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Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence speaking with journalists about her hunger strike in a teepee on Victoria Island in Ottawa, yesterday.
OTTAWA: A Canadian aboriginal chief in the third week of a hunger strike is urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to “open his heart” and meet with native leaders angered by his policies as small impromptu protests spread beyond Canada’s borders.
Chief Theresa Spence from the remote northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat has been fasting since December 11 and has vowed to continue until Harper personally commits to the talks on a litany of complaints, including new legislation that she says will harm native lands.
“He’s a person with a heart but he needs to open his heart. I’m sure he has faith in the Creator himself and for him to delay this, it’s very disrespectful, I feel, to not even meet with us,” she said in an interview in Ottawa.
Spence is at the center of an unprecedented Canadian aboriginal protest movement called “Idle No More” that began with four women in the province of Saskatchewan raising awareness about the Conservative government’s budget bill, which was passed earlier this month.
The bill, which has also been heavily criticised by opposition politicians for its broad reach, scales back environmental protections for lakes and rivers and makes it easier to sell reserve lands. Aided by Facebook and Twitter, their protest proliferated faster than anyone had imagined and is now drawing comparisons to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
“Flash mob” protests with traditional dancing and drumming have erupted in dozens of shopping malls across North America. There have been rallies, marches and highway blockades by aboriginal groups across Canada and supporters have emerged from as far away as New Zealand and the Middle East. The campaign aims to draw attention to the dismal living conditions faced by many of the country’s 1.2 million natives, including poverty, unsafe drinking water, inadequate housing, addiction and high suicide rates.
Camped out in a traditional teepee within sight of Ottawa’s Parliament buildings, Spence appeared weak and short of breath but resolute yesterday, Day 17 of her hunger strike, staying warm by a wood stove as a snow storm raged outside.
To critics who question her strategy and say her demands are too vague, Spence replies that she has run out of patience.
“I know it’s hard for people to understand what I’m doing but it’s for this pain that’s been going on too long with our people,” she said, sitting on her makeshift bed and flanked by supporters.
Blankets hung from the inside walls of the teepee and a faint aroma of cedar rose from branches spread on the ground. Spence is consuming only water, fish broth and a medicinal tea.
“It has to stop and I’m willing to suffer until the meeting goes on. Even if I don’t make it, people will continue my journey. Like I keep saying, I’m willing to die for the people of First Nations because the suffering is too much,” Spence said. Reuters