By Jorge Barrera
ATPN National News
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence says she won’t allow authorities to take her to the hospital if the hunger strike takes a turn for the worse.
Spence, who is into her ninth day of a hunger strike, said she’s aware the RCMP is keeping an eye on her situation, but she won’t allow anyone to take her away from the teepee on an island in the Ottawa River where she is staying until Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston agree to meet with First Nations chiefs to discuss the treaties.
She said the people who have volunteered to take care of her will stop any attempts to force her away, even if she’s on death’s doorstep.
“I got my helpers here to protect me. They are the ones who are going to look after me,” said Spence, 49, in her second interview with APTN National News since her hunger strike began. “I’ll be here, I am not going anywhere. My ancestors are here, my drummers, the grassroots people are here.”
The interior of Spence’s teepee has changed over the past few days. The fire pit has been replaced by a wood stove and blankets now hang against the canvas walls, but the floor is still covered with spruce branches.
The teepee sits on Victoria Island in the shadow of Parliament Hill and the Supreme Court.
Spence holds an eagle feather as she speaks and is flanked by two of her closest supporters, Danny Metatawabin, from Attawapiskat, and Angela Bercier, a student from Long Plain First Nation who is in Aboriginal studies at the University of Ottawa.
The hunger strike is taking its toll. Spence said she is surviving on water, medicine tea and fish broth, but is feeling weak and shaky.
“I am able to walk around short distances. I don’t have headaches, I am getting thirsty a lot, but my mind is still good,” said Spence. “Being around people, it helps me to talk and communicate.”
Spence said her will remains strong, despite indications from the Prime Minister’s Office and the governor general that the meeting she wants won’t happen.
“I am not going to give up. I am here for my people, for our rights, the government needs to really open its heart,” said Spence.
She also issued a woman-to-woman call to Harper’s wife, Laureen Harper, to convince her husband that he should meet with the chiefs.
“This is about children, for our children to unite together, to walk together. We need Mrs. Harper to talk to her husband, tell him to set up that meeting,” she said. “It’s for the children. She has children and I have children.”
Daughter Thaislisia Linklater and granddaughter Tia Spence, both 13, sit nearby, listening to her.
“She’s my role model and I really do love her,” said Linklater.
“Pray for my mom,” said Spence, who has been raised as a daughter since she was three years-old by Chief Theresa Spence.
Chief Spence said they cried when she told them about the hunger strike.
“I had a talk with my girls and I explained the journey of life. There are times in the journey of life you lose your loved ones. That is part of life,” said Spence. “If I am not going to be here, you are not going to be alone…There will be people looking after you, my partner, your sisters, my friends will look after them and I am going to be there in my spirit with them every day.”
Spence’s partner Clayton Kennedy struggles with his emotions as he discusses Spence’s hunger strike. Kennedy said he feels “distressed,” but supportive.
“You take it day by day, see where it ends,” said Kennedy. “We shouldn’t have in our country the level of poverty and struggle that a lot of the rural and isolated reserves experience. This movement obviously is not about Attawapiskat or an individual; it is about a unified people moving forward as one.”
Despite the heaviness of the topic and its dark lining, levity still comes easily here. Spence holds a teddy bear she said is named “Harper” and laughs.
“I sleep with him, he keeps me warm,” she said. “My honey came here and spotted him and said, ‘you are replacing me,’ yes with Harper.”
Spence’s hunger strike has become intertwined with the Idle No More movement that has been sweeping the country. The Samson Cree in Alberta launched a blockade to support her and protest placards at rallies are now emblazoned with her name which has also become a hashtag on Twitter.
It’s not the first time Spence has been at the centre of a storm.
Last year, after images of the miserable living conditions in her home northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat flashed across television screens and over social media throughout the country, Harper stood up in question period and accused her band council of creating the housing crisis. The issue turned into a political scandal for the Conservative government and Harper announced last year’s Crown-First Nations gathering as it was reaching its peak.
Spence, however, says there is nothing heroic about what she is doing. She launched the hunger strike because she felt it was the only thing she could do to stop the “pain” she sees afflicting her people.
“I don’t really see myself as a saint or anything like that, or a hero. I am doing it for the people,” said Spence. “Just being a woman, it’s different from a man. (Men) don’t express thoughts and feelings. When you are a woman, there are times when you can’t take the pain, you have to do something. This is why I am doing it. There is too much pain, that pain has to go away. If not, the pain is going to get worse and things will get worse.”
Many, however, journey here and some stay to volunteer because of what she is doing.
“I heard about the chief’s hunger strike and my dad said he was coming and I took it upon myself to support her in any way I could,” said Patrick Etherington Jr., 29, who helps tend the fire and run security here, and last year walked from Cochrane, Ont., to Halifax for Indian residential school survivors. “I’ll stay until it’s done.”
Sabrina Tippeneskum, 24, hopped on a midnight bus from Sudbury, Ont., to see Spence, who was once her nursery school teacher.
“She is a very strong woman and it really inspires me as a youth,” she said.