As I write this, Chief Theresa Spence is winding down her 35th day on hunger strike. Having brought about a meeting between the government of Canada and First Nations, it would be easy for her to be satisfied with her protest, but she is not. And why? Because she made a simple request, and it wasn’t granted: the Governor General was not invited.
To Harper, the request lacks all logic. The GG is symbolic, only. Ceremonial. In all practical senses he has no power to speak of. He certainly has no role in government discussions, and therefore no role in negotiations with First Nations.
It’s true, all executive power of the Queen has been transferred to the government of Canada for quite a while now. Everyone knows this. Even Chief Spence knows this.
So why does she insist on the GG’s presence? Because to say that the GG’s position is symbolic only, greatly understates the significance of that symbolism—and because inviting the GG would be an important gesture on the part of Harper, acknowledging the significance of the symbolism and that he is therefore taking all of this seriously.
A serious gesture is important, because the kinds of talks that Chief Spence is calling for are serious, unprecedented, nation to nation. This isn’t the kind of meeting that Harper—that all Canadian governments since confederation—have been hosting, full of empty talk and baby steps. This is a re-boot, a do-over.
The situation is this: The treaties were signed between nations, the treaties have been broken, it’s time to go back to the treaties. The Crown’s representative was there when each treaty was signed, and now that we’re (ostensibly) returning to that moment, it makes a lot of sense for the Crown’s representative to be there yet again. It’s symbolic, sure, but it’s awfully serious symbolism—there’s a lot of baggage behind it, and the best way to rid ourselves of that baggage is to get all the original players back together and start over.
The GG’s presence would also be a nod not only to the historical nature of the treaties, but to their relevance as living history—that they are at once historical and contemporary. The presence of the Crown would act as a sort of historical compass, allowing us to better see where we’ve come from, and how far we’ve fallen—and thus to (re)position ourselves accordingly.
Why so serious?
But the GG has not been invited, and the nature and significance of what he represents is not being taken seriously.
As for Chief Spence, Harper has not just written off her request, he’s written her off as well. The PMO never utters her name, never acknowledges her influence. The recent meeting came about, overwhelmingly, because of two major (and twinned) factors: Chief Spence’s hunger strike, and the Idle No More movement. Yet to listen to the PMO, both are but a slight murmur.
The PMO statement in which Harper conceded to a meeting doesn’t even mention Chief Spence, despite the meeting being bumped ahead out of fear for her health. And yet the words “hunger strike” are similarly avoided. After being pressed for comment on CBC radio’s The House, Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, eventually acknowledged Chief Spence, then belittled her hunger strike by calling it an “exercise in limited caloric intake.”
Harper, of course, doesn’t want to look like he’s caving (as if any of this has to do with saving face). He’s gambling she’ll pack up her teepee and run back to Attawapiskat, forgotten and disgraced. For her part, Chief Spence is staying put, and has written up her will.
A new spirit of dialogue
The same dismissive attitude is applied to the meeting itself. Harper downplayed the importance of the meeting from the very beginning, suggesting in the same statement mentioned earlier that it would simply be a continuation of a Crown-First Nations meeting a year ago, held January 24, 2012: “It is in this spirit of ongoing dialogue that, together with Minister Duncan, I will be participating in a working meeting with a delegation of First Nations leaders coordinated by the Assembly of First Nations on January 11, 2013.”
This is hogwash. Not only would the recent January 11 meeting never have taken place (and certainly not with such urgency) without the immense pressure of Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement, it was by no means held “in the spirit” of previous meetings. The whole point of the meeting was to break free of the spirit of previous meetings: to finally shed the endless and frustratingly useless talk and to start over, start again. The old approach had proven dysfunction and futile; a new approach was needed—a true fresh look at the treaty relationship.
Which takes us back to Chief Spence’s request for true nation-to-nation talks, in the presence of the GG.
For having stirred up such a fuss, Spence’s request is remarkably simple. As mentioned, no one doubts the powerlessness of the GG. It follows, then, that there is nothing to lose in inviting the GG to a meeting. If he’s so inconsequential, then what’s the harm?
The point is that to Chief Spence and the chiefs and thousands of others who support her, it’s important that the GG be present. That should be enough. If Harper is serious about this, he needs to understand the seriousness of her request, and treat it accordingly.