Hunger striker a publicity seeker

Chief Theresa Spence's Bill C-45 opposition just one big photo op

MAKING an outrageous demand and vowing to starve until you get your way is intimidation, not a negotiating tactic.

The demand December 11 by Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat reserve for a nation-to-nation face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Harper and the governor general was designed to fail. The prime minister cannot be expected to meet with every chief who has a gripe; Canada has some 650 chiefs.

The Governor General explained in a TV interview he is not a member of the government; his job is to stay out of day-to-day politics and let the prime minister and MPs decide policy.

Spence isolated herself on Victoria Island in the middle of the frozen Ottawa River, going daily to an Ottawa hotel for a hot shower, ignoring phone calls and text messages. How should Harper get in touch with her? By smoke signals? Or by tying a note to a rock and throwing it down from the Parliament Buildings on the river bank?

She refused to meet with the Federal Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, John Duncan as Green party leader Elizabeth May urged her to do. Though Duncan would be unable to pencil her in on Harper’s day timer, he might at least have smoothed a path to the meeting she sought.

Or Spence might have copied the stance of Chief Garrison Setee of Manitoba’s Cross Lake First Nation who called on Prime Minister Harper to withdraw Bill C-45. That demand had a far better chance of succeeding. If many of parliament’s 308 MPs supported Setee’s request, Harper might have agreed to set the bill aside for further discussion.

Reports are that 20 opposition MPs and a crowd of protesters visited her December 30 for a photo op. And that is always one of Spence’s aims — grandstanding for media coverage. She used the same tactic one year ago when she declared a housing emergency in her 2,000 member community. Ottawa responded, hauled in and set up 40 prefab homes. Did Spence ever say Thank you? If she did, I missed it.

Those opposed to Harper’s omnibus Bill C-45 say there’s good reason to do so because it changes many things, including the Canadian Indian Act regarding how Reserve lands are managed, making them easier to develop and be taken away from the First Nation people. The bill also removes thousands of lakes and streams from the list of federally protected bodies of water.

Oddly, media haven’t reported support for Spence’s position coming from chiefs of successful, self-sustaining bands. Why is that?

Proponents of Bill C-45, however, argue that the bill would demand more accountability from highly paid chiefs and their support staff, and reduce corruption and nepotism. Perhaps that’s the part of Bill C-45 Chief Spence is secretly opposed to? Examination of Spence’s reserve finances in December, 2011 showed she and top band members were receiving huge salaries while 25 families froze in squalid unheated tents and flimsy plywood shacks.

When Maclean’s magazine reported the chief’s Facebook page shows she has set up a bank account in the name of her spouse Clayton Kennedy to collect donations with Kennedy rather than the Attawapiskat band council controlling the funds,  I tuned out her hunger strike. Soliciting donations undercuts the serious intent of her hunger strike, smacking of a publicity ploy and self interest.

Chief Spence violated one cardinal negotiating rule when she vowed to starve to death, if necessary, to gain a face-to-face meeting with Harper and the governor general. Successful negotiators leave their opponent wiggle room for a face-saving exit. Spence should also have left herself a graceful way to modify her demand without capitulating.

She did neither.

Luckily for Spence, Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo late last week diplomatically arranged a meeting between PM Harper and a delegation of Assembly of First Nation chiefs January 11. It will save this publicity seeker’s face and possibly her life.