Four years after Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence’s fish-broth protest sparked a media frenzy and arguably ushered in Canada’s era of post-truth politics and fake news, Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak has lately ignited a similarly frenzied and fantastical storm. Last month, Beyak stood in the Red Chamber and defended the “abundance of good” done at Indian residential schools, in heretical defiance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which proclaimed that the entire Canadian residential schools system, begun under Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and operating in various forms into the 1990s, was a premeditated national act of cultural genocide.
On cue, reporters cherry-picked a few lines from Beyak’s 3,700 word statement, quoted TRC chair Senator Murray Sinclair’s admonishment of her, and then the pile-on began. On March 30, the Toronto Star went so far as to link Beyak’s controversial remarks and subsequent calls for her resignation with their desired similar fate for fellow Conservative Senator Don Meredith, the married Toronto preacher accused of sexual misconduct with an underage girl.
Beyak’s original statement, made as member of the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, mainly addressed the issue of overrepresentation of aboriginal women in Canada’s justice system. As an aside, she questioned demands for renaming the Langevin Block that houses the Office of the Prime Minister because ‘Father of Confederation’ Hector-Louis Langevin was one of the architects of the residential school system.
“It concerns me that the call for the name change is a distraction from the important matters being addressed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and will take valuable dollars away from more substantial indigenous needs,” said Beyak. “Including the needs of incarcerated indigenous women.”
Regardless what you think of Beyak’s remarks or whether she deserved to be fired from the Committee – as she promptly was by interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose – her public flogging has done absolutely nothing to improve the lives of aboriginal people, the purported goal of every federal government since Canada was founded 150 years ago.
Not one more aboriginal person will graduate high school or university, not one less despondent native teenager will commit suicide, and not one more reserve will get safe drinking water.
This is the sad state of Canadian politics and public discourse related to aboriginal policy making; by most metrics First Nations people and communities suffer the worst social pathologies of any Canadians, and the race-based political and economic segregation of their fast-growing population is arguably the single biggest threat to the future social harmony of the nation. But instead of actually doing something about it, we are busily rewriting history, furthering segregation, and shaming anyone who dares question those objectives.
The Beyak affair has probably further entrenched the do-nothing camps comprised of those who believe aboriginal people are perpetual victims deserving perpetual care from the state that sought to exterminate them, and those who think aboriginal people are congenital rent-seekers who should get on with their lives and stop complaining. Unfortunately, if there are remedies for the social isolation, poor health and education outcomes, unemployment and welfare dependence, and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, they will not be found at either extreme.
Tempest in a teepee
On December 11, 2012, Chief Spence occupied the “Aboriginal Experience” interpretive centre on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, ensconced herself in a teepee and, in the shadow of Parliament Hill, launched a hunger strike to protest the then-Harper Conservative government’s neglect of aboriginal people and their problems, including the housing and infrastructure “crisis” in her northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat. Few had previously heard of Spence, but non-stop media coverage soon made her a household name.
Nine days later, Spence issued an open letter to Prime Minister Harper and Governor General David Johnston demanding more money from natural resource development. It sounded like it was written by a communications flack at the Assembly of First Nations: “Land and natural resources continue to be reaped by the federal and provincial governments through taxation of corporate resource companies with little compensation to First Nations for use of our traditional territories.”
Spence became a figurehead for Idle No More, the short-lived social media-driven political phenomenon that engineered omnibus demonstrations against the Harper government in cities across the country. The Idlers soon engulfed Parliament Hill with protesters – who wilfully ignored evidence that the squalor in Attawapiskat was not entirely beyond the power of Chief Spence to remedy, and that her alleged “hunger strike” was anything but.
The year previous, consolidated financial statements showed the First Nation had cash and assets in excess of $60 million, received $17 million from the federal government, raked in $3.4 million from the native-owned Ontario gambling centre CasinoRama, whilst paying three chiefs and 18 councillors to govern a community of 1800, including Spence’s boyfriend who “co-managed” the band for $850/day. Reportedly more than $100 million worth of benefits and contracts from nearby Victor diamond mine had flowed into Attawapiskat in previous years. As evidence mounted that local mismanagement of band finances was at least partly responsible for deplorable living conditions in the community, the CBC and other media responded with Spence apologists who claimed it was bloody expensive to run a place like Attawapiskat.
I was then working for CBC Ottawa as a part-time web editor for local news. But we didn’t get the assignment: Spence’s protest and Idle No More were largely handled by the national news division. They couldn’t get enough of aboriginal lawyer Pam Palmater, a former Indian Affairs bureaucrat who had been a distant runner-up to Shawn Atleo in the Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief election earlier that year. As a frequent guest of Power and Politics, Palmater took up Spence’s plight in regular tirades against the Harper government.
On a stretch of time off, I decided to try and get into Spence’s compound on my own. It was day 30 of the hunger strike when I first presented myself at her island lair and was met by a large Cree kid from Moose Factory named Kevin. He appeared to be in charge of what could loosely be described as security and media relations, and turned me away.
On my second day loitering outside Spence’s protest HQ, a Global News reporter and his cameraman showed up asking for an interview with the chief. “Who is your biggest guy?” Kevin gruffly asked. The pair looked at each other and shrugged. “Eric Sorensen,” offered the camera guy, referring to then Global National’s Washington D.C. bureau chief.
“Well if Eric Sorensen comes down here and humbles himself before the chief, maybe she will talk,” Kevin declared. The pair looked at each other, shrugged again and said they would deliver the message to Sorensen. Then they climbed back in their SUV and left. Gatekeeper Kevin bade them farewell with an impromptu rap, chanting “You’re either with us or against us. You’re either with us or against us.”
Then he looked over at me and said, “You’re with us.”
Unable to tell if it was a statement or question, I said he sounded like former U.S. President George W. Bush after the 9-11 attacks. Kevin pondered that idea and decided he liked it: “Yeah, right on.”
Still, he refused to let me see Spence.
But then, she was busy, hosting VIPs like lawyer Tony Belcourt, the long-time Metis rights activist, and then-Liberal critic for Aboriginal Affairs Carolyn Bennett (she is now the minister of same). I interviewed her briefly and our conversation was predictable – Harper was a meanie for cancelling the Kelowna Accord and treating First Nations as second rate – save for her bizarre suggestion that I interview a “medicine man” who was also on site. “He could teach you a lot,” advised Bennett, herself a medical doctor.
I declined her recommendation; I had already witnessed enough weirdness, which peaked on day three of my futile vigil when I saw Spence picked up at the dinner hour in a white Hummer chauffeured by Mohawk Warriors. I assumed they were taking her to the nearby 4-star downtown Delta Hotel, where she reportedly stayed when she needed a break from the teepee. As it got harder and harder to maintain the fiction about the starving chief in the tent, the story changed to say that she was not on a hunger strike in the traditional sense, but was supplementing her diet with fish broth.
Back at the local CBC newsroom, I could see signs of dissent from the national network narrative. After listening to a routine radio news update that included the latest on the Spence story, a senior producer blew a gasket and tossed a stack of papers in the air. As the white sheets fluttered to the floor, he stalked up and down an aisle of desks shouting to nobody in particular, “Spence is not on a god-damned hunger strike. She’s drinking fish broth. Stop reporting it’s a hunger strike. F–k!”
Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission genocide story, Theresa Spence’s martyrdom had become exaggerated gospel, an elaborate allegory woven from selective facts and impervious to debate, more nuanced interpretation or even old-fashioned journalistic digging. The stories of Beyak or Spence provide a glimpse into what’s wrong with our politics and the journalism that interprets it for public consumption. Fake news, fake history and fake outrage all add up to fake caring about the plight of Canadians who are stuck in our racially segregated bantustans. Unless we get real about what’s happening, how we got to this terrible situation, and how important is to deracinate the whole business, this is not going to end well for aboriginal people or our country.
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