With a final media show, Chief Spence has now ended her 44 day “reduced food” diet. The question should now turn to what did she accomplish?
Are Canadians more aware today and do they have a better understanding of the abysmal living conditions in First Nations communities? Probably not, such conditions were already well known and have been for decades. To her credit, when Spence began her “hunger strike” she did succeed in creating a spike in interest in some broader aboriginal issues. However, her stubbornness and overplaying her hand will have nullified much of the good will she initially gained for First Nations issues with the general population.
Has she succeeded in uniting the First Nations leadership so that they can negotiate from a position of strength with this Prime Minister? No, she has done the exact opposite. National chief Atleo has been weakened, perhaps fatally and no amount of phony rhetoric about going forward united can cover that up.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has also been weakened. Internal divisions are much more evident and it will be more difficult to get the chiefs to accept any agreement that Atleo and the Prime Minister might reach. Too many chiefs staked out their positions in front of the national media. To reach an agreement would require various chiefs to back down from their very public demands and that is not likely to happen.
Some would argue that she has instilled a sense of pride in members of the First Nations, especially the younger generation. I would argue that with a rich history, culture and traditions, it has always been there and any renewed interest is more likely due to the founders of the Idle No More Movement, not Chief Spence. It was this grass roots movement that deserves the credit for getting the government’s attention. Yes, she was and still is an inspiration to some of the participants in this movement, but she was never a spokesperson for it. The movement will continue to gain strength with or without Chief Spence and the anger expressed by many participants’ remains valid as long as issues remain unresolved. The movement will not go away and this summer could be an interesting one for the government if they can’t show real progress on First Nations issues.
Nor was Spence successful with her original demand that there be an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister and Governor-General. She did manage to get a meeting between the Prime Minister and the AFN moved up to an earlier date, but that is one that would have happened anyways.
Spence was successful in getting the Liberal and NDP caucus to sign a 13-point declaration, but what is that paper worth? Bob Rae is the interim leader of the Liberals and a new Liberal leader will be elected shortly and some of the candidates aren’t even in the caucus. Will they feel bound by this document, regardless of what conditions they might face down the road? When in opposition it’s your job to criticize the government, but the key is to remember that one day you might be the government and your view of the world and how government functions might suddenly change. For example, every opposition party (including the two founding parties for the Conservatives) is always opposed to omnibus bills. Do you want to lock yourself into and tie the hands of any future government that you might lead? Once in government, you get a first look at the books and when you sit down to deal with the myriad pieces of legislation that need to be updated, omnibus bills may suddenly become very attractive.
On the government side not much has changed either. Stephen Harper is still the Prime Minister. We have the same Aboriginal Affairs minister (at least until there is a shuffle sometime in the summer) and PMO still drives the agenda, sets policy and the “boys in short pants” continue to push ministers and ministerial staff around, even though they often know far less about an issue than the staff and ministers who deal with it on a daily basis.
The Conservative caucus will continue to sit on their hands when PMO brings forward another omnibus bill because too many are afraid of the repercussions of standing up to PMO, especially when there is a potential shuffle coming this summer.
In other words not much has changed. Far too many politicians make the mistake of letting their ego and a belief in their own press clippings stand in the way of common sense. It took 44 days for common sense to prevail. Now that her strike has been resolved, it remains debatable if Chief Spence accomplished very much. Time and history will be the final judge on that point.