Prime Minister Stephen Harper should meet Chief Theresa Spence

Posted on December 28, 2012 in Equality Debates – opinion/editorials
December 27, 2012.

Basic human concern for a person in extreme distress would compel some leaders into action. But not Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Recognition of the historic injustice committed against native peoples could move some to reach out. And shame over the dire conditions that prevail on so many reserves might push other leaders to bend. Not Harper.

None of those factors have been reason enough for him to stir from Parliament Hill and take a short walk to Victoria Island, in the middle of the Ottawa River. That’s where Chief Theresa Spence, of hard-pressed Attawapiskat, has been on a hunger strike that started Dec. 11 over the plight of aboriginal communities.

She’s demanding to see Harper face-to-face to express her concerns, and says she’s willing to die to make her point. Her hunger strike has dove-tailed with the Idle No More movement protesting unfair and unilateral actions by the Harper government, including a watering down of environmental protections and new rules forcing greater financial disclosure on reserves and their leaders.

Thousands have demonstrated in communities across Canada deploying a variety of tactics, including holding flash mob dances and blocking rail lines. None have been more compelling than Spence, consuming only water, fish broth and tea as she waits for the leader of this country to hear her plea.

This has gone far beyond a matter of aboriginal policy and is a concern for Canadians at large. Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau visited Spence on Wednesday, describing the encounter as “deeply moving.” And rival candidate Marc Garneau issued an open letter urging Harper to meet Spence and affirm the new relationship with native peoples that he promised four years ago when he apologized for the wrongs of the residential schools system.

“I stood that day, as a citizen of Canada, in solidarity behind that message,” Garneau wrote. “I ask you to take the next step to building the ‘renewed understanding’ we promised.”

If simple human concern, a determination to right historic injustices, and a goal of making life better on reserves aren’t enough to move Harper, here’s a reason he’ll likely understand: meeting Spence would be politically expedient. More than that, it might just avert disaster.

If she were to die, or suffer serious harm, the protests seen thus far would be merely a gentle rain compared to the hurricane of anger to follow. By meeting Spence, Harper would spare all Canadians, including native people, from a dangerous and frightening escalation of bitterness. He should do so as soon as possible.

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