This is a sensitive issue and I want to avoid putting too fine a point on it, but I’m fairly sure Theresa Spence has absolutely no idea what she’s doing.
The Chief of Attawapiskat, an aboriginal reservation in northern Ontario, has now been depriving herself of solid food for over 42 days, officially making her one of the longest hunger-strikers in history — certainly well beyond the endurance of that slacker Gandhi.
What exactly she is protesting has never been entirely clear, and seems to change from week to week. Originally, the goal was a meeting with the prime minister, which then evolved into a call for a summit with the prime minister and several other chiefs, and then a multi-week summit with the prime minister, several other chiefs, the premier of Ontario, the governor general, and possibly even the First Lady — Mrs. Harper — as well.
Of all these characters, it was the governor general whose presence became the stickiest sticking point, particularly after Prime Minister Harper announced that the summit he already holds every year with several of the country’s top Indian chiefs would be going ahead as planned — earlier than planned, in fact. Totally doesn’t count without the Governor General, said Spence. I’m not coming and I’m still not eating. That was three weeks ago.
Chief Spence did an interview with CTV’s Kevin Newman on Sunday, and if you’re interested in gaining better insight into exactly why and how this whole hunger strike standoff has proven so intractable, I highly recommend you watch it. The woman you see on camera is a woman whose political philosophy is barely coherent and whose understanding of the Canadian constitution is even less so.
“I’m still waiting for that meeting that needs to take place,” she says, in her stilted English (clearly not her first language, which is fine, though this only adds another layer of opacity to her points). “That’s with the governor general and the prime minister, two levels of government, with our leaders. It’s important for all the leaders of Canada to sit together, including the First Nations.”
But surely, Madame Chief, responds Newman delicately, you understand that the governor general is just a “figurehead.” He “has no real authority to change the lives and improve the lives of your people.”
Well, “we feel his role in different way,” responds Spence. “When the treaty was signed it was with the Crown. It’s important for all the treaty partners to be in that meeting and that includes the Crown.”
Such a statement is just completely, utterly, spectacularly wrong.
“The Crown,” in the sense the Chief is trying to articulate, is a synonym for the government, not an institution of it. Canada’s native treaties were indeed signed and negotiated using Crown authority, and First Nations do indeed have a relationship with the Crown as a result. But since Canada is a constitutional monarchy in which supreme legal authority over everything is nominally invested in the royal family, technically all Canadians have some manner of “relationship” with the Crown.
Here in British Columbia, for instance, the government runs the province’s hydroelectricity corporation; in order to keep this computer running, I pay my electricity bill to an entity of “the Crown” (or a “Crown corporation” as they call themselves). I also get my car insurance from the Crown, ride trains owned by the Crown and blow all my spare cash on lottery tickets pushed by the Crown.
If had some sort of problem with the way any of these public services were being managed, however, I wouldn’t demand Elizabeth II send her personal emissary — even though, formally, all of these entities are set up in her name.
It’s one of the most basic principles of Canadian civics that the crowned person (or crown-appointed governor) delegates his or her powers to the politicians through ceremony and tradition, just as we voters delegate our powers through election. Canadians use the phrase “the Crown” as a shorthand for “the state,” to remind ourselves of the origin of half our government’s legal authority.
Should Canada ever ditch the monarchy — and God willing, one day we will — we’ll no doubt quickly swap much of our country’s present royalist terminology for less monarchical synonyms. Maybe we’ll start talking about the American-style “public utilities” or socialist-style “people’s corporations.” Probably, we’ll just say “the Government of Canada” a lot more.
Turfing the “the Crown” in a literal sense, will thus not affect treaty rights anymore than it will affect my ability to get cheap, taxpayer-subsidized electricity. The nation of Canada is the stable guarantor of our rights and services as citizens; monarchical trappings are a transient decoration.
You might think I’m being a bit patronizing to poor Chief Spence, but this is a woman who has repeatedly written letters to Buckingham Palace demanding Her Majesty “intervene” to honor the Crown’s treaty obligations. More ominously, in the CTV interview, one of Spence’s associates chirps up to clarify that First Nations have “a treaty relationship with the Crown, period. Not with Canada. We never signed a treaty with Canada.”
How do you even begin to engage with this sort of fantasy?
It’s often said — including by Spence herself — that one of the great problems of aboriginal existence in modern Canada is the terribly sub-par education received by young Indians growing up on the reserve. I don’t know if this educational crisis is what’s to blame for the stark amount of ignorance that seems to pervade the aboriginal establishment on monarchy matters, but I’m sure it’s not helping.
Chief Spence’s stubbornness in demanding an audience with the GG — not a symbolic meeting, which he already gave her, but a functional, working meeting which the Prime Minister, Queen, and Governor General himself have all said is unconstitutional — has proven to be an incredibly destructive distraction in the very real fight for aboriginal social justice. It’s drained much of the energy from the Idle No More protest movement — which, like it or hate it, was undeniably about bigger things — and may well wind up fracturing the unity of Canada’s biggest First Nations lobby group.
Mad efforts are presently afoot to either negotiate some generous alterna-deal with the Chief to get her to eat again, or simply impeach her from office. Grand chiefs, party leaders, and prime ministers have all come out of the woodwork, united in their belief that she can’t be allowed to die.
Not for a mistake.
UPDATE: On Thursday Chief Spence formally ended her hunger strike following a protracted negotiation process involving Liberal leader Bob Rae and others. She agreed to a list of demands, which has also been endorsed by the Liberal and NDP caucuses.
While most of the list is just standard, meaningless bureaucratic boilerplate (“clear work-plans that shall include deliverables and timelines that outline how commitments will be achieved“), I will note that the very first demand orders an “immediate meeting to be arranged between the Crown, Federal Governments, Provincial Governments and all First Nations.” In continuing to include “the Crown” as an entity separate from the two levels of government, it’s clear no progress has been made.