Satisfying Spence

Satisfying Spence
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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.

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^ 21 Comments...

  1. JonasB

    First off: she's not going to die. She's probably not doing something any nutritionist would recommend, but she's probably getting a hell of a lot more in her than Ghandi ever did. Having gotten that out of the way…

    Best explanation I can think of for why Spence is insisting on the GG (other than ignorance) is that it's some attempt to embarrass Harper, though how this could work is beyond me (especially since, as you noted, the GG is prohibited from getting involved).

    As for the other aboriginal issues (education, crime, drugs, etc.) I'm not sure how those are connected to treaties. My understanding is that treaties govern land use, hunting, and various benefits given to First Nations. Even if the federal gov't fully honoured the treaties in ways which somehow satisfying their critics, it wouldn't affect education/crime/etc. in any significant way that a targeted ground-level approach could.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    I can understand her view, albeit it is wrong. She is probably trying to gain some legitimacy and power in addition to the attention. She thinks if she gets something crazy like this, she might be able to seem like a more powerful figure. For a second lets assume she isn't ignorant.

    I think this is a lack of understanding of what political capital is. She thinks she builds capital by demanding more and more. The fact is you need to save it in order to spend it. That or she is trying to delegitimize the Canadian government in some fashion. Which in itself is kind of pointless as the real Crown is going to do even less in her favor.

    It isn't like she doesn't have some kind of legal voice. This is my overall point. People like MLK Jr. couldn't simply go and vote and even do some kind of peaceful protest without getting assaulted, to say the least. Correct me if I am wrong but don't the natives not only have a legal voice but they also have a legal territory. If Quebec has been able to leverage a ton of power, why can't the natives use that as well? Legally become a province (I know its a territory now), sends MPs and w/e else and get politicians to fight for their votes. I know the territories can vote and have few MPs. I'm sure there probably is a difference between a territory and a province. To at least some degree.

    Isn't that what politicians always respond to? Votes? Well that or money. But since there are only a few MPs representing these people, that still mean a swing in parliament in a close election. Either way, I think the natives can safely join the full legal system and gain something. Unlike the method that this lady is using. I truly think the best way for natives to preserve their culture is by participating more in Canadian politics and demanding more. Preservation is a process. Change happens but you have to fight in order to preserve what you want to keep. And fight to strengthen it too. Will this require some changes in the political process and laws? Probably but at least there will be a greater benefit to the native people.

  3. SuperSparkplug

    The Idle No More Movement had some traction to start with and I could see what they were getting at. I wasn't really active for it, but I did silently sort of support it from the sidelines…

    Then Chief Spence threw a hissy fit for the Governor General and I lost all faith in it. I was actually kinda pissed off considering she finally got the damn meeting with Harper she wanted, and then refused to go because the GG wasn't there, who you are exactly right, has ABSOLUTELY no power. It was absolutely idiotic. Spence is starting to sound like one of those impossible people (C'mon, we've known at least one in our lives) who won't listen to reason and starts arguing for the sake of arguing with no real purpose or end goal. Heck, I've had to deal with one this week, luckily I was able to call security where I was. I think the lack of food is going to her head and affecting her judgement… Or she just is that damn unreasonable.

    Honestly though, I just hope we get rid of the Governor General and by association the monarchy in our country. Not only are they pointless, they're given praise for doing nothing and dancing on the grave of their fallen empire. I'm insulted we make such a big deal as a nation when the member of the royalty (I hate calling them that) come here as if they're special or deserve any place in our society. They're worthless and so is the role of GG. The Governor General title is a joke and means absolutely nothing.

  4. SES

    They don't have their own territory. Nunavut is heavily-Inuit, but there are lots of other native groups that aren't in that sparsely-populated part of Canada (only 31,000 people live in Nunavut). The Attawapiskat First Nation is in Ontario.

  5. guest

    Gotta say I think it is a bit of a fantasy to talk about any type of sovereignity or legitimacy being derived from 'the Crown', whether it be in right of a state/province or the Commonwealth/Federal Government nowadays and any suggestion to the contrary is purely legal fiction.
    All sovereignty – even in we constitutional monarchies – is derived solely from the consent of the governed.
    That out of the way, I can understand wanting to stand up for your people but you really have got to know when you have won already.

  6. JonasB

    Although, FN are able to vote for MP's like anyone else, and are able to contact their MPs like anyone else.

  7. JonasB

    When the audit of Attawapkista (definitely spelled that wrong) was released saying there was no record for 81% of the transactions since around 2006 I believe, Spence called it a distraction.

    She was right, only in the sense that it turned the focus back on the reserve-level instead of on the federal level where she wanted. One thing that perpetually boggles me about the relationship between FN and the feds is that there's this perpetual distrust/cynicism of the federal government yet they're expected to deal with all the FN issues even if those issues are better handled from a bottom-up level.

  8. Yannick

    Heard on the radio that Spense has agreed to end her hunger strike after an agreement outlining the major points of the First Nations' demands had been drafted by the various leaders of the movement.

  9. Guest

    JJ, I disagree. The treaty:

    - morally, ought to be binding on the people of Canada and Canadian society as a whole
    - practically, is implemented by the PM and his functionaries, but
    - legally, Spence is right, it's with the Crown.

    The analogy with the Queen's electric company doesn't work because your relationship there is an unequal one, it is Business to Consumer. A Treaty relationship is a relationship between two sovereigns, in theory is not.

    This may seem a trivial distinction, but it is the principle on which the treaties were signed and that in law First Nations rely upon.

  10. The Almighty Narf

    But, are those principles more important than their actual goals? I mean, as I understand it the GG has absolutely no authority to do anything for them at all. A meeting with him would be completely inconsequential and demanding it is hurting there chances for anything of substance happening.

    Suggesting that a purely symbolic gesture is more important to them than actual progress does not paint them in a better light.

  11. J.J. McCullough

    I don't really buy that the First Nations are sovereign (they are citizens of Canada and just subject to the sovereignty of Canada like the rest of us) but even if they were sovereign entities, it still doesn't logically follow that they deserve to have an independent, unconstitutional relationship with the highest symbolic representation of Canadian sovereignty, namely the governor general or monarch.

    To put it a different way, Canada has a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship with Germany. Germany is a republic in which ultimate legal authority is held by its people. Canada is a monarchy in which ultimate legal authority is held by the monarch. Does this mean that Canada and Germany's "relationship between two sovereigns" requires a literal meeting of the people of Germany with the Queen of Canada? Obviously not.

    As I said in the essay, in democratic systems the holders of sovereign legal authority delegate it to politicians entitled to make decisions on their behalf.

  12. Jake_Ackers

    You got a point. If the First Nations are completely sovereign (as in completely independent from Canada) they would have a military, border guards, money, passports, etc. etc. Can they be autonomous? Can they be treated like a state or a territory? Sure but this entire notion that they are separate is wrong. They are Canadians too. There is a special kind of relationship they have with the gov't but they are Canadian nonetheless. You can't have it both ways.

    This is why I always say. Most countries should just move toward a more republican or dual federalism type of gov't. Especially Spain and Russia. That way the regional (state,province,w/e) have a clear cut definition of their powers (or more so than now). Instead of this quasi independent Quebec and Basque Country thing going on. Giving one area autonomy and not others is discriminating against the rest of the country.

    Every region deserves some level of independence. I know these are native folks and they might have to operate differently. But if they have a certain right/privilege shouldn't the rest of the country be entitled to the same? Isn't the law the same for all? Can't go around asking for bridges, plumbing and electricity if you are not willing to subject yourself to the "Crown's sovereignty."

    I'm sure natives pay taxes in Canada. But are they exempt from certain taxes? What exactly in the difference between a territory or city owned by the native people versus a regular city/province?

  13. Guest

    Sure, the people of Germany do not meet the Queen, but the German President and the Queen do meet up but mostly in ceremonial ways no-one bothers talking about. And the PM and the Chancellor do the actual negotiating.

    I totally agree it's barmy and bears little semblance to political reality, but that is nevertheless the formal legal situation that Canada and the First Nations are in.

    My guess is Spence is winding Harper up in order to get him to give her what she actually wants in frustration. Maybe she'll succeed, maybe she won't, and she may be overestimating her chances, but equally, I can see why she might be of the opinion that 'conventional' approaches won't get her anywhere either.

  14. J.J. McCullough

    It's not "mostly ceremonial," it's entirely ceremonial. Spence wanted a "working meeting" with the GG, and was in fact explicitly unsatisfied with a ceremonial one. That's the root of the whole problem.

  15. Jack

    Talking about professional hunger strikers, google one of our Italian parliament members, "Marco Pannella". He's a serial hunger striker.

    Intersting comic as usual, it's always nice to read you.

  16. judi bola

    wow very useful article, thanks for the information

  17. Jonathan Goodman

    Hunger pains,wouldn't comprehend the nature of such protest.However what is the point to any document? Is it just another instrument that grants some authoritarian permission to do what is possibly willed? Even if its not an actual fact that can be pointed out.Unfortunately officials have taken it upon themselves to define responsibilities and obligations to people.It is these things that make any empathetic emphasis null or even void. Furthermore the logic in ones debate over such things is the undoing of anything, but its these specific instance that make it business as usual,which in turn is supposed to give a certain amount credibility to whom. I won't negate the fact that when it comes down to the state that there are far more reasonable beings who recognize the dilemma our nation faces. When we do see these blights people have acknowledged as such, what then does any constitutional aims reach?

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    * any more

  19. dhkendall

    Huh, and just minutes after I read this comic, this happens: http://metronews.ca/news/canada/530931/conservati

    While you're a cartoonist, who regularly comments on Canadian (and international) news, and mocks people therein, at least you were downright polite about it compared to these guys. (In other words, there's "commenting that their ideas are full of bullpoop, and outiright poking fun. Good thing those two Conservatives don't have a political cartoon blog … )

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