Chief Theresa Spence has been on a hunger strike for three weeks now. She will not eat until Prime Minister Stephen Harper agrees to meet with her and talk about the changes his Conservative government has made to the Indian Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and many other laws. These changes directly affect Indigenous people in Canada – they affect all Canadians.
It’s taken me a while to understand why Harper’s government made changes to the Indian Act in particular. The changes will make it much easier for Band Councils to enter into lease agreements governed by provincial laws. Band councils would only need a simple majority from a vote, regardless of how many people show up to cast their ballot.
The changes move us in the direction proposed by Pierre Trudeau’s White paper. The White paper was laughably naïve. It was obviously written by politicians who had no idea what land means to Indigenous people. Its authors proposed that the Indian Act be abolished, that all treaties be dismissed, and that land belonging to First Nations be privatized, so that individuals could sell their portion if they chose.
Opposition from Indigenous people to the proposals in the White paper mounted and eventually it was shelved. At least that Liberal government had enough respect for the democratic process to propose changes and listen to the opinions of others about the proposals.
Harper’s government has no such respect. Why propose changes that you know will not be accepted when you can use your power as a majority government to legislate the changes without meaningful consultation?
But I don’t believe that the changes to the Indian Act, which will make it much easier for business to take advantage of natural resources on First Nations lands, were pushed through without debate because the Conservatives do not respect democracy. At least, that is probably not the main reason.
I believe that Harper made the changes – a terrible mistake – because he is completely out of touch with the hopes and needs of Aboriginal people. He has no idea of the importance of each nation’s territory to its people.
He is so out of touch that he forgot all about the Oka Crisis, a 78-day stand-off between Mohawks (along with other Haudenosaunee peoples and their supporters) and the Canadian Army. The Army was called in when the government panicked and realized that the Mohawk people were not going to back down and allow the municipality of Oka to expand its golf course over a Mohawk graveyard and a very old stand of trees belonging to the community of Kanehsatake.
The land meant something to them. The Oka Crisis happened only 22 years ago.
If Chief Spence dies because Stephen Harper will not meet with her, First Nations people of this country will not be humiliated. That role will go to Harper, whose lack of grace and inability to connect in the simplest, most basic way by having a conversation with a woman named Theresa Spence, will have led to a conflagration– an explosion of anger and rage that would make the Oka Crisis seem like a schoolyard fight.
It is not too late yet for Harper to walk to Chief Spence’s tipi and share a drink with her. But soon it will be.