Theresa Spence

01.24.13

The Hunger Strike Diet: You Don't Lose Weight AND You Accomplish Your Goal!

The hunger strike by Canadian aboriginal leader Theresa Spence - now just ended - may be the first hunger strike in history staged to prevent attention to the conditions of her people.

Spence is the leader of an aboriginal community called Attawapiskat in northern Ontario. Attawapiskat has long suffered from notoriously dreadful housing conditions for its 1,500 people.

But if Attawapiskat's housing is bad, at least it's not cheap. Between 2006 and 2012, the Canadian government spent $131 million in the community. The community also receives support from a nearby DeBeer's diamond mine, which also employees about 60 of the community residents.

Where does the federal and DeBeers money go if not to housing? That's a big mystery. Canada's aboriginal communities are notorious for their non-transparent financing, but even by those bad standards, Attawapiskat is an extreme outlier. More than $100 million of the $131 million simply cannot be accounted for. As the housing crisis at Attawapiskat became an ever more flagrant scandal, journalists sought to interview local residents. Residents refused to talk to them, citing fear of unspecified "repercussions." Earlier this month, community authorities threatened a news crew with arrest if they remained on site. The news crew complied with the order, and left.

You may wonder: isn't Canada a free country? Since when can a local government leader order a reporter out of town?

If you ask that, you are just entering the spirit of aboriginal governance in Canada: an archipelago of authoritarian regimes within a democratic country.

Theresa Spence was elected chief of Attawapiskat in 2010, after long service in other governance positions. Under pressure from senior governments to account for missing funds, Spence declared a hunger strike in early December 2012. She announced her intention to subsist on a diet of water and fish broth, an estimated 200-400 calories per day. In the coldest winter in Ottawa in many years, she pitched a tent in front of Parliament Hill and announced that she would live there until the prime minister met with her and granted her demands.

What were her demands? She wouldn't say. When offered a meeting with the prime minister, she refused it: now she wanted a meeting with both the prime minister and the governor general. She refused to talk to the media. When supporters began collecting donations to support her cause - grandly titled "Idle No More" - she insisted that the money flow to a bank account under the personal control of her common-law husband.

That might, you think, raise questions.

You might think reporters would also wonder why Theresa Spence seemed to gain weight over her six-week hunger strike. (Here's an image of her from January 11)

When reporters asked to spend the night in her tent with her, Spence refused. This refusal seems to have inspired zero suspicions. You might think reporters would want to check out rumors that Theresa Spence was not really spending the night in the tent - that she was actually sleeping in the nearby Chateau Laurier hotel, where she kept a room. (Her supporters insisted that the room was used for washing only.) You'd think wrong.

Spence has now abandoned the hunger strike. What did she accomplish? Short answer: a lot.

The questions about Attawpiskat under her leadership have been silenced.

Media interest in missing funds has been diverted.

Some $7.4 billion a year will still flow from the Canadian federal government to native communities, remarkably few questions asked.

The practice of extracting payments from natural resource companies by threats of disruption and violence will continue.

All in all: mission accomplished.