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

Victoria Island becomes place of pilgrimage to support Chief Spence

  • January 10, 2013

OTTAWA - Victoria Island where Chief Theresa Spence has been holding a nearly month-long hunger strike to demand a meeting with the Prime Minister and Governor General to discuss First Nations’ issues has become a pilgrimage site for supporters from across North America.

The island has been a gathering place while controversy swirls around her hunger strike, the finances of her Attawapiskat band in northern Ontario and the nature of the Idle No More movement that has led to First Nations’ demonstrations and road and rail blockages in many locations in Canada.

On Jan. 4, the day Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a meeting with First Nations leaders for Jan. 11 that will include Spence, the small island in the middle of the Ottawa River was packed with well-wishers who lined up 30 deep in the snow and cold outside Spence’s teepee to bring her greetings.

“Today is a big day,” said Debora Fleming, a teacher who is married to Spence’s nephew.

Spence’s hunger strike has been ridiculed by several newspaper columnists, who have called her fish broth and water and lemon juice fast a detox diet rather than a real hunger strike, like the one that led to the death of IRA activist Bobby Sands.

On its web site, the Idle No More Movement claims Spence as a spiritual inspiration, claiming she began her fast in solidarity with their National Day of Action called on Dec. 10.

But others are quick to distance Spence from Idle No More, which purports to be a grassroots movement that is not tied to the First Nations leadership. Blockades of rail lines, roads and border crossings at various places across the country have also provoked controversy. And many media pundits question whether Idle No More is merely a successor to the Occupy Movement, with the same big union money and left-wing support.

But at Victoria Island, the focus is on Spence’s spiritual example and on peace.

“(Spence) is feeling the prayers of the people,” said Fleming. “There have been a lot of people who have been supporting her.”

Fleming said she shared the feelings of Mushkegowuk Regional Grand Chief Stan Louttit who called the meeting a “victory” and the beginning of a dialogue. The Mushkegowuk Council represents Attawapiskat.

Fleming said she hoped the Jan. 11 meeting would be more than a one-shot deal, and would lead not only to more dialogue but also real improvements for aboriginal peoples. She described last January’s meeting between Harper and First Nations’ leaders as a “gesture” that needed to be followed up with action.

“It’s difficult not to be cynical,” she said.

Attawapiskat has been the focus of stories about its terrible housing conditions, mouldy, over-crowded temporary classrooms and contaminated water that contrasted with stories about Spence’s household income of $250,000 and millions of dollars in taxpayer funding that critics say is more than enough to fix the problems. On Jan. 7, news reports of an audit of reserve finances called the unreleased information potentially “explosive,” but Louttit told reporters the focus should stay on the Jan. 11 meeting.

A “sacred fire” blazed behind a windbreaker not far from the teepee where elders sat warming themselves. Around another fire, men sang and drummed and people danced. A group of women from New Brunswick sang and drummed as they waited in line for an opportunity to meet Spence.

Joe Cheechoo arrived Jan. 4 from Moose Factory with a delegation from his Cree community to show support for Spence and “to let her know we’re praying for her and what she’s doing.”

“She seemed very alert and believes strongly in what she’s doing and I believe she is right,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s meeting Jan. 11 “is good,” Cheechoo said. “We as First Nations need to establish a relationship in our governments.”


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