Wrong tactic

  • January 9, 2013

Canada’s First Nations have legitimate grievances that warrant sympathy and government action, but hunger strikes are an unacceptable tactic to bring about change.

So even though Chief Theresa Spence may have a just cause, her threat to commit suicide through starvation cannot be condoned.

At the time of writing, Spence said her protest could end on Jan. 11 after she joins other First Nations leaders in a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Spence stopped eating solid food on Dec. 11 to subsist on a diet of water, tea and fish broth. She claimed she was willing to die if a demand to meet with the Prime Minister and Governor General was denied, and she has implied her protest may continue if the Jan. 11 meeting has an unsatisfactory outcome.

For taking this uncompromising stand the chief of the Attawapiskat reserve has become a heroic figure in many eyes. There is little question that successive governments over several decades have failed to redress the many historical wrongs done to native peoples. The poverty and misery on reserves is shameful and, although not solely the fault of government, is a blight on the reputation of a prosperous nation.

Native leaders aren’t alone in their dismay and anger. Many Canadians are upset by the repeated failure to replace decades of native despair with hope. That’s why Spence has been widely praised. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin called her an inspiration. But Martin is wrong. Threatening suicide is not the answer. Even if Spence is playing a game of brinkmanship and using suicide as a bluff to advance her cause, her tactics are dangerous and irresponsible.

In addition to teaching that suicide is immoral, the Church specifically denounces hunger strikes that aim to achieve political objectives under threat of fasting until death. But beyond that, Spence should take note of the tragedy of high suicide rates on reserves and, rather than threatening to martyr herself, try to advance her cause by means that respect life.

According to Health Canada, the leading cause of death among First Nations youth and adults under 45 is suicide and self-inflicted injuries. Suicide rates among First Nations youth are five to six times higher than other Canadians and, overall, the First Nations suicide rate is more than double the national rate.

These sad statistics are a national tragedy that cries out for remedies. Native leaders are right to demand action to fix the underlying causes of native despair. But Spence is wrong to try to force change by becoming, or threatening to become, a suicide victim herself.

Her cause may be noble but suicide is not. Native peoples need to be given reasons to live, not shown another way to die.


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