Watching footage of Chief Theresa Spence yesterday, as she spoke on Victoria Island, I found myself pondering a few things.
A few years ago I had some medical issues that meant I couldn't eat. The solution partly involved a couple of weeks of subsisting on an intravenous dextrose solution (sugar water) and five different courses of antibiotics, and sometimes morphine. I lost a substantial amount of weight and grew very weak and sore. I was encouraged to walk around as much as I could, and I would set out on laps around the hospital. I could do about a half hour of brisk walking, trailing my IV tree and collection of clear tubes with me. When I'd finish, I'd head back to my ward and bed and collapse. Sometimes I'd be unconscious before my head hit the pillow.
Watching the news today, the breathless and tired Chief Spence get up
and speak, I was reminded of what my short exposure to controlled starvation felt like. She's tired. Unbelievably tired. Her voice weak, her body unbelievably so. Her heart, strong but on her sleeve. She's in pain. Your body does not consume itself to survive without pain. You don't watch your community remain ill without pain. She is struggling to stay upright.
Yesterday, with all its activity, was very very hard for her. I am struck by the contrast between this starving woman in a tent, and other chiefs, men for the most part and dressed in finery, meeting with the PM and his people in the Langevin Block.
I find myself with a lot of thoughts: One, that none of this would have happened had Chief Spence not put her life where her convictions are. It also maybe true that she's embarrassed all the major 'leaders' into action. That the power distinctions are so marked: I remember in Winnipeg seeing one of Atleo's predecessor's, Phil Fontaine, walking with a close familiarity with Lloyd Axworthy and wondered if they sent each other Christmas cards.
I've encountered this familiarity or the privilege that powerful people have with each other in other places, and it's always bothered me. Most of these people probably know each other. They've been around for decades. They're politicians or professional bureaucrats of rank, making them members of the same private club. The membership criteria isn't ideological, it's simply that they achieved that level of elitism and power. You got here meaning you passed the test and here's your membership card...sir. While they might represent different and often competing interests, they're also on familiar terrain and among class peers.
Would any of them go on a hunger strike? What would have stopped them at any point until now from stating with one voice that one more FASD baby born on a reserve is one more too many? What would have stopped them from saying on more Nunavut TB case is one too many? One more boil water order, gang shooting, or suicide is too many? Or state that C-45 is will not be allowed to stand in practice no matter what the legislation?
They had their meeting with Harper yesterday and everyone agreed to "high level dialogue" which translates to more of the status quo. There won't be a revisiting of either omnibus bill, clean water will not appear on so many reserves and settlements, the Indian Act will not be up discussion, the RCAP recommendations will not be revisited in any meaningful way. Why? The government of Canada under Stephen Harper does not negotiate in good faith with people who stand in the way of its policy objectives. This fact is unavoidable.
I think the Woman on the Island named for a long dead queen understands this and a great deal more.
I often think we don't do real sacrifice well in this country. A severe beating on an Edmonton commuter train and people are not advised to intervene (most would not anyway), to the point where a man died. Afghanistan? We saw no long queues outside recruiters, no call from the government to fund it through a tax increase. We changed some road signs in Ontario and made some yellow magnets, and everybody else carried on with their lives and careers. Climate change? Sure our children will perish in heat and storms, like the children of the past did at the Somme or Nagasaki, but we will not do a thing to prevent it now.
Do not disturb.
Do not disturb the sacred hierarchy, the privilege of class, the pomp and ceremony, and well tailored suits. Keep it civil means keep it aloof and abstract, do not remind us with your body that people are suffering.