Editorial Comment

Chief Hunger Strike


Don’t you hate situations where you’re impaled on the twin horns of a dangerous dilemma and realize you’re hooped whichever prong you pick? Being amidst a classic “darned if you do and darned if you don’t” situation is exactly where Stephen Harper is sitting right now, thanks to Chief Theresa Spence of the Attiwapiskat Band of Davis Inlet, WTFUT (Way the Frick Up There).
The last time this feisty native leader hit the national consciousness was when she rejected the government trying to impose third party management on the band when they were in the grip of a housing crisis. The Supreme Court found in favour of the Aboriginal leader and ruled third party interference was inappropriate and supported the current band governance. The plight of her people; facing  the depths of a Northern Labrador winter with just sparse wooden shacks and canvas shelters, was shown to be the fault of the government, not mismanagement on Spence’s part. It was a huge black eye for Stephen Harper and his PR machine; a rare shiner for a man used to having his underlings take the media beating when things don’t go his way.
So Harper, having had his rather ample butt handed to him by this woman, is probably wary, to say the least. Once burnt, twice “stay away from me or I’ll call security” is usually his policy. He is, no doubt, in no hurry to clear his calendar to meet with any of the people Spence is demanding.
However, he also can’t simply ignore her and hope she’ll go away. The national media is all over this like dung beetles at a sewage convention. They will play up every hunger pang and lost kilogram on a daily, some even hourly, basis. This could go on for a while and that’s what makes political mud stick. The fact that Chief Spence’s “hunger strike” rations include nutritional liquids chock-a-block full of vitamins and proteins suggest this is more of a “liquid diet” strike. This makes Harper’s desire for a quick resolution rather remote. Of course, to the salivating story editors of the nations’ leading media organizations, it’s still a hunger strike and the brave Chief’s very life hangs in the balance in whatever Harper decides to do.
It is, after all the whole “dying of hunger” mental image that fuels the media’s feeding frenzy. It makes the issue more urgent than, say, the Occupy Movement; whose strategy was to live in accommodations not much different than those in Davis Inlet enjoyed before the media blitz. In Occupy encampments, there is no thought of anyone going hungry, when frequent trips to Timmy’s was standard operating procedure. Nobody was in danger of casting off their mortal coil from lack of food or shelter. At any point they could just go home to warm up and cook something or, more likely, to their parents’ home. So, for Stephen Harper, at least, the “dying of hunger” specter makes the “Ignore the problem until it goes away” strategy a losing proposition.
Still, Harper can’t be seen to be caving into the demands of every single protestor who decides to go on a crash diet to get the PM’s attention. Parliament Hill would be awash with throngs and hordes of extreme dieters, all demanding the precious time of His Harperness. How can he possibly afford to acquiesce to this one single native woman’s request for an audience when he wouldn’t even give the assembled Premiers of Confederation a single minute of his meeting calendar? Should the premiers have tried the “hunger strike” route to get his attention? Heaven knows some could trim off a pound or two but that is likely not in the cards.
So what options lie before the strategists that people the PM’s communications team? Obviously, agreeing to Spence’s terms is not a politically viable option given its horrible precedent-setting quality. Out and out ignoring the situation is not an optically appealing choice either. A third option will have to be found. An hour with Harper’s Chief of staff and a Governor General to be named later, perhaps, if we can get everyone’s day-timers on the same page. Or maybe some kind of quarter hour video conference with Harper himself might be arranged.  Some lame counter-offer will be produced, however, guaranteed, so that the government can claim Chief Spence is being inflexible or the problem lies with everyone’s scheduling conflicts, not with any bad intent from the PMO.
Blaming either the Chief or the PM’s busy schedule are, possibly, Harper’s only reasonable choices; which is most unfortunate because the blame doesn’t really rest solely with any one of the players; be it Mr. Harper, Chief Spence or the current aboriginal leadership. Culpability actually belongs to every successive government we have had since Confederation; administrations that have, either through design or happenstance, depending on your viewpoint, entrenched the downward spiral of viable native societies. Further blame can be applied to successive generations of native leadership who have a vested interest in keeping power away from the grassroots and using the government as a convenient boogeyman to maintain their preferential status. Harper could meet with native leaders until the cows come home but with the amount of distrust, and territorial protection, on either side of that divide; nothing will ever change. More talk, after over 150 years of it, is hardly going to make a dent in this problem. This is especially true since the media would rather not talk about the real problems facing native culture. They would much rather discuss one woman and whether or not she can intimidate a Prime Minister.

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