Danny Metatawabin, spokesman for the most influential woman in the country, took centre stage in her absence. Chief Theresa Spence was said to be under observation in a local hospital. Her protest—”hunger strike?” “fast?” “liquids-only diet?”—was now concluded, but she would not be here to mark the occasion.
There had been some delay in starting and there was some confusion about the seating arrangement, but now everyone had found a place at the table at the front of the National Press Theatre—Mr. Metatawabin, Manitoba elder Raymond Robinson, Saskatchewan Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde and Native Women’s Association of Canada president Michelle Audette, NDP MP Romeo Saganash and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae. Mr. Metatawabin was asked to speak first. He paused for a few seconds before beginning.
He offered a few words in his own language, acknowledged the Creator and Chief White Duck of the traditional Algonquin territory. “This is sage,” he said, holding up a bowl that he had placed in front of him. “But I’m not going to light it. It’s against fire regulations.” He smiled. “But it was a gesture … we had hoped to do a cleansing ceremony because I know media has been on our backs for the last six weeks now. And I know you mean well and I know at times the full story doesn’t get out there, to the Canadian public or even on the international stage. But what we have accomplished has gone international.”
He wore a brown leather vest and in his left hand he held an eagle feather.
“It is not only about Theresa Spence, it is not only about Raymond. And I’m passionate for protecting my treaty rights as well, but it wasn’t only for me. It was for the entire indigenous nations as well your future. Our future together. We must walk in harmony together. We must work together,” he said. “That was one of the messages that we always brought forth, since day one. All that we wanted was for the Prime Minister of Canada to invite the Governor General to meet with First Nations leadership. That’s all that we wanted.”
Merely that the elected head of government, the titular head of state and the elected representatives of some 600 communities meet for the purposes of beginning to fix the problems that have compounded over some 500 years of history. That’s all.
“But something else happened when we did this. When Theresa first came, then Raymond came afterwards, along with Jean Sock. And all the other fasters that were able to come to Victoria Island. We lit that sacred fire,” Mr. Metatawabin explained. “That sacred fire has spiritual meaning to us as First Nations people. And we acknowledge that fire through the blessing of the creator, by offering tobacco to that fire. To acknowledge life here. To acknowledge Earth. To acknowledge the trees and the rivers. They have life too as we have life. That’s the message that we were trying to bring to the Canadian public.”
She is a problematic icon who rested her cause on a problematic demand and ended up seeming to possess great power. The over-eager likened her to the likes of Nelson Mandela. She became synonymous, or at least almost inextricably linked, with a wider movement of flash mobs, round dances, blockades and hashtags that has found power in an immensely hopeful phrase. Amid skepticism and doubt about her and everything else—and with an audit raising questions anew and reporters ejected from Attawapiskat—a meeting was convened in Langevin Block, almost as if at her behest, and she was invited to Rideau Hall. Protesters banged on the Prime Minister’s front door. Chief Spence walked away claiming disrespect. The Queen expressed her concern. And now Ms. Spence has a commitment from the official opposition and the third party that they will respectively continue to advance concerns about treaty rights, housing, land claims, revenue sharing, environmental regulation, consultation, education and violence against women. And that a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Governor General and the premiers will someday be held.
The message, it seems, extends beyond the trees and the rivers.
“We will not be forgotten. We will not be put behind. We have awakened. Our grassroots people have awakened. Reminding us of the teaching of the elders, of the teaching that was bestowed to us by the creator. That change needed to happen, positive change had to happen, to protect not only our treaty rights, but our non-treaty friends as well. This is not only about Attawapiskat. It is not only about Cross Lake. But for all our First Nations communities who live in Third World conditions. We will stand up, we will persevere,” Mr. Metatawabin continued. “We want to be acknowledged. We want to be honoured. We want to be respected. That’s the message that we want to deliver. The fight does not end because the hunger strike ends. The fight continues. We have to mobilize the nation. We have to mobilize our tribal territories. But what happened January 11 had to happen because there was an awakening here. Now we move forward. We care for it as a united nation, in unity and strength and success for our First Nations people and partnership with our non-First Nations people as well. You, Canadians, we want our rightful place here in Canada as well. Indigenous nations across the world are waking up, supporting us. Idle No More. Idle No More speaks for the young people, the young generations that are going to carry forward the work that we have accomplished here. Words cannot express what we have done so far, but the work continues. The struggle will continue. And we will persevere in the future.”
Mr. Metatatwabin explained that Ms. Spence was weak, her stomach full of liquids, and that on doctor’s orders she was in hospital. “It has been an honour, a privilege, I am humbled to have been her official spokesperson,” he said. He did this, he explained, for his wife, his son and all indigenous people.
“This is about who we are. This is about protecting our rights, our livelihood. We want to stand up for our rights. Our voices will not be silenced. We have just begun the work. And we bestow our leadership, our First Nations leadership, the opposition parties, to carry forth that work on our behalf. And let us not falter no more. We have become solid in what we do. And we stand up for our rights. That’s what Theresa wanted. The work continues,” he said.
“That’s all I’m going to say for now, I’ll reserve questions after, thank you,” he concluded.
Mr. Saganash put his right hand on Mr. Metatawabin’s left shoulder and said a few unheard words.
There were flashes of anger then from Mr. Robinson and explanations from the others and some back-and-forth (and disagreement) with the reporters in attendance, the news conference stretching on four an hour and forty minutes, the proceedings running the proverbial gamut. There were questions on specifics and rumours, about the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, a former prime minister and what it all amounted to. “Political will” became the popular phrase—the elusive answer to our greatest challenges. (Meanwhile, whoever controls Chief Spence’s Twitter account called a senator an “asshole.”)
Around the 95-minute mark, Ms. Audette declared Ms. Spence’s efforts a success. “I strongly believe that Chief Spence and our brother here, they achieved something big, something huge,” she said. “The international community is watching us, listening to us, watching the government, it’s something. Plus the three people were able to say to all the leaders across Canada, on this one, let’s be united. And that’s something huge that we have to acknowledge.”
It is indisputably true that Ms. Spence accomplished something—all that’s left to debate is the precise size, shape, meaning and consequence of that something. And it is possibly true that this much had to be resolved so that we might move forward—or hope to move forward—with so much else.
A few minutes later, Mr. Metatawabin declared it an “absolute victory.” People had been brought around the sacred fire to talk of justice and unity. “Words cannot describe what we have achieved,” he said.
Whatever the failure of words to explain (and fix and heal and rectify), it might at least be said that we are talking about all of this. If Theresa Spence hadn’t spent the last six weeks drinking water and fish broth, we might not be.