the health of Chief Spence but we should not forget that her situation represents only a small part of the overall pain and suffering that our people have endured.
Hunger strikes have historically played a significant role in the struggle for freedom and justice. For centuries, many brave activists have held non-violent hunger strikes. Mahatma Gandhi was a famous example in India when he engaged in several hunger strikes to protest British rule. This helped lead to freedom for India. British and American suffragettes very effectively used hunger strikes to win women’s rights, including the right to vote and run for office. Nelson Mandela also used hunger strikes to protest apartheid in South Africa.
There is a lot of support for Chief Spence across Canada and internationally under the umbrella of the Idle No More movement. But it is sad to see the criticism and racism that has appeared against her and Native people in general through anonymous posts and comments on many news sites. Many of these racist posts more than likely come from political parties trying to attack First Nation people and discredit them. However, there are also lots of people are willing to say terrible, vicious and racist things about Natives and that saddens me.
I believe that media corporations share responsibility for these negative and sometimes violent comments appearing on their websites. It is one thing for an individual to voice their view publicly or anonymously. This is a right we all share in a free country. However, public viewpoints take on a whole new light when a group of people is allowed to anonymously voice their hate in a public forum. A website administrator should be capable of filtering or channeling the comments on a website under their control but this is not happening. If a major news corporation allows so many negative, hateful and racist comments on their site, it means that they are sharing in the negative viewpoint.
As individuals we have the right to stand up and demand that hate should not be spread in any media. Public inaction can lead to negative results. Edmund Burke, an 18th-century philosopher and political figure, described inaction as, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Simon Wiesenthal, a Second World War Holocaust survivor, explained that, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”
You might not agree with First Nation leadership and Chief Spence’s campaign, but resorting to hate and stereotype slander is not only wrong but also illegal. I hope that Chief Spence accomplishes her goals. I also want to remind her of the words an old warrior told me a few years ago, “It is important to live so that you can fight another day.”