Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

The Hunger Of Theresa Spence

We are asking to be a part of our country.Theresa Spence on day one of her hunger strike (11 December, 2012)

On 11 December 2012, Theresa Spence, mother of five and Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation of Canada, declared a hunger strike. This was partly in response to the Canadian government’s Bill C-45. It’s a new budget bill that includes changes to the Canadian Indian Act, changes that will weaken the ability of First Nations people to manage and protect their own Reserve lands. The bill also strikes thousands of lakes and streams from the list of federally protected bodies of water.

Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has brought attention to a whole range of other First Nations issues, and she’s quickly become a symbolic leader for the grassroots Idle No More Movement. Her principal demand is that Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, come to her teepee on Victoria Island — not far from the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa — and speak to her; she hopes this will bring about a “nation to nation” meeting between the Federal Government and the First Nations leadership, to foster a process where they can talk about sharing land and resources fairly. She says she is willing to die for her people.

In a long essay entitled “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” Jacques Derrida describes the moment he found himself standing naked one morning in his bathroom, and feeling ashamed when faced by his cat. He wonders about his shame before his cat’s gaze, and begins to probe the word and meaning of the word “Animal.” Derrida speaks of the word as a dangerous enclosure because it wants to hold all animals within it – because (as a general singular) it positions the staggering diversity of living creatures as one uniform category, and by doing this, it also positions man above animal. Derrida argues that man has enclosed animal inside a word, a global and non-particularizing one that seeks by that enclosure to subjugate, for man’s own use and abuse, animals. To say “animal” is a very violent gesture. Derrida makes a stunning parallel between species and human annihilation/genocide.

“It gets more complicated: the annihilation of certain species is indeed in process, but it is occurring through the organization and exploitation of an artificial, infernal, virtually interminable survival, in conditions that previous generations would have judged monstrous, outside of every presumed norm of life proper to animals that are thus exterminated by means of their continued existence or even their overpopulation. As if, for example, instead of throwing people into ovens and gas chambers (let’s say Nazi) doctors and geneticists had decided to organize the overproduction and overgeneration of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being continually more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing numbers for the same hell, that of the imposition of genetic experimentation, or extermination by gas or fire. In the same abattoirs.”

He is speaking of factory/industrial farms and slaughterhouses, of course, but the extrapolation to the Nazi enclosures is remarkable. It’s interesting to know, too, that Hitler found his inspiration for concentration camps from reading about American Indian reservations in Karl May’s greatly popular Western novels.

Harald Reinl, “Last of the Renegades” (“Winnetou II: Teil,” 1964)

Reserves, too, are enclosures, a way to keep a people separate from another people – a very strange idea, if you think about it for even one second. And especially strange if you think that in Canada, because of the Indian Act, it is the colonial power that has enclosed, like a species of human, those people — the indigenous people — who are, or should have been seen as, and treated as, the HOST people of this land. Canada has done this in a sneaky way — it has given indigenous people the appearance of sovereignty without the substance of it. In other words, we have treated people, by our complicity, as if they were animals. We have enclosed them inside physical borders away from us and also inside an idea of what they are (not us!). It makes no difference whether the enclosed people agreed to reserves since the terms of the agreement were not honoured by the guests. As Russell Diabo, First Nations policy analyst, says in the following video interview, it is as if the guest locked the host out of the house.

ThePerfectPlex, “Breaking Down The Indian Act: Russell Diabo” (2 January, 2013)

Prime Minister Harper, Diabo says, is carrying out a “First Nations termination plan” by practicing a results-based approach in negotiations with aboriginal peoples; his government is effectively forcing First Nations to give up pre-existing sovereign status through unilateral policies on land claims and self-government. These policies, he says, are difficult to fight since they require lengthy and expensive legal battles, something the people cannot afford and don’t necessarily always have the expertise to fight. Diabo believes these policies aim to assimilate First Nations territories into the existing federal and provincial orders, turning them into municipalities within the Canadian Confederation.

In other words, the Canadian government under Stephen Harper is dismantling original treaties and thereby dishonouring legal commitments, what Diabo calls “sacred agreements” — eternal commitments — ratified and memorialized using wampum belts.

Hudson Bay Belt (1700): Respect, responsibility, reverence for Mother Earth (held by William Commanda)

It occurred to me that Theresa Spence is Derrida’s cat in the sense that, in calling Stephen Harper’s bluff, she is asking for a return gaze, for Stephen Harper to recognize that she is not a general singular “Animal” but a particular singular “Person” who requires a face-to-face meeting. She is demanding more than a simple meeting. She is demanding recognition symbolically for all enclosed peoples –- she is asking Stephen Harper to see her and recognize her as a human being.

She is also, by extension, pointing out a deep abiding racism — a racism that is genocidal. She is saying that Stephen Harper (and by extrapolation, Canada) is killing Indigenous peoples by this system of enclosure (this experiment) and that she is willing to die as the one (particular) so that the many particulars (the many human beings who are both oppressed and historically oppressed) will have her as a meaningful token going forward.

She will become, and has already become, a martyr. And she has done this by pointing out to us that her hunger should be our hunger, that we haven’t enclosed everyone, that Theresa Spence is just one of many who has not been defeated by the experiment of reserves, Residential schools — of enclosure. The biggest problem in this strategy is that she is dealing with a Prime Minister who doesn’t feel shame. But many of us do, and we need to feel it more deeply. The more deeply we feel that naked shame in the face of Theresa Spence’s call to recognition, the more the enclosure ruptures and the more human we all become.

Chris Rands, “Interview With Chief Spence” (18 December, 2012)

- Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/christine-pountney/ Christine Pountney

    I recently had the honour of spending three days outside Chief Theresa Spence’s teepeee, and of meeting with her briefly to thank her for what she’s doing. I also had the privilege of giving her a gift of some caribou hide from a hunt I made in Newfoundland. When I handed it to her, she exclaimed, A caribou hunter! And the women in the teepee with her laughed joyfully at the thought, I suppose, of me, a white woman, hunting a caribou. Then the chief said, I’m proud of you. And she held my hands. Even at this late hour of her hunger strike, she had the love and generosity to tell me that she was proud of me. This is what I encountered on Victoria Island, nothing but respect and generous hospitality. I was so moved by the atmosphere of peace and dignity. The people supporting Chief Spence – the men protecting the camp, the women praying for her, the elders drumming and singing in support of her, all the people who brought food and donations of clothes and blankets, the men chopping wood, the firekeepers keeping the fire going – among all these people there was strength and a readiness to laugh, but also a deep seriousness when the time called for being serious. Now is the time for us white folks to keep quiet. It is our time to listen, and learn, about awe and the sacred, about ritual and responsibility and courage and sacrifice. These are things we lack as a society and why it is so hard for us to grow up and mature into human beings. The guilt and embarrassment we feel about this often makes us defensive and puts us on the attack. What we lose when we take this position is all the healing the First Nations of Canada, and all aboriginal peoples around the world, have to offer us: the secrets to living in balance with nature and ourselves. No one knows better how to share than aboriginal communities. Chief Spence’s demands are not unreasonable. She is tired of ineffectual bureacracy, of incompetant leadership, of lies and betrayals that never get accounted for. In this, she is not alone. She is on the side of, among other things, The Occupy Movement. The supporters of Idle No More are only asking that First Nations people be given control over the lands and jurisdictions they were originally promised, not in order to exploit it, but to look after it. I pray that Harper can one day overcome the narrow focus of his egotistical superiority, which is only the flip side of his own self-hatred, and see the wisdom in what Chief Spence is saying with this self-sacrificing, gentle, individual act of protest. Please let her have her way on this. It benefits us all.

  • Gary Quill

    “The appearance of sovereignty without the substance of it…” That’s good. I found your essay really useful, thanks. I like Russell Diabo and I looked up the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

    http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100014597/1100100014637: “The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada has long been troubled and recently has shown signs of slipping into more serious trouble. The relationship can most certainly be mended – indeed, turned from a problem into an asset and one of the country’s greatest strengths.

    The direction change must take is toward freeing Aboriginal people from domination by and dependence on the institutions and resources of governments. The end of dependence is something Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike profoundly desire. It would be quite unacceptable for First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples to continue to find their autonomy restricted and constrained in the twenty-first century.

    Yet renewal of the relationship must be done with justice and generosity. History and human decency demand restoration of fair measures of land, resources and power to Aboriginal peoples… Aboriginal people must be enabled to function once again as nations. This is a new way of thinking about old and persistent problems. For many years, the watch-word for the progress of Aboriginal people was ‘self-government’. But this is only one piece of a larger undertaking – the restoration of nations, not as they were, but as they can be today. Land and economic vitality are essential for successful, hard-working governments. Whole, healthy, hopeful people are more vital still…”

    I admire what Theresa Spence is doing, trying to force a concession. Does anyone know if the First Nations leadership is unified on what it wants? If a meeting happens the way Theresa Spence demands, what is meant to be achieved? The historical injustices and betrayals the aboriginals have suffered can never really be redressed, let’s be honest. First Nations are no longer our hosts. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even useful to talk about founding grievances.

    And yet the way many aboriginal communities are living now is intolerable, that’s clear to anyone with a human heart. The media doesn’t have enough hard talk about the facts of the current protests. How EXACTLY is the Canadian government breaking treaties and betraying promises? Can someone explain this to me?


  • Art M

    I wonder, Kathryn, what you make of Jeffrey Simpson’s ‘Too many first nations people live in a dream palace.’


    • http://www.ryeberg.com/author/kathryn-kuitenbrouwer/ Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

      It’s hard to know where to start with Simpson’s article. And I have a lot of work to do today! But at its heart it seems to miss the point it also makes at its foundation, which is that first nations people live in abject poverty in situations that have (generationally) traumatized them, due to the fact that Canada has annexed them, their needs, and them (as humans). In other words, if “too many first nations people live in a dream palace,” then it might also be said that these “too many people” must be quite resilient to have managed even this. Imagine, this sustenance living, in a “nation” subject to flooding, with precarious and encroached environmental limits, with no real autonomy, job, or chance of job (usefulness) and then imagine that precariousness is further limited. I don’t know. I’d be hanging on to my dreams, too. From dreams come reality. (Still I don’t imagine anyone expects this to be easy — it will require, as the report Mr Quill quotes from suggest, generosity and justice.

  • http://www.ryeberg.com/author/kathryn-kuitenbrouwer/ Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

    This is a useful article:


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Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of three novels, "Perfecting," "The Nettle Spinner," and most recently, "All the Broken Things," as well as a short fiction collection, "Way Up." She teaches creative writing through The University of Toronto and online through The New York Times Knowledge Network. For more Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, go here. Photo by Ken Woroner.