By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Inside, the teepee air is sweet with the smell of spruce and wood smoke as Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence lies on her side covered in blankets atop a mattress set on wooden slats by a fire sending smoke into the night December sky through a gap in the canvas high above the entrance.
Water boils inside a tea kettle beside the stone fire pit. The ground is covered with donated spruce branches and strips of industrial carpet. One of Spence’s friends is fiddling with a propane heater, a two-year old child sleeps in the arms of her father who is here to support Spence as the heart-beat sound of drums and singing from a group of supporters around a fire outside flows in through the canvas walls.
Her teepee is on Victoria Island and from here, on this night, across the Ottawa River one can see the lights of the Supreme Court of Canada, and a little farther down, Parliament Hill.
It’s near Thursday’s end, day three of Spence’s hunger strike she began to force a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Queen Elizabeth II and First Nations leaders.
“It’s a very simple thing for the prime minister and the Crown and all chiefs to sit at a table and review what is happening and for them to understand the treaty,” said Spence.
Treaties were signed between the reigning Monarchs over Canada, including Queen Victoria, Edward VII and King George V, and First Nations people allowing for the settlement of Canadian territory. The last of the treaties, Treaty 11, was signed in 1921 after oil was discovered in near Fort Norman, in the Northwest Territories.
First Nations which signed treaties still hold the documents to be the founding relationship between them and Canada through the Crown.
“The purpose of the treaty is to have a good relationship through sacred land and a shared future, not to compete or take control,” she said. “This is not what has been done.”
Spence said the treaties have been violated.
“The government now has more control and power over everyone,” said Spence. “(Harper) has the attitude of my way or no way. Even the elders say that he is mean and abusive. It’s time to do something about it because our youth deserve a better future.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has been trying to arrange a meeting with her. He has phoned Spence and sent her a letter by email Thursday which urged her to end her hunger strike.
“Earlier today I tried to contact you by phone to discuss the concerns you have raised publicly in recent days,” wrote Duncan in the letter. “Unfortunately, I was unable to reach you and your colleagues have been unwilling or unable to share with my office an alternate phone number where you might be reached. I am deeply concerned about your personal health. I appreciate your desire to bring about positive change for First Nations in your community and across Canada, but believe that is best achieved through working together to solve the complex issues faced by First Nations.”
Duncan said he’s even willing to discuss the issue of treaties and wrote that he proposed setting up a “joint-working group to examine how to improve the treaty relationship.”
Duncan also wrote that he still wanted to meet with Spence, but not until he returns to Ottawa on January 3.
“I would encourage you to end your current hunger strike for your own health and work with us on the hard work we must continue to improve the lives of First Nations in this country,” wrote Duncan.
Spence laughs over the emailed letter and the phone call because Duncan’s office is a little over 1,600 metres away from her teepee. She wonders why he just doesn’t come and sit with her by the fire to talk.
“I didn’t request a meeting with Duncan,” said Spence. “If he really is concerned about my health he should encourage the prime minister to meet….I am here to stay until the meeting happens.”
On Friday, it emerged that the AFN is working with the Prime Minister’s Office to have Harper meet with First Nations leaders from across the country.
Spence has a lot of backers in her cause.
Her cause appears to have struck a chord with many across the country and others have embarked on their own hunger strike in her support.
The Samson Cree Nation launched a blockade this week partly in support of her cause and her hunger strike has become intertwined with the Idle No More movement that triggered mass rallies on Monday and new blockades in Alberta and Manitoba this weekend
She’s also had many visitors, from as far away as Vancouver and Saskatchewan, from Fort Albany, Ont., and Ottawa.
They have brought her gifts including water, candles, tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, socks and a white medicine pouch.
Spence says she’s grateful for the outpouring of support she’s received across the country through emails and text messages.
Spence says she’s dealing with the hunger and her health is fine.
“Tell people not to worry about my health,” she said. “I can feel the prayers every day and I feel strong.”
A medicine man prepares medicine tea for her every day, she said. A nurse from the Wabano health centre also visits for a check up and to take her blood pressure.
She spends most of her time inside, here. Sometimes she goes outside to listen to the drummers and singers. She also takes her showers at a friend’s hotel room.
“I wanted to take a bath in the river, but it’s too cold,” Spence said with a strong, sparkling laugh.
There is a lot of laughter here. Cree laughter as she shares inside jokes with two friends from Attawapiskat and one of them, who is diabetic, is on a juice and fruit diet in support.
“We laugh about things in our life,” she said.
The drumming and singing fills the night outside. The fire continues its meditative murmuring and Spence says she had a dream.
“I dreamed a white horse with a warrior. I got onto the horse, I was seven, eight years old and the land was beautiful. I could feel the wind and I was hanging on to him and I was feeling light feeling free. I was feeling a culture I never had before,” said Spence.