(Raw Video: Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence receives support after Sunrise Ceremony)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–With the crescent moon still gleaming like an icy scar cut into the pre-dawn darkness, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence walked toward the sacred fire on Victoria Island to wait for the sun on her first day of the hunger strike.
The small fire burned in an area framed by a tall fence of weather-beaten wooden poles and the Ottawa River. The gate was closed Tuesday morning and the only way in was through gaps in the fence or up from the shore of the river.
Dressed in a parka, touque and fur-lined leather mitts, Spence stood by the fire facing east, facing the river and just beyond Parliament Hill, aglow.
About a dozen people gathered with Spence around the fire for a Sunrise Ceremony held in her honour. The elder leading the ceremony ordered all recording devices turned off before he lit a bowl of sweetgrass for the cleansing to begin. Then he pressed a clump of tobacco into the bowl of a pipe he passed around, allowing only those of First Nations ancestry to draw on and smoke.
Clifford Summers, who lives in Ottawa but is from the Oneida Nation on the Thames, picked up the drum and sang a Sundance pipe song before the elder handed Spence an eagle wing.
Spence spoke about the hunger strike, about how the Canadian government was ignoring the treaties and how it was the Queen’s duty to intervene because the Crown had signed all the treaties. She says she wants to force a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Queen Elizabeth II and First Nations chiefs.
Spence said she won’t eat another morsel of food until then.
It has been a turbulent time for Spence who returned to Attawapiskat in 2000 after spending most of her life in Moosenee, Ont. Her northeastern Ontario First Nation, which sits along the Attawapiskat River and near a diamond mine, has become synonymous with the misery that afflicts many First Nations communities across the country.
She has found herself in the national spotlight as a result of this misery which played out on television screens and on social media across the country last fall. The images of babies and children living in shacks and trailers in the teeth of a northern Ontario winter shocked the sensibilities of a nation.
Attawapiskat became a cause celebre and the Red Cross swooped in to provide aid, embarrassing the Canadian government.
And Spence paid a price. She faced the brunt of the Harper government’s attack machine which blamed her and her band council for the poverty. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan stripped the band council of its authority over finances and imposed a consultant to run Attawapiskat’s affairs. The minister’s move was eventually criticized by the Federal Court as “unreasonable.”
The government did send 22 modular homes to the reserve, but Spence said Attawapiskat still faces a housing crisis.
And so, on Monday evening, Spence ate her final meal of steak and potatoes.
“It was a good meal,” she said.
Later, she participated in a private ceremony in a home where she was given dandelion root and bear root to use during her hunger strike.
She carried other gifts Tuesday morning including a long braid of sweetgrass she received from a supporter and a cloth-wrapped bundle she received from the wife of Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo. She also received tobacco in a red cloth bag from the RCMP who will be monitoring her hunger strike closely.
Her five daughters, who range in age from 13 to 33, will also be watching, she said.
“They had tears in their eyes when I talked to them,” said Spence, in an interview after the ceremony. “Once they understood it they gradually accepted what I was doing and the risk.”
Spence said she plans to spend most of her time on Victoria Island in a teepee warmed by a fire stoked by volunteers around the clock.
She’s also planning to regularly visit Parliament Hill from noon to 1 p.m. to greet people and speak to the press if she has the strength.
Spence said she’s healthy and ready for the hardship of hunger. She recently underwent surgery to remove her uterus and Spence said she has also been fighting burnout from her job as chief.
“I am pretty healthy right now,” she said.
By the time the sun had consumed the last remnants of dawn, Spence, accompanied by two RCMP officers, walked to a waiting idling minivan to warm up.
Spence knows hunger will soon settle in next to her, be her closest companion.
She said not to worry.
“I’ll be okay,” said Spence.