How Theresa Spence’s hunger strike shaped a protest

by Danny Kresnyak

It wasn’t easy, speaking with Theresa Spence.

There’s one paved sidewalk in Attawapiskat: a series of six concrete rectangles placed end-to-end, laid down between the steel-grate steps at the entrance of the sky blue band office and the flagpole outside the bright red Canada Post building next door. Most days, Chief Teresa Spence walks this path from her home in a former police station to her office, first door on the left after reception.

On my first day on this lone stretch of pavement, the chief and I met for the first time.

It was a brief meeting.

Perhaps it was Sun Media pundit Ezra Levant’s angry monologues about Zambonis bought with misappropriated funds, or maybe disgraced Senator Patrick Brazeau’s pre-suspension comments about her post- hunger strike weight still rang in her ears as we shook hands and I presented her with a tobacco pouch and copy of my book, but over the next few weeks, my contact with the chief was conspicuously limited. I would arrive at appointments to find her either absent or double-booked.

But near the two-month mark of my stay, Chief Spence approached me at the Reg Loutit Community Sportplex during a welcome ceremony for new and returning teachers. Her public relations team, husband and wife, Danny and Sylvia Metatawabin, flanked her.

“When do you leave?” she asked.

“I’ve got a few weeks yet chief,” I replied. “What’s up?”

“Come to my office first thing tomorrow.” The chief smiled and walked away.

The next morning, I resisted the pessimistic tendency to pack my things before walking to the band office. On a cork board in the foyer hangs a notice of banishment addressed to all members of the media. It was tacked there months earlier — after a Global News crew was escorted out under threat of arrest — and remained on the board for the entirety of my three-month stay.

In her office, Chief Spence sat at her desk while the Metatwabins sat at a table across from her.

“We’d like you to write our story,” Sylvia asked as I entered the room. “Tell people about what we all went through on Victoria Island, during the chief’s hunger strike.”

Looked like my luggage would stay unpacked a few weeks longer.

Chief Spence had a box on her desk. She told me it holds some of the many cards and letters she received during her famous hunger strike.

At the peak of exhaustion, she says, the support of strangers gave her the strength to carry on.

There’s one letter in particular she wants to show me. She says it’s from a prisoner in New York State whose words “gave [her] spirit strength.”

She handed me the letter. It’s two-pages, typed on New York State Corrections letterhead. The date in the top left corner was Dec. 12, 2013; one day after Spence began her protest. The writer has been in prison for 35 years, has experience with hunger strikes and pledges support for Spence’s cause.

The only handwritten portion of the note is the sign-off at the bottom.

“Sincerely, David Berkowitz.”
“Do you know who this is from?” I asked the chief, then answered my own question. “He’s the Son of Sam! One of the 20th century’s most infamous serial killers.”

Spence’s eyes widen and look to the floor. She shakes her head. Her mouth is open, yet no words come out. It’s clear she doesn’t want any more information on Berkowitz’ crimes.

Sometimes, it seems like nothing goes right.

Do What Needs To Be Done

Spence’s naiveté masks resiliency — the same resiliency she tapped to overcome an abusive marriage, find work and emerge as a major player in the struggle for First Nations rights.

Her actions often appear unplanned because they are. Even the hunger strike was announced without a plan — she simply felt it would help her people.

“It was at the Assembly of First Nations meeting,” says Spence. “I told everyone I was going to go on a hunger strike, so I did. I didn’t think of what it would mean.”

She took her protest to the doorsteps of Parliament where she became an obstacle to Harper’s Northern action plan and a lightning rod for a corporatist attack machine on the scent of a vulnerable target.

Charlie Angus, NDP MP For Timmins- James Bay, was the first politician to raise the Attawapiskat housing crisis in Question Period. “She stood up for her people,” he said. “For their identity and environment. The Conservative government tried to blame her and knock her down.”

But her people rallied around her. The Metatawabins and more were by her side, while the Idle No More movement mobilized First Nations into symbolic actions continent-wide.

This perfect storm of momentum and visibility seemed poised to force change as elite members of Canadian political circles visited her teepee and signed their names to the declaration of commitment outlining the goals of the hunger strike.

“Justin Trudeau, Bob Rae, came to see me,” Chief Spence says as she flips through the box of letters still on her desk.

And then the wheels fell off.  Spence says after the media blitz around her hunger strike cooled, the talking heads of federal politics failed to act.

Now? Her people remain unsheltered, unemployed and ignored.

Yesterday And Today

Attawapiskat has returned to the headlines since the Prairie Dog published the first part of this story last issue. The Conservative government ordered the James Bay Cree community to return $1.8 million in dispersed funds under provisions of Bill C-27, casually known as the First Nations Transparency Act (and much more casually as the Give-Racists-A-Cudgel-Act). The fact Attawapiskat is an early target of this stiffly applied austerity agenda should be no surprise to anyone who follows the continuing story of the place.

On top of that, the community hospital was evacuated after a pump malfunction caused 1,200 litres of diesel fuel to leak into the soil around the medical center. This hospital story drew regional coverage, while accusations of corruption ran nationally.

It’s just another example of shame poured onto oppression.

Prairie Dog will publish more of Danny Kresnyak’s stories from Northern Ontario in 2014.