People from across Canada line up to enter the teepee where Chief Theresa Spence has stayed during her hunger strike. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Churches throw support behind Chief Spence

  • January 7, 2013

As Chief Theresa Spence passed three weeks living on nothing but water, fish broth and herbal tea, churches and Christian organizations were lining up behind her request for a meeting with Prime MInister Stephen Harper, Governor General David Johnston and aboriginal leaders from across the country.

A meeting is scheduled for Jan. 11. Spence will take part in the meeting then break her fast, which started on Dec. 11 — a total of 31 days without solid food. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan had offered to meet with Spence in December, but she rejected a lower level meeting.

There were good reasons for granting Spence a meeting to discuss treaty obligations, said KAIROS aboriginal rights expert Ed Bianchi.

"We think that request is reasonable," he said. "We've urged both of them (the Prime Minister and Governor General) to meet with her as soon as possible and in a genuine way."

Over the course of her hunger strike KAIROS, the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada have all written letters of support for the Attawapiskat First Nation chief. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is still considering its official response and the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council told The Catholic Register it could not comment publicly until its statement had been cleared by the CCCB.

"It is an important issue for everyone," said CCCB communications manager Rene Laprise.

CCCB president Archbishop Richard Smith was visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories on the annual bishops' tour of the Holy Land in early January.

"The president is looking forward to doing a consultation with the executive of the CCCB," said Laprise.

Spence declared she was prepared to die if her request to meet with Harper and Johnston was not met.

The prospect of death very much concerned Spence's pastor at St. Francis Xavier parish in Attawapiskat, the beleaguered reserve in northern Ontario that drew national attention a little over a year ago for its appalling housing conditions. Oblate Father Rodrigue Vezina spoke to Spence by phone on Christmas Eve, when her spirits were high and she seemed in good health.

Vezina said he did not advise her to continue or discontinue the hunger strike, though he was worried about the risk to her health.

"I cannot really, absolutely impose myself on her. She has free will," he said. "She's not a kid any more. She's an older person. All I can do is advise her. Life is serious. It's important."

The priest couldn't comment on whether Spence's cause justifies a brush with death.

"I don't want to enter politics. My bosses say, don't get involved there," he said.

Many in the Attawapiskat community strongly support Spence and Vezina can see parallels with the Oka, Que., crisis in 1990.

"Now the same thing is arising again," he said.

In a Dec. 31 letter to Harper, Anglican Primate Bishop Fred Fred Hiltz, supported by six of his fellow bishops, called Spence's fast "a sacrificial act of one for the many."

Meeting now with Spence is a way of ensuring the government's 2008 apology for harm done by the residential school system is not forgotten, said the Anglican bishops.

"If we do not walk through the door that this crisis has opened, there is certainly no viable or moral way forward for Canada. We will all be diminished," Hiltz wrote.

Early in Spence's action, the United Church urged Harper to meet with Spence "before her health is further endangered."  

"We stand in solidarity with Chief Spence's statement that Canada is violating the right of aboriginal peoples to be self-determining and continues to ignore (their) constitutionally protected aboriginal and treaty rights in their lands, waters and resources," says the United Church in its Dec. 19 letter from Rev. Bruce Gregersen of the church's General Council, and Ray Jones, chair of the United Church of Canada Aboriginal Ministries Council..

KAIROS, the ecumenical coalition that includes the CCCB and several Catholic religious orders, wrote to Spence Dec. 21 to back her demands.

"The roots of that crisis, we believe, lie in the larger crisis of Canada's continued failure to uphold the treaties," wrote KAIROS executive director Jennifer Henry. "We strive to return to the teaching that these are sacred agreements and to accept our responsibility to uphold them… Without respect for the treaties and without a commitment to live according to the original spirit and intent of those treaties reconciliation cannot be achieved."

Bianchi doesn't see how the churches, especially those who ran residential schools, can back away from Spence's fight.

"What the chief is asking for beyond the meeting — respecting treaties, honouring treaties — all of those things are things the churches have supported over the years," he said.
KAIROS was praying for a break in the standoff between Spence and the government before she starves herself to death.

"We don't want to see that end," Bianchi said. "Chief Spence has made it clear she's prepared to go that far. It's her decision to make. I'm not sure that it's up to us to judge whether it's the right thing to do."


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