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Chief's hunger strike fuels Canada aboriginal drive
by Staff Writers
Ottawa (AFP) Dec 21, 2012

A native chief's hunger strike in view of Canada's parliament has inspired an aboriginal rights movement and massive protests across Canada and far beyond its borders.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike on tiny Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, which flows past parliament perched atop a hill, is in its second week.

She refuses to eat until Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Governor General David Johnston, who is Queen Elizabeth II's representative in this former British colony, agrees to meet with her.

Spence sleeps in a teepee, warming herself by an open fire and drinking a bit of fish broth to keep up her strength.

Her breath crystallized in the cold winter air, as a severe storm blanketing the capital city with snow.

Beyond the island, Spence's strike has become the focal point for Idle No More, an aboriginal rights movement strung together last month by four native women who met online.

The campaign has since exploded into dozens of small protests and highway blockades, and has inspired thousands to demand their treaty rights.

Several solidarity hunger strikes were also launched last week and a man was arrested in easternmost Canada on Tuesday after chopping down a hydro pole to support Idle No More.

"Chief Theresa Spence is not alone, the chiefs of... indigenous people across this country support her efforts to bring our treaty partners to the table," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Yesno.

Canada's three opposition parties, Greenpeace, Canada's postal union and others also endorsed Spence's strike.

But the most elaborate events were held Friday, with protests in support of Spence's strike in all major Canadian cities, as well as in London, Egypt and in the US states of California and Minnesota.

Tanya Kappo, a law student and Idle No More movement organizer, said it started with the recent passage of a law that opens the door for aboriginals to sell plots of their land to non-natives, which activists say could spell the end of Canadian aboriginals' traditional way of life.

"It will be the end of my home in Sturgeon Lake, and a way of life only possible on reserves, the kind of life my parents live," she told AFP, concerned that indigenous languages would be lost.

"This is about a way of life and the government trying again to assimilate Indians" into mainstream society, she added. "What little we have left they're trying to take it from us."

Canada's more than 600 Indian reserves were created by royal proclamation in 1763. These tracts of land are set apart for the use and benefit of aboriginal bands, and administered under centuries-old rules governing the Crown's relationship with aboriginals.

Many natives blame the 1876 Indian Act, which codified those rules, for a wide range of problems in their communities, saying it is overly paternalistic.

The government responded by loosening the rules to allow bands to lease reserve lands. The amended Indian Act, it says, provides greater flexibility for First Nations to "take advantage of time-sensitive economic development opportunities."

But Kappo said development pressures will inevitably lead to a sell-off of reserve lands.

"How do we fight against development coming into our communities when we're so impoverished?" she asked. "It will be the end of Indian reserves."

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has expressed concern for Spence's health, offering to meet with her on several occasions, but was rebuffed.

The government said the changes to the Indian Act were demanded by aboriginals themselves.

"We too are impatient to see more change that will benefit First Nation communities," Duncan's spokesman Jason MacDonald told AFP.

Johnston has declined to meet with Spence, saying it is a political matter that must be taken up with elected officials.

Spence, who made headlines last year when she declared a state of emergency to provoke government action to address a housing shortage in her community on the shores of James Bay, said she is willing to die for her convictions.

If she dies while fighting for her cause, said Kappo after a long pause, "I'm very worried how First Nations people will respond."


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